Last week we published an article that discussed why and how to establish family traditions. Traditions offer numerous benefits: they strengthen your family’s bonds, enrich the life you share together, contribute to your children’s well-being, and create lasting memories. For this reason, they form one of the three pillars of family culture.
Today we offer a list of over 60 specific family tradition ideas. You can incorporate some of these directly into your family, or use them as inspiration for creating your own traditions.
Before we get started, let’s cover a few things that will help ensure that your establishment of new traditions will be met with success:
- While it’s tempting to go crazy with starting lots of traditions, shoot for quality over quantity. If you do a couple from within each category, you’re gold.
- Choose traditions that most resonate with you. Having said that, as you review the list, try not to immediately write off some as silly or not elaborate enough. This isn’t only about what appeals to you as a jaded adult, but what will appeal to your kids. If you think back to your childhood, some surprisingly silly and simple stuff was a lot of fun and created great memories.
- Traditions need to be practiced regularly to be effective. It’s easy to throw a tradition out the window when life gets busy and you’ve had a long day. Commit to the tradition and do your best to be as consistent as possible with it.
The ideas below come from The Book of New Family Traditions, from mine and Kate’s respective families, from our friends’ families, and from those we’ve come up with for our own family.
Daily Connection Traditions
Daily Connection Traditions are the small things you do every day to reinforce family identity and values. Without thought and intentionality, your family’s daily “traditions” can devolve into everyone surfing the internet on their own devices. So be sure to incorporate some rituals that bring you together face-to-face and allow you to re-connect each day.
Secret Handshake. Secret handshakes have been used by groups for millennia to distinguish members and non-members. Make one up for your own family. It can be elaborate and complex or simple but meaningful. An example of the latter comes from a family profiled in The Book of New Family Traditions. This family had the tradition of squeezing each others’ hands three times to signal the three words “I love you.” On the day the daughter got married, the father squeezed her hand three times as he walked her down the aisle. “Only she knew that this was happening, a tiny personal ritual lodged invisibly within one of the grandest and most public, and she says it was one of the most moving moments of her life.”
Family Meal. Countless studies have shown the positive influence that sharing a meal together as a family (it doesn’t have to be dinner) has on children. We’ll be dedicating an entire post to how to get the most out of family meals, but in the meantime, consider these suggestions to turn the breaking of bread into a cherished tradition:
- First: no TV, no cellphones, and no tablets.
- Begin with grace. If you’re not religious, have everyone share something that they’re grateful for that day.
- Family news: everyone takes turns sharing something positive and negative that has happened to them during the day.
- “Got any stories?” This is a tradition that Kate and I have had for a few years. Each person is expected to bring something interesting to the table that they’ve read or heard during the day.
Family Prayer. For religious families, prayer is an important ritual. Family prayer doesn’t have to be just a dinnertime thing. You can pray as a family before everyone leaves in the morning, before everyone goes to bed, or both. Our family has prayers at night. Everyone takes turns saying the prayer, including Gus.
Family Singing Time. There’s something about singing that unites humans on a primal level. What’s more, through song, you can pass on your values and cultural heritage to your children. Our family always sings a song or two when we put Gus to bed. It’s something we’ve done since he was an infant, and you can tell it makes him feel comforted, loved (we often sing songs about being a family), and relaxed. It’s been cool to watch him slowly learn the words and start singing along with us.
I really hope that Gus or Scout is interested in taking piano lessons, as I have a very fond dream of one day standing around the piano singing Christmas carols together.
The “What We Learned Today” Journal. “Buy a fancy, leather-bound journal. Each night before bed, every member of the family needs to write something they learned during the day. Parents can transcribe for little children. Entries don’t have to be long or profound. It can be as simple as, “If you touch a turtle, he puts his head back in his shell.” This is a great way to foster a love of lifelong learning in your children.
Surprise Daily Drawing/Note. There’s a guy here in Tulsa who drew little comics or wrote inspiring quotes on the napkins he put in his daughters’ school lunches. Napkin Dad was born. I want to do something like this when my kiddos start school.
Family Hugs. Kate and I try to get in one family hug a day. Afterwards, we usually put in our hands and say, “Three, two, one,” before lifting them up and shouting “McKays!” Yeah, it’s kind of cheesy, but Gus loves it, and the idea is to really drive home our family identity.
Bedtime Story. Children who have parents that read to them regularly typically do better in school and have larger vocabularies than children who don’t. Reading with your child will not only make them smarter, but it’s a great way to bond. There’s something really comforting about hearing your dad read aloud to you. For inspiration, check out this dad and daughter who read together every night for 3,128 days straight until the daughter was in college.
Evening Walks. Not only can walking help solve problems, but it can also strengthen families. Evening walks are a great time to get some fresh air and digest the day’s events along with your dinner.
Family Call-and-Response Motto. When they were growing up, brothers Jim and John Harbaugh (the coaches of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens respectively) didn’t have much. But their father always made them feel like they had everything they needed. To reinforce this feeling, he would ask his boys, “Who’s got it better than us?” To which they would respond: “Nooo-body!” Jim now uses the same call and response to build the unity of his football team.
Weekly Connection Traditions
Family Game Night. Analog games, from cribbage to Apples to Apples, are a fun and cheap way to bond and have fun together as a family. Tamp the competition down and ramp the laughter up. I personally can’t wait to play Boggle with Gus and Scout.
Movie Night. Let the kids take turns picking a movie to watch, and do an occasional dad’s choice night as well to introduce your progeny to classics like Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark while waxing poetic about how movies were just plain better in the 80s. Have fun with the snacks too – come up with dad’s special popcorn recipe or occasionally take the kids to the drugstore and let them each pick out their own candy.
Saturday Football. There’s something incredibly relaxing and comforting about watching college football with your family on a Saturday afternoon in the fall. Pass down your alma mater pride as you cheer on your team together.
Pizza Night. Everyone loves pizza, and it’s nice to be able to look forward to having it on a certain night each week. Skip the delivery now and again and make your own – allowing the kids to decide how to top their own super simple mini pizzas.
Don’t like pizza? How about Taco Tuesday? We love Taco Tuesday around here.
Family Home Evening. Mormons are encouraged to set aside one night per week (usually Monday night) for Family Home Evening. A typical Family Home Evening includes a fun activity and a short lesson or devotional on some virtue or scripture. FHE is usually capped off with a special treat.
The goal of Family Home Evening is to teach your children the principles and values you want them to carry with them as adults, all within an informal and loving atmosphere. FHE can be adapted by families of any religious stripe or even families who aren’t religious. There’s no formula for Family Home Evening. Just corral the kids for 30 minutes one night a week for fun, discussion, and eats.
Family Vinyl Dance Party. AoM contributor Cameron Schaefer shared a fun family tradition in his post on getting started in vinyl record collecting. On Friday nights the Schaefer family gathers in their family room for a Vinyl Record Dance Party. A family member selects a soundtrack for the night, and they all dance until they collapse on the floor.
Special Saturday/Sunday Morning Breakfast. Lots of families have special Saturday/Sunday morning breakfast traditions. For some it’s pancakes or cinnamon rolls, for others it’s a giant breakfast casserole. Dads and breakfasts just go together, so work on coming up with your own specialty.
Breakfast need not be a solely in-home tradition, however. I take Gus to Braum’s every Saturday morning for breakfast. Pancakes and milk for Gus. Sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit for dad. We’ve been doing this since Gus was about 10 months old, and we’ve rarely missed a Saturday. It’s a hoot to see Gus get all excited about “Breakfast at Braum’s” on Friday night.
Dinner & Grocery Shopping. Every Monday we go as family to a grocery store that also has their own little restaurant. We eat dinner there first and then do our shopping. Doesn’t sound really exciting, but we all look forward to it.
Weekly Family Meeting. Your family is an organization. And like any successful organization, you need to plan, discuss issues, and synchronize schedules. Enter the weekly family meeting. I’ll be dedicating an entire post on how to run a successful family meeting in the future. Stay tuned.
Monthly Connection Traditions
Full Moon Walks. A full moon occurs roughly every 29 days. While you may have gotten used to seeing them, they really are a magical sight – especially for kids who haven’t lost their sense of wonder. Whenever a full moon has risen, take a walk outside at night as a family to have a look at it. Get into the woods sometimes if you can in order to experience the awe of nature at night. This is a great way to get your kids keyed in to the rhythms and cycles of our world.
Box of Goals. An important life skill for your children to develop is how to set and work towards a goal. What better way to teach this than with a family tradition? Get a cigar box or fancy wooden box and on the first day of each month, have your family members write down one goal they want to accomplish that month on a piece of paper and place it in the box. When next month rolls around, take out the pieces of paper and review the goals to see how everyone did. Then write new goals for the next month. Rinse and repeat.
Daddy Date. We have a friend who has three daughters. Ever since they were knee-high to a grasshopper, he took one of them each month on a “Daddy Daughter Date.” Rules were simple. The daughter he spent the evening with got to pick the activity they took part in. He didn’t care what they did. His goal was to give each one of his kids one-on-one time with dad.
The monthly date with dad isn’t just for daughters. You can do something similar with your sons as well.
Family Service Day. If creating a culture of service is part of your family mission statement, put that goal into action with a monthly Family Service Day. Designate one Saturday or Sunday to serving others. It could mean spending a morning at the homeless shelter or cleaning the garden of an elderly neighbor or sorting clothes at Goodwill.
Life Changes/Milestone Traditions
Milestone traditions celebrate events that may occur only a few times, or even just once for your immediate family. But they become traditions as they are passed down from one generation to the next.
New Home Traditions
New Home Dedication. Buying a home is a momentous occasion and thus a great time for instituting a family tradition. Some religious folks hold ceremonies in which they dedicate the home (and all those who dwell in it) to God.
In the Jewish tradition, it’s customary to hold a Chanukat Habayit (home dedication) party. At this gathering, words from the Torah are spoken and family and friends use the occasion to express their blessings and wishes for a fruitful and happy stay in this new home.
New Muslim homeowners will often host a feast in their new house and those that enter are to leave their blessing.
Differing Christian denominations have their own unique new home dedication rituals, but they typically involve a dedicatory prayer and a reading from the Bible. For some ideas on which scriptures to read check out this list. I know many Christian families that will place a plaque near their home’s entryway with the famous verse from Joshua 24:15 (“As for me and my house…”) after a home dedication ceremony.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” Blessing. In the classic holiday movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey and his wife, Mary, give a nice housewarming gift/blessing to a family that just moved into a new house:
Mary: Bread… that this house may never know hunger.
[Mary hands a loaf of bread to Mrs. Martini.]
Mary: Salt… that life may always have flavor.
[Mary hands a box of salt to Mrs. Martini.]
George Bailey: And wine… that joy and prosperity may reign forever. Enter the Martini Castle.
[George hands Mr. Martini a bottle of wine.]
You don’t need to know a thoughtful couple like the Baileys to experience this tradition. Just do it yourself when you move into your home. Make some focaccia maybe, and enjoy it with wine for mom and dad and grape juice for the kiddos.
Mortgage Burning Party. This one is for you Dave Ramsey “gazelles” out there. Once you pay off your home mortgage, throw a party with your family and ceremoniously burn your mortgage agreement. Mortgage burning parties were actually once a common tradition in America, but due to changing mores and the increasing mobility of Americans (thus making it less likely a homeowner will live long enough in a home to pay it off), Mortgage Burning Parties are pretty much unheard of today. I think it’s a tradition well-worth resurrecting.
Family Time Capsule. Bury a family time capsule when you move into what you think will be your “forever home.” Fill the capsule with some of your family’s favorites things, notes, and items that represent the time period. Then open in it up in 20 or 30 years. Make sure you exhume it if you end up moving sooner than you thought you would.
First Day of School Photos. On the first day of every school year, take your kiddos to the front of the house and snap a picture of them for posterity. You’ll enjoy looking back at how they’ve grown through the ages. I remember looking forward to this little ceremony as a kid. It was my chance to show off my cool new backpack and Air Force One high-tops.
First Day of School Chalk Pep Talk. Kids can sometimes be a little nervous on the first day of school. Give them a nice surprise by writing messages of encouragement on the driveway with chalk the night before. It will put a smile on their face when they walk out the door the next day.
Parent/Teacher Conference Note. Whenever Kate’s parents came in for parent/teacher conferences, they would leave a note for her in her desk, telling her how neat her desk was, how nice her artwork on the wall was, and a nice thing the teacher had said about her. Kate says she really looked forward to finding the note and that it was cool to think her parents had been there.
College Acceptance Celebration. One family I know would celebrate their kids’ college acceptance letters by buying everyone in the family a t-shirt or sweater with the school’s logo and then having a barbeque with the university’s fight song playing in the background. The mom would then snap a pic of the whole clan dressed in their school colors, frame it, and pack it in their kiddo’s stuff when he or she shipped off to college. Cheesy? A little bit, but I always thought it was a nice gesture.
Night-Before-Wedding Roast. We have another friend whose family always stayed together at a hotel the night before one of the kids got married. They’d hang out and do a good-natured roast of the bride or groom-to-be. They had a big enough immediate family (5 kids) to make this fun. If your family is smaller, invite close extended family to take part too.
Most families have traditions for celebrating birthdays. Cake, presents, dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. You know, the usual. Below are some birthday traditions you may not have thought about.
First Cake Cut Wish. I picked this one up from Kate’s family. In addition to getting a wish for blowing out the candles, the birthday boy or girl gets another wish for making the first cut into the birthday cake. Two wishes, one cake. Can’t beat that.
New Privilege/New Responsibility Cards. Amidst all the fun and hoopla, remind your kid that with age comes greater power and with greater power comes greater responsibility. In addition to birthday presents, present your child with two envelopes. One envelope is labeled, “New Privilege”; the other, “New Responsibility.” Provide an age appropriate privilege and responsibility each year.
8th/ 18th Birthday Time Capsule. On your child’s 8th birthday have him fill a time capsule with some of the things he likes and a note to himself. Open it a decade later on his 18th birthday.
Nose Grease. This birthday tradition comes from our friendly neighbors north of the border. In Canada (particularly the Atlantic Coast providences) it’s common for the birthday boy or girl to get ambushed by friends or family members and have their nose greased with butter for good luck. The buttered nose supposedly makes the person too slippery for bad luck to catch them. This tradition is said to come from Scotland. I think I’m going to have to adopt this one as it hails from my ancestral homeland of Nova Scotia.
The Yearly Measurement on the Door Frame. Many families have a doorframe where they keep rough pencil lines marking off the height of their kiddos as they age. Make it a tradition to take the measurement on birthdays.
Hunting Traditions. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors developed meaningful traditions to celebrate the life-giving hunt. While hunting is no longer essential for survival, many families continue to have traditions that surround their yearly hunt. A few include celebrating the first kill by having the new hunter share his harvest with those in the group, the Hunting Beard, and the after-hunt breakfast or dinner. There are many more. I’d love to hear yours in the comments.
Meteor Watching Party. Once a year or so (use this handy calendar) get everybody up in the pre-dawn hours, dress warmly, drive out to a spot where there’s less light pollution, lie down on a blanket, and pour cups of cider or cocoa from a thermos as you watch for meteors and point out different constellations to your kids.
Welcome to Fall Dinner. Usher in the first day of the indisputably best season of the year by having a harvest-y dinner: turkey, stuffing, apple crisp, and the like. It’s something my mom did in my family growing up and I really enjoyed it.
Baseball Opening Day. While football has overtaken baseball as America’s favorite sport, there’s still something about celebrating America’s pastime by attending a game on opening day that resonates with me. It’s a chance to connect with your kiddos over a sport that’s connected generations of American families.
Barbershop Visit with Dad. Every man should frequent the barbershop. So should every little boy. Instill in your strapping little lad the time-honored, manly tradition of visiting the barbershop by making his first visit a big deal. Take pictures of him getting his ears lowered and then take him out for breakfast or lunch afterwards. From then on, get your haircuts together.
Annual Camping Trip. Inspire a love of the great outdoors in your kids by taking them camping at least once a year. If you find a campsite you love, return to it again and again as you build special memories around that place.
Another fun tradition is to pick a day each year that you go backyard “camping” with your kid.
The holidays are the most tradition-rich time of the year. There are a lot of great classic traditions out there from making cookies for Christmas to doing an egg hunt on Easter. Here are some holiday traditions you may not have thought of.
Easter Basket Scavenger Hunt. Instead of setting out the Easter baskets by their bed or in the living room, have your kids do a fun hunt for them. Leave the first clue by their beds, and have them follow one clue to the next until they find their baskets.
An important note: adding a scavenger hunt to anything turns it into an awesome, memorable tradition. I’m not sure there’s anything more fun as a kid than a scavenger hunt.
Egg Wars. The fun of dyeing Easter eggs doesn’t have to end when you pour out the food coloring. On Easter Day, commence the egg wars. Two people each hold an egg and on the count of three, they hit the end of their eggs together. Whoever’s egg cracks loses; the winner goes on to another battle. You can offer a prize to whoever has the egg that lasts the longest. During the Great Depression, Kate’s grandfather’s family was so poor, that the prize was keeping the other person’s egg.
Pumpkinfest. Make the classic tradition of pumpkin carving extra special by finding a nice pumpkin patch that you return to each year, taking a hayride while there, and making a whole pumpkin-themed meal to precede the carving (pumpkin soup, pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie…).
Tombstone Rubbing and Ghost Stories. Tombstone rubbing used to be a popular pastime with folks. It’s still popular among genealogists searching for info about ancestors. Basically, you just get some butcher paper, place it over the face of the tombstone, and then rub charcoal or crayon on it so that the lettering on the tombstone is transferred to the paper.
To make this activity a bit spookier, visit an old cemetery at night and have a contest to see who can get the oldest tombstone rubbing. (Make sure to bring flashlights!) Afterwards, tell ghost stories while sitting in the cemetery. Spoooky!
Candy Swapping Wizard. This is a good one if you’re not crazy about your kids grazing on their trick-o-treat candy for the next 6 months, but want to do something about it that’s more fun than curmudgeonly. Tell your kids to select X number of pieces of candy they get to keep, and then to place the rest of their booty outside the door to their room. During the night, a wizard comes and swaps their candy for a gift.
Jack O’ Lantern Burial. After serving valiantly on Halloween Night, a carved Jack O’Lantern typically experiences an ignoble end by slowly wilting away on the front porch and eventually being tossed in the trash. One family featured in The Book of New Family Traditions didn’t think their Jack O’ Lanterns deserved such an anticlimactic demise. So they decided to give their carved pumpkins a proper burial the day after Halloween. They have a small patch in their backyard that’s designated as the “Pumpkin Graveyard.” The day after Halloween the family brings their respective Jack O’ Lanterns to the graveyard and offer a short eulogy that goes thusly:
“We are gathered here to pay homage to our dearly departed Jack O’ Lanterns. Throughout their short lives our Halloween Pumpkins have brought both us and our Trick-or-Treaters much joy. We now consign them to the earth where they first came. May they rest in peace.”
All of this is done, of course, with tongue firmly placed in cheek.
Says the mother of this family, “The Great Pumpkin would be proud.”
Thankful Box. As they hang out before dinner begins, family members are encouraged to take time to anonymously write down a few things they are grateful for on slips of paper, which are then placed in a decorated shoebox. Later on as the family eats dessert, the box is passed around the table and each person draws a slip and reads it aloud until the box is empty. The fun comes both in hearing family members offer heartfelt (and occasionally humorous) thank yous, and in guessing who wrote what.
Turkey Bowl Football Game. For families that have huge extended family gatherings at Thanksgiving, a morning of touch football is a great way to work up an appetite for turkey and pumpkin pie later that day.
Watching the Lions Lose. No Thanksgiving would be complete without the family gathered around the TV to watch the Detroit Lions lose. It would be like Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Out with the Old, In with the New. To teach your kids to live just a bit more simply, to accumulate less stuff, and not to hold onto what they have too tightly, require that for however many gifts they get for Christmas, they have to get rid of the same number of their old toys/clothes. Throw away or donate what they discard.
Glass Wax Stencils. This is a tradition from Kate’s family that we plan to carry into ours. Glass wax is a liquid window cleaner that comes out pinkish and dries with a white frost. By blotting it with a sponge over stencils, you can, as the makers of glass wax used to tout, “turn you window into a winter wonderland!” Stenciling with glass wax used to be popular decades ago, but has almost entirely disappeared, making both the stencils and the wax hard to find. Look for the stencils on ebay and the glass wax at the Vermont Country Store.
Pickle on the Christmas Tree. Legend has it that during the Civil War, Private John C. Lower was being held at a prison camp and was given a pickle on Christmas Eve by one of the guards. Starving, he believed the pickle helped save his life, and after the war he began a tradition of hiding a pickle on the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve for his family to find the next morning. Other origin stories for this 19th century American tradition are floated as well. Nowadays, a pickle ornament is hung on the tree on Christmas Eve and whoever finds the pickle first the next morning gets an extra gift or is promised a year of good fortune.
Countdown to Christmas with Books. There are a lot of fun ways to count down to Christmas with your kids, from making a paper chain to opening the doors of an advent calendar. Here’s a new one I picked up from The Book of New Family Traditions: wrap 24 books about Christmas, and open and read one each night during December. On the 24th, the book that is opened is The Night Before Christmas.
Run a Marathon Before Opening Presents. The parents of a family we know who are very ambitious, gung-ho about life, and love physical challenges would make their kids run a marathon before they got to open presents. Not individually, mind you! The 26 miles was split between the parents and their 4 kids, depending on age and ability. Quite a way to teach delayed gratification.
New Year’s Eve
Rent a Hotel Room. Staying at a hotel is terribly exciting when you’re a kid. Rent a room on New Year’s Eve, bring board games and snacks, let the kids swim, and have a family slumber party to ring in the new year.
Banging on Pots and Pans at Midnight. The tradition of noisemakers at midnight originates from the belief that it would scare away bad luck and evil spirits. Let your kids run down the streets banging on pots and pans when the clock strikes twelve.
Eating Chinese. I’m not sure why we associate New Year’s Eve with Chinese food, since the Chinese New Year is on a different date, but Kate and I have started a tradition of going out for Chinese food on December 31. Just seems lucky somehow.
If you’re feeling more ambitious, try your hand at making our own fortune cookies and creating personalized fortunes for your family.
Putting Regrets to the Fire. Have each family member write down and then share one of their regrets from the past year. Then throw the regrets into the fireplace to symbolize a fresh start.
Despite the size of this list, there are tons of other great traditions out there – we didn’t even mention all the specific religious/ethnic/cultural traditions that exist! Tradition ideas are limited only by your creativity. Please share your family’s traditions in the comments!
Illustrations by Ted Slampyak