Families share their traditions for a meaningful Christmas Day

In a quest to break up our holiday eat/nap/eat routine, I set out to discover some of the traditions that make other families' Christmas Days so special.
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Get out for a walk and experience the stillness of the city streets. Matt Rourke / AP
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By Nicole Spector

Since relocating to Los Angeles a few years ago, my husband, Patrick, and I spend every holiday season back in upstate New York with his immediate family. Christmas Day usually goes something like this: eat, sleep, watch TV, open presents, eat sleep, watch TV. Our phones, like any other day, are close at hand, and I for one am checking Instagram and text messages every couple of hours, at least.

It’s not a bad day by a long shot. It’s actually kind of perfect if you’re in need of some major R&R and starchy calories, but this year I’ve asked my in-laws if we can bring in a new Christmas Day tradition, something that would make our limited time together more meaningful and memorable. I was a bit worried that my suggestion would be rejected, given that I see how much Patrick’s parents enjoy this hard-earned day of lazy indulgence, but everyone was immediately delighted by the idea.

Wonderful! Now we just had to figure out what to do — a task that proved more difficult that I imagined. So, I took this question, “What’s a special Christmas tradition your family does every year” to the hardworking, 9-to-5 masses, and collected some marvelous ideas on how to make holiday time with friends and family more meaningful this year.

A city walk to appreciate ‘the stillness of the streets’

“My husband and I have been together 16 years,” says Michele Lamoureux, a lifestyle coach. “Our tradition on Christmas Day has always been to go for a long walk and enjoy the stillness of the streets. We lived in the city of Boston for the last 13 years and when our daughter turned one (nine years ago), we continued that tradition with her. Everything is decorated, but much quieter. There is something just so special about that time together to just be grateful for all that we have.”

Lamoureux and her family have upheld the tradition in San Diego, where they relocated three years ago. It’s helped give them a sense of home while being far from family.

Michele Lamoreaux and her family on walk on Christmas Day in San DiegoCourtesy of Michele Lamoreaux

“We have some family nearby but they haven't been around on Christmas Day, so that walk has become even more meaningful to us, as it is usually just the three of us. The landscape is as beautiful [as Boston], but in such a different way. The gift is being able to be with each other and to just be in the moment.”

A Christmas gift piñata with a charitable twist

“My family got tired of exchanging the same gift cards every year, so we came up with the idea of doing a Christmas piñata,” says Brian Earl, creator of the site and podcast Christmas Past. “It's a huge, homemade piñata, and everyone buys a trove of small trinkets to fill it with.”

Over the past couple of years, Earl has added “wild cards” to the piñata — sealed envelopes containing either a gift card or an instruction.

Brian Earle's brother Rich swinging at the pi?ataCourtesy of Brian Earle / Courtesy of Brian Earle

“If it’s an instruction, you must follow it,” says Earl. “In one I placed a $5 bill with instructions to pick out a random name from the phone book and mail it to that person, along with a hand written letter explaining our tradition. My mom actually did it. We've found a way to make the gifting experience fun again.”

Homemade gifts that tell a story

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“Each year, my family makes homemade gifts. It has become a long-standing tradition that my grandfather created before I was even born,” says Gabriela Walding, associate director at Small Girls PR in New York City. “Here's how it works: When we are all on vacation together each summer, we put names in a hat and choose one. That is the person we will have to create a gift for by Christmas. On Christmas Day, we pick numbers out of a hat and head down to the basement, in numerical order, revealing the person whose name we chose and made a gift for as each number is called.”

Once the gifts are unveiled, each family member tells a story about how and why they created this particular gift.

“It usually takes a good chunk of our afternoon, and sometimes we complain, but for me, it's one of the most special things that my crazy family does, and I'm so glad that my grandfather created this unique tradition for us to always have and remember.”

Celebrating the local sights (and lights), snow or shine

Kristan Vermeulen, a PR consultant in Maine, upholds the family tradition of visiting one of the many lighthouses along the coast of New England.

Kristan Vermeulen and her husband Kipp at Owl's Head Lighthouse in MaineCourtesy of Kristan Vermeulen / Courtesy of Kristan Vermeulen

“Each lighthouse is beautiful even if it's not decked out in holiday decorations,” says Vermeulen, adding that the family heads out no matter the weather.” It gives us a little exercise prior to eating our feast and gives us a nice backdrop for our Christmas photo. It also reminds us how family is important to us and how we should spend time in such a lovely place together. Christmas is about enjoying life with family and friends and embracing the spot you live in. Our coastal lands showcase a lot of history and we are happy to be a part of that.”

One gift that everyone can get a kick out of

“We have always included an outdoor ‘toy’ or activity for the family to get everyone moving on Christmas morning and can enjoy throughout the year,” says Jennifer Howard, owner of JWH Designs & Cabinetry. “One year it was a simple $65 trolley that spanned between two trees across the backyard.

Even the cold and wet weather in NY [does not] deter the kids, grandparents and aunts and uncles from heading outside in PJs and bathrobes to give it a try. That particular year my sister, Molly, (age 35 at the time) wanted to try the trolley first, on the premise of making sure it was safe for the kids. Big smile and acting like a kid herself, she climbed into the little triangle to sit for her flight across the yard. She soared easily for the first few feet until the wire started to sag, not quite adjusted for her adult weight. She proceeded to be dragged directly into the mud. The laughs alone were worth everything, and we still talk about it almost 15 years later!”

Host your own Christmas pageant

“In our family, we've always had a tradition of putting on a Christmas pageant before opening gifts,” says Jolene Rheault of the blog, DigiMommy. “Everyone in the family sings a song, recites a poem, guides a game, plays an instrument, etc. It's a great way to bring the family together in a tradition that is never forgotten. This year I'll be celebrating with my husband and son in a small Christmas, but you can bet we'll still do our Christmas pageant.”

Passing down an oral tradition of reading aloud

"Ever since I can remember, my mother read us ‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O. Henry [on Christmas Eve],” says Christy Scott Cashman, actress, producer and philanthropist. “I’m from a family of 10 children and can remember at least six of us sitting around on Christmas Eve before we opened gifts from each other, the only gift we were allowed to open before Christmas Day. My mother would read the story and always become emotional at the end. Now, every Christmas, I read my boys the same story. I feel it is something that is timeless and I'm sure, years from now, they too will pass on the tradition to their family.”

A Christmas Carol in the pediatric ICU

“My younger sister (now 21) was born with a congenital heart defect and spent a significant amount of her infancy and childhood in and out of the pediatric ICU,” says Amanda Jacobsmeyer, an assistant account executive at ASTRSK PR. “So, every Christmas my family and I go revisit that PICU at Sunrise Children’s Hospital in Las Vegas and carol to the families that unfortunately need to spend the holidays in the hospital. The tradition reminds us how fortunate we are, helps us reconnect with my sister's nurses who are still there, and lets those we carol to know that there are people that care about them. It's my favorite tradition!”

Giving back to your local community

“My family and I (me, husband, and a five-year-old daughter) spend the morning after opening presents, working with volunteers from my non-profit and other organizations on Venice Beach Boardwalk,” says Maria Casey, principal at MCA Partners. “We [hand] out food, warm clothes, socks, blankets, toiletries, etc. for a few hours and it's always the highlight for our Christmas Day. We thought it was important to show our daughter how to give back and help out others in our community — especially around Christmas time.”

A taste of Poland — and a remembrance of loved ones who have passed

“We have a Polish tradition where we share a Christmas wafer called opłatek,” says Jennifer Galluzzo, director, digital marketing, at Harrison Edwards. “Before partaking of the Christmas Eve meal, the family gathers around the table. The eldest member holds a large wafer and breaks off a piece to begin the ritual. The remaining wafer is passed on to another member while a prayer for that loved one that you break with is said. Once everyone has a piece, you break off small pieces from each person and pray or wish for something special for that person. Finally, the family members consume the remaining share and the meal begins. We also set a plate aside with all of the parts of the meal to remember loved ones who have passed, and remember that they are still with us in spirit.”

As for my family’s new tradition? We’ve settled on a nature walk through one of the nearby parks, per the suggestion of my mother-in-law, Mary Beth. “And if it’s too cold, we’ll just walk around the block,” she added, earning nods of approval from everyone around the table.

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