Families Share Tresured Holiday Traditions

As soon as they were old enough to sit still (enough) in a theater, Carey Valli took her twin daughters to see the Commonwealth Ballet Company’s performance of The Nutcracker. The tradition is now as much a part of their holiday season as hanging ornaments on the tree.

 “One year we didn’t go and it just didn’t seem right,” says Valli, a Holliston resident whose daughters are now 14. “It was like we had really missed something. I think it’s nice when you do something that kids can really grasp onto, and you hope that when they get older and they have kids, they remember.”

Traditions are indeed about making memories and having fun. But they also serve an important role in the healthy development of children, says David Fernie, a professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College in Boston. Traditions provide continuity and connections to children who live in a society far more mobile and fast than the one their grandparents knew.

“I think holidays play an important role in creating rituals that children can connect to,” says Fernie. “It’s an important part of the belonging a child feels in a family. They see that they’re not just a part of it, they participate in it.”

We asked local families to share their most treasured holiday traditions. 



Cathy Bernard of Salisbury says there are two traditions that her family honors. The first is to decorate the house for Christmas the weekend after Thanksgiving. “This was a tradition my mother started, and she passed away six years ago and I have carried it on and now do it with my family,” says Bernard. “My 5-year-old loves helping and getting into the holiday spirit.”

Her second tradition is to buy everyone new pajamas, which they open on Christmas Eve. They stay up late, watch movies and read Christmas stories together.


Every Christmas Eve,Alexandra Breen and her brother Aidan take turns camping out in each other’s bedrooms. It’s the only night of the year that the brother-and-sister pair from Salem, N.H., hold this sleepover party. They like to stay up late talking about what presents may be under the tree.


Janice Theriaque of Natick puts up two Christmas trees – one for the grown-ups and one for the kids. “Mine is all white and gold so the kids’ ornaments don’t really match. The kids can put all their homemade ornaments up however they want and they really like that.”


Every Hanukkah, Caryn Budd of Franklin makes edible dreidels with her son, Korey. To make this tasty version of the popular Hanukkah spinning top toy, she puts a small pretzel stick into the middle of a marshmallow, allowing for some of the pretzel to stick out on top. Then she takes a little frosting and puts it at the bottom of the marshmallow and sticks a Hershey kiss (point side down) on the bottom. Then they play a game of dreidel with chocolate gelt (coins).


Ever since her kids were babies, Cindy Foley of East Bridgewater played The Muppets Christmas tape while the family decorated the tree. Now her two daughters do the same when decorating the Christmas tree with her grandchildren. “It doesn’t feel right unless we have it playing,” says Foley.


Susie Martin of Attleboro and her family string fresh cranberries and popcorn made in an air-popper while watching Christmas specials on TV. The mother of twins says the all-time favorite is The Year Without a Santa Claus (think of dueling brothers Heat Miser and Snow Miser). “It’s fun to watch the kids think an air popper is cool,” says Martin. “They thought you could only microwave popcorn or buy it at the movies.” Sometimes, when they are “feeling fancy,” the family also adds dried oranges and cinnamon sticks to the popcorn strings.


Carol Band, an Arlington resident and former Boston Parents Paper humor columnist, took a unique approach to celebrating the eight nights of Hanukkah with her interfaith family. They would designate theme nights – book night, big present night, friend over night, latkes with neighbors night, family outing night – to prevent the gift-giving from “getting out of control.”


Abbe Smerling of Lexington says one of her children's favorite nights of Hanukkah is "Nana night." “My mother, Myrna, died during the Hanukkah season, 29 years ago. She had already bought a gift to be given "from her" to my then 3-year-old-daughter. I did give it to her saying, ‘Nana wanted you to have this.’” As the years rolled on, Smerling continued the tradition buying gifts that she thought her mother would want her girls to have. “If there is someone special in your life that you want your children to remember, I suggest you try this.”


Another idea they have is a "tzedekah (or charity) night" during Hanukkah. Smerling collected all the charity envelopes that came between November and December and put them in a pile and her girls would chose one. “When they were younger, I would write the check. But, as they got older, they contributed to the charity directly from their own baby-sitting earnings.”


Mary Mahoney of Needham and her family attend Mass on Christmas Eve and then, before bed, her husband reads The Night Before Christmas to their three children, ages 8, 10 and 12. It was a tradition his father shared with him and his siblings and he felt it was important to carry on.


It wouldn’t be Christmas at the Hamwey household without the arrival of Noah, also known as The Elf on the Shelf. The little blue-eyed elf (sold at Hallmark stores, Target, Amazon.com) suddenly appears the day after Thanksgiving and usually stays until the day after Christmas. But every night, explains 7-year-old Dylan Hamwey, Noah goes back to the North Pole to report to Santa on how Dylan and his 3½-year-old sister are behaving. He shows up somewhere new in the house each morning upon his return. But no one in the family can touch him, says Dylan, his eyes widening, “or he loses his magical powers.”


Dana H. and her family from Winchester head out to a Christmas tree farm two weeks before Christmas to cut down their Chrismas tree. "As soon as we get home, we set it up. I make hot chocolate and we spend the next several hours decorating our tree while sharing our favorite holiday stories," she says.


Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper.


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26 Nov 2011

By Susan Flynn