Holiday Celebrations with Toddlers

One of the things that many of us love most about holidays are the rituals: doing things the same way each year. I like to define rituals as “connecting activities that are repeated in a rhythmical manner.” The rhythm can be short, or long. It might be a little game that you play at each meal as you settle your daughter into her high chair, or it might be something that you do only once a year: decorating the Christmas tree, or a special thing that happens only on your birthday. Rituals can even be something done only once in your life, but is a ritual because it is done for each generation, or each person in your community: a bar mitzvah, perhaps, or a family tradition where father ceremonially gives a pocket knife to a child on his or her twelfth birthday. Rituals like this are powerful because they are not only connecting in the moment, but they are imbued with all of the energy of past connections.

New parents are often very excited about sharing holiday rituals that they remember from their own childhoods, and sharing them with their children. However, these efforts are often met at the beginning with difficulty, if not downright failure. Part of it is because we’re often trying to do things that we remember from when we were six, seven or eight years old, with our child who is only two or three. But part of it is that they don’t have the years of rosy memories associated with these activities that we do. So unless we can convey some of that feeling to them, it won’t be the powerful connecting activity that we’re hoping for. But with a little planning and a little practice, we can have these powerful experiences, right from the start.

Practicing Through Play

Because toddlers are too young to remember traditions from a year before, or even a few months ago, we can work to instill this sense of anticipation in the shorter term. One way to do this is through storytelling (perhaps about when you were a child), and another is to do it through play. When we ‘play’ Thanksgiving, or ‘play’ Christmas, we are giving our toddlers a fun, connecting experience that is now associated with that holiday. Do it again, and then again, and soon your child has layers of connecting memories associated with those holiday experiences.

Here’s an example that’s not from a holiday, but it illustrates the point: My stepmom did this with her grandson this past fall, when he was getting ready to go to Kindergarten for the first time. She was there for ten days, and that included his first day of school. As soon as she got there, they started ‘playing’ school: they’d get up in the morning and pack a lunch, then walk together to his real school building. They would walk through the building, peeking their heads into his classroom, and go out to the playground. They’d set up a picnic blanket and ‘play’ school (which usually involved him being the teacher, and my stepmom having to do what he said), then they’d eat their lunches together, they’d ‘play’ naptime, then they’d pack up their things and go home. They did this every day for a week, and he began to get more and more excited about school. When the first day of school came, he was ecstatic! This was not some big, scary unknown. He got up, packed his lunch, led the way to school, and confidently went into his classroom. He felt as if he were living the story!

Any time you have a new experience coming, you can use this type of play. But it is especially great for holidays, when people are expected to act in certain ways (sit still through a church service or prayer, for example) and react in certain ways (being thankful for gifts, even if they’re not things they would have chosen for themselves). When we play through these experiences with toddlers many times before they actually happen, then the experiences are much more likely to be closer to the warm, connecting experiences that we imagine.

Keep Warm, ~Miss Faith


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  1. We’re in New Orleans where, beyond what you may know about Mardi Gras in the French Quarter, Mardi Gras is also very much a season full of family traditions and get-togethers. My earliest Mardi Gras memories are of the gatherings at the home of my grandmother, because she lived close to a parade route. The extended family would meet there early enough to get parking places, have lunch, and then walk out to the parade. We kids would play “Mardi Gras parade” with some of us on the porch tossing beads to the others. And then we’d reverse roles. That type of tradition still continues in households all over the area.

    The Creativity Institute

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