Help me create new Christmas traditions!
November 20, 2012 11:03 AM   Subscribe

I would like to start a Christmas tradition with my little niece and nephew, but I'm coming up short on ideas. Hope me?

My partner and I are the sole aunties (no uncles either) to our adorable 9-month old nephew and just-over-two year old niece. Our nephew is still too little for this, but I'd love to start a Christmas tradition with my niece that my nephew could join in on next year or the year after. I am very VERY non-religious (as is their family), but I have great memories of my childhood Christmases and am happy to do something generically "Christmas-y". I'm thinking of something that could be done in the weeks leading up to Christmas, rather than on actual Christmas Day. I'm just at a bit of a loss as to what it could be.

The only thing I've thought of so far is spending an afternoon together making a craft that could be a gift for their mom and dad, and that might work, but I'd love other ideas of things that you've done with kids in your family, or that you think might be fun. Their parents have already taken them to the Santa Claus parade and I can't see myself lining up for Santa photos at the mall! I'm open to just about anything as long as it is non-religious and not based on the more commercial aspects of Christmas. I'm pretty crafty and into baking and stuff as well. Help me make magical memories for my favourite little people!
posted by sabotagerabbit to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Some things we do with my three nieces (and nephew, as soon as he is old enough):

Take them to see the Nutcracker, live. This is kind of a little girl thing, I guess.

Make a "Christmas village" using thick sheets of styrofoam (for snowy landscape and backdrop), little cardboard houses and hotwheels cars. Draw on roads, drill holes where the houses go and stick a mini-light up through the hole from behind so it looks like the lights are on. Depending on the toys available (or what you are able to find at the second hand shop), you could make a farm, a village, even an army base. Keeps kids occupied playing with cars and animals while adults decorate more fragile items, like Christmas trees.

Make a gingerbread house!

Depending on where you live (i.e: if there's snow), make up squirty paint using dishwashing detergent bottles and watered-down non-toxic tempera paint. Use the bottles to squirt art on fresh snow.
posted by LN at 11:12 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just do fun auntie stuff with the kiddos.

I remember my Autie took my little sister and I ice skating. We had fun, although we had no idea what we were doing.

Another fun thing (and BOY is this dating me) was to do downtown to look at the Chrismas windows. This may still be a thing in Chicago, San Francisco (GUMPS!) and New York. Not entirely sure if this is a thing where you are.

I know you said that visit to the Mall Santa would suck (and you're right) but complete with treats and pictures it could be a thing. Their parents will be THRILLED not to have to deal with this, and you can sing carols in that endless line. (Because it's not for you, it's for them.)

Maybe just a movie and cocoa after.

Can you do a craft with an Advent calendar that they can do annually after this Christmas?

Baking frosted Christmas cookies, messy, fun and you get to send them home sticky and hyper.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:13 AM on November 20, 2012

What about making personalized tree ornaments every year? The best part about this is embarrassing them with the toddler ones when they are preteens.
posted by elizardbits at 11:13 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I take my kids shopping for an ornament (for each of them) every year. We hang them on the tree and then they get packed away in their own special containers for when they leave home. The idea being that when it's time for them to leave home, they'll each have a tree's worth of ornaments ready to go, with memories attached.

We also eat Chinese food and watch Christmas movies on Christmas Eve; maybe you could do something similar on a weekend leading up to Christmas.

Bake cookies together and then give them to the kids' teachers or caregivers (or even mom and dad).
posted by cooker girl at 11:14 AM on November 20, 2012

Does you town/city/etc have any holiday/winter events that you can all enjoy together? For example, I grew up in Minneapolis and every year we'd all bundle up and go to watch the Holidazzle parade (because Minnesotans are weird enough to stand outside at night in subzero weather to watch a parade) and then get hot chocolate afterwards.

Or (when they're older) it might be fun to take them out shopping for things to give to their parents. Give them a small allowance and see what they come up with.
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:20 AM on November 20, 2012

My mom makes gingerbread houses with her grandkids every year. They have a great time.
posted by Area Man at 11:20 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, give them new pajamas to wear on Christmas Eve! Could be holiday themed, or not, or matching or not matching - but new warm jammies to wear to bed that night are always special and fun.
posted by handful of rain at 11:41 AM on November 20, 2012

Another vote for cookies - although at that age, I would bake a bunch of plain rolled cut-out sugar cookies beforehand and have the activity be the decorating. When they're a little older they'll have more of an attention span and you can bake and then decorate all together.

When I was a kid, my favorite holiday thing was lunch in the Walnut Room at Marshall Field's in Chicago. There was (is) a giant Christmas tree in the middle of the restaurant. Is there a similarly fancy-but-not-too-fancy place that decorates nicely for the holiday near you? Might want to wait a couple years for that, but outings to "grown up" places often have big impressions on the young set. (Ruthless Bunny, we looked at Christmas windows too!)
posted by agentmitten at 11:53 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lego advent calendar. NEW TOY EVERY DAY! They are too little now to safely enjoy the world's coolest choking hazards, but keep the idea in your back pocket for down the road.

Also, watch the old movies with them while doing something Christmassey. Cutting out snowflakes for the windows, writing letters to Santa, writing letters to their future selves (a sort of year-end activity that you do with George Bailey on in the background). Just have the tv on and they'll absorb the movies over the years.
posted by headnsouth at 12:02 PM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

My eldest niece (who is local to me) and I have a long-standing tradition at Christmas-time: Day! Of! Nothing!

On Day! Of! Nothing!, we meet up early in the day and head to our city's festive downtown area and wander. I check out the local events calendar so we have an idea what's going on in the area, but we don't buy advance tickets to anything, because advance planning is not what Day! Of! Nothing! is about. Maybe we stop to pick out a Christmas present for her parents, maybe not. Maybe we wander through the museum, maybe not. Maybe we go listen to carollers in the town square, maybe not.

During my niece's early school years, when we first established the Day! Of! Nothing! tradition, her days were very tightly scheduled, so a few hours of unplanned time was a real luxury for her --- and for me, to get to spend that time with her!

There are a few established conventions we follow. At some point in the Day! Of! Nothing!, we will stop for hot chocolate. (Technically, it's for peppermint hot chocolate, and when my niece, COMPLETELY SHOCKED, informed me that our usual place no longer offered full-sized candy canes with the hot chocolate, I bought some big-ass candy canes so we could continue that tradition unaltered.)

I also take her out to lunch; she can choose her favorite restaurant, but if she doesn't have a place in mind, I make suggestions. She usually wants to wander through the local music store, pop in to see friends or family who work downtown, check out clothing stores, pick up a present or two. But mostly the tradition consists of unstructured time together to talk idly, to wander idly, to enjoy each other's company.

A few years ago, toward the end of Day! Of! Nothing!, she seemed a bit tired, so I asked if she'd rather stay out, go home, or come over to my house, and made it clear that any of those choices were fine with me. She chose the latter: we ended up watching a movie, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, then painting our toenails. That's now become part of the tradition: wrapping up the day with a very simple dinner at my place, and probably painting our toenails before dessert.
posted by Elsa at 12:13 PM on November 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: These are all amazing suggestions. Thank you so much! I think I can definitely cobble together a day that my amazing little person will love this year, and that I can keep adding on to as she and her brother get older. I'm so excited!
posted by sabotagerabbit at 12:43 PM on November 20, 2012

Definitely gingerbread houses. I started this tradition with my own niece and nephew 5 years ago and now all kinds of cousins and family are involved. Its become an annual tradition and a lot of fun.

You can go crazy and try to bake your own house. The first year I bought the Williams- Sonoma House Cookie Cutter Set, but had trouble getting everything the same thickness so things didn't fit together too well. After that crazy year, I realized two things. 1. No one eats the gingerbread part, so who cares if it tastes good and 2. you can buy the house parts at most stores anymore. My SIL gets the parts for ours at our local Wegmans. I do the assembling with royal icing the day before and let the houses sit overnight to dry so there won't be any collapses. Everyone arrives the next day to a table FULL of all kinds of fun and decorative holiday candies (there are so many awesome ideas out there, just google gingerbread house). They each get a piping bag full of royal icing and they're off. My nephew needed a little more help the first few years, but now he's all on his own, planning an adventure for this year where he is planning on making a sled out of candy canes for the gummi bears and have them flying off the roof and crashing into the snowman below!!
posted by NoraCharles at 12:44 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really like Elsa's Day! Of! Nothing! idea; the whole day itself is the tradition, and you're therefore not locked into a pattern of "But it's tradition!! We have to do This Specific Thing!" that may grow old for you and your partner long before it does for your niece and nephew, or vice versa. Or it might grow old for everybody but nobody wants to say anything because they think it will disappoint everyone else. (I recall an NPR piece about a mom who made some awful traditional dish every year because she thought the rest of the family loved it, while the rest of the family secretly loathed it but ate it enthusiastically because they thought it meant so much to her to make it.)

Personally, I love annual traditions and rituals but not too long ago I had a conversation with my mom wherein it was revealed that after a number of years of staying up until midnight every New Years eve and playing Monopoly with my and my siblings (when we were still kids living at home), she and my dad were really kind of burned out on it but put on a happy face because we kids really liked it... so I really like the Day! Of! Nothing! because it can evolve as they grow up.
posted by usonian at 12:58 PM on November 20, 2012

For a few years we did read-alouds with our neighbors on X-Mas Eve. One neighbor would read "A Child's Christmas in Wales", my dad would do "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and I think we'd read "Twas the Night Before Christmas". It was all very relaxed and comfortable. A very nice childhood memory.
posted by chiefthe at 1:38 PM on November 20, 2012

Idea #1 Offer your home to your sibling/spouse as "Santa Central" - Mom & Dad drop off the kids' gifts along with wrapping paper & ribbon. You & your partner wrap the gifts and either deliver them Christmas Eve or Mom & Dad pick them up.
This is more something you're doing for your niece/nephew but your sibling & spouse will certainly appreciate it and it's fun 'playing Santa'. I used to deliver while my brother's family was out in the early evening. I put most of the presents in the master bedroom bathroom to hide them but I always left 1 special gift for each kid under the tree because 'Santa is so busy he dropped this stuff off early' - this was always the present the kids were allowed to open on Xmas eve.

Idea #2 I have taken one of my nieces out to do her Christmas shopping since she was 6 or 7. This also includes going out to lunch or dinner and maybe a movie or renting a moving and having pizza at my house.

Idea #3 Every year, I meet up with my mother and 3 nieces/1 nephew at a church that organizes and distributes groceries for T-Day and then dinner and presents for Christmas to local families in need. The donations are organized through a county agency and several churches participate (but I am not a member of the church we usually volunteer at)

Idea #4 Another local church (again, not a member) used to do a living Christmas tree that the kids really liked. The music was a mix of traditional carols/religious/popular songs so it wasn't all churchy.

Idea #5 For several years, I used to go over to a friend's house and help her kids get rid of old toys to make space for the new. We'd box everything up and drop it off at Goodwill then go to the kids' favorite restaurant. It doesn't seem really Christmas-y but the kids always liked it and seemed to get the message that they couldn't keep everything and that giving stuff away for a good cause is a neat thing.
posted by jaimystery at 3:23 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some things you can do anywhere, like make or decorate cookies together (a big one at my house), but some of my favorite holiday things are location specific. So, you'll need to see what you have, but in Seattle, I love to take my daughter to the Figgy Pudding Caroling contest (fundraiser for the Senior center and food bank) and the holiday carousel (also a fundraiser) and especially when she was very small, it was magical to just be outside at night, looking at all the Christmas decorations, and part of it all. (And we do sometimes look at the Christmas windows on the way from the bus to the festivities, especially the one where they set up a train that you can control.) My dad loves to take her to see the gingerbread houses each year (these are fabulous architect and chef made creations) and to the teddy-bear suite (a hotel sets up rooms with tons of teddy bears, including huge ones you can sit on/in).
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:44 PM on November 20, 2012

Nthing cookies... My nieces (now in their 20s) still talk about cookie decorating (and later baking) at their Auntie Patheral's house when they were little. We never got as complicated as gingerbread houses, but they adored cookie decorating and baking. They also liked bringing plates of cookies to the neighbors, who enjoyed receiving them, so there's a tradition there if you know and like your neighbors.
posted by patheral at 6:14 PM on November 20, 2012

When my nephews were very young (4 and 5, I think), we started a tradition of Christmas shopping together -- for Toys for Tots. Each boy was given $10 to pick gifts so "a kid like you can have nice presents under the tree."

In the early years, they tended to pick things they wanted and it was a bit traumatic to drop them in the bin for someone else. But by the time they were school age, they caught the spirit and it was truly exciting to watch. One year, both decided to shop for girl's gifts, which led to a discussion of whether girls and boys could like the same kinds of things. Some did, they agreed, so the imagined "girls" got some Hot Wheels and squirt guns along with plush toys and dolls.

As they got older, they began supplementing the amount with their own savings so they could buy more gifts ... and carefully checking prices to make sure they stretched the funds as far as possible. We won't be able to go shopping with them this year -- too far apart -- but they've assured us, they'll go together, so the tradition will continue.
posted by peakcomm at 7:11 PM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I bought a cloth advent calendar. I put in 24 advent goodies. Some are chocolates. Some are little toys (sometimes second hand - the kids can't tell and it's greener). Some are small crafts. Some are notes about what we can do that day, such as a hot chocolate at the coffee shop, a trip to the Christmas train, putting up the tree, putting up the lights, an excursion to look at the Christmas tree competition, going to see the old time window displays, and so on. Many of these things I would have done anyway. But it makes it fun. And I grew up with something similar, where my mom did exactly the same things in the same order of days each year. (E.g. Christmas lights up on the 1st, small tree on December 6, tree on 17th and I forget what else was in between and after now.)

However, I do seem to have to put a little chocolate or candy or toy in there every day, now that they are school-aged. All the other kids seem to have expensive advent calendars with gourmet chocolates or Legos and my kids get upset. So I scatter a few chocolates and second-hand dinky cars in the mix. lol
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:33 PM on November 20, 2012

Maybe you could make a treasure hunt for them to find their present from you? My parents and grandparents always did this for us. My Grandmother's clues were always super hard ("under something red") but I have very fond memories of them.
posted by carolr at 10:20 PM on November 20, 2012

A friend of mine had an awesome Christmas tradition as a kid that she shared with me -- and I think it might work for you although they're a bit young for this right now... it is a bit like Elsa's Day! Of! Nothing! up-thread but with a small twist:

As a child she'd lay her clothes out for school the next day before going to bed. One day in December, she never knew which day, she'd wake up and find her a festive holiday sweater on top of her clothes -- which was how she knew it was The Day. She'd put on her sweater and that day she would skip school and hang out with her Mom doing Christmass-y things. They'd go into the city and look at the lights and the shop displays, have a special lunch, go to a movie, etc.

She said she loved it because it was always a surprise, she got to skip school and she got to spend the whole day with her Mom. We're Jewish so I don't think we'll be making this a Christmas tradition per-se but I really love the idea. You could certainly combine it with Day! Of! Nothing! activities -- surprises always make things more fun in my opinion :)
posted by blue_bicycle at 6:31 PM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

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