How to make small celebrations feel festive?
November 12, 2016 10:49 AM   Subscribe

I grew up having fairly large family celebrations of birthdays and holidays, but now it's often just me and one or both of my kids (12 and 16). Without having more people around, celebrations feel more forced and less fun, and not very different from day-to-day life. Suggestions?

Exciting food is the main thing that I can think of and it does help, but I'd like additional ideas. I already light a fire in the woodstove and/or eat in different places (picnic on the porch, etc.). We usually play a game or do a craft or something but it's a little forced because none of us really enjoy the same activities. One child has no tolerance for movies, so that's not an option. (And neither child particularly likes the other.)

One child hates restaurants and the other is mildly autistic and doesn't enjoy being around strangers, so out-of-the-house activities like going to a climbing gym or something aren't good options. I also have physical limitations which make things like bowling impossible.

Assume that inviting additional people to these events is not possible.

I'm open to ideas for convincing myself that these celebrations are more fun than I'm currently finding them as well as ideas for changing them to make them better!
posted by metasarah to Human Relations (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Presents and decorations go a long way towards making things special and festive.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:54 AM on November 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I agree that decorations are a big help. If you or the kids are into crafts, you could make some (but there is no shame in purchasing!). My husband's birthday was yesterday, and I put up a Happy Birthday banner and got some balloons, which I think he really appreciated.

For birthdays, what about a special cake plate for the birthday boy/girl?
posted by radioamy at 11:11 AM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

How comfortable are you with the option of just not doing anything celebratory?

I'm from a similarly small family and we ultimately chose to stop celebrating things. We'd get each other a card and gift for birthdays and Christmas, but beyond that, we made a marked effort to not treat those days as being different from any others. Decorations are definitely something we went without after a certain point - it feels silly to bother with a Christmas tree, for instance, if there might only be two presents under it and no one home to take part in decorating it. It felt like we were trying too hard at something meant for people in different circumstances.

It did make me feel kind of unusual when I was your kids' age, but that was mostly over other people's reactions to my family's choices. Over time it just came to feel more honest. It does feel forced to be celebratory when there's only a few people around and they're dealing with things that make it hard to focus on taking part in a happy day, and I think it's perfectly okay to lean into that feeling.
posted by blerghamot at 11:20 AM on November 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think there is something to be said for holiday traditions that build memories of family connection even if they aren't necessary F-U-N at the time. This is the stuff that everyone will remember, tell stories about and carry on in the their own family someday.

What has worked best for me is (1) one holiday specific food made from scratch, with as many family members helping as possible. For example, the entire Thanksgiving dinner can be come from the store but there is always one and sometimes two pies made from scratch, even if there are only two people to eat it. The baking is big part of the tradition and as kids get older and move out, it is a kick to see them calling home for the recipe since this is just "how it is done".

The second is a symbolic act or decoration that marks the holiday. It doesn't matter how small the tree is, as long as there is room for the half dozen ornaments that absolutely must be hung. Our family burns a life candle all day on a person's birthday. Having a special plate for birthday person's slice of cake works too.

i also tried to push for a minimum amount "family time" activity (with varying success). We had a couple of cards games that would usually go over OK. This year, I would really like to get all some the old family videos/home movies that the kids hadn't seen in years. Growing up, my dad would set up the projector and screen and show the old home movies about once a year and I have good memories of that.

I'll be checking in for more ideas from others - it is a challenge!!!
posted by metahawk at 12:21 PM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Rituals can help...or call them traditions or customs. But standard customs can feel dull and joyless, as can standard decorations.

Certain foods that respective family members love that are served at holidays or other special days. Ask the kids what food/dessert the could really look forward to. They can change their minds from year to year, but you can keep the custom of planning in that manner.

Decorative touches of your own choosing. If you fancy putting a glittery dinosaur figurine on the table for a holiday, try it. I happen to like candles in a few special holders. And distinctive flowers that have a place of Thanksgiving honor. You don't need lots of things, just things that matter or give pleasure to someone in your household. They don't have to make sense to anyone else.

For my husband' s birthday, he can't have his gift till he answers a tough brain teaser or word puzzle; he likes this. A family we know loves to wear hats for New Year's....seems silly to me, but of course that's irrelevant!
posted by wryly at 12:25 PM on November 12, 2016

- travel
- car based local sightseeing (eg, Christmas light viewing) ... requires little human interaction or physical activity
- volunteering or doing acts of service that can be done from your own home. Maybe a pen pal program to write to isolated individuals? Participate in a giving tree?
- spring cleaning - ensure that you're "out with the old" and in with the new.
- themed music
posted by crazycanuck at 12:34 PM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thinking back on my childhood, my parents might have felt this way when my siblings and I were growing up, but we never knew it. Their enthusiasm and affection for us made our simple family celebrations exciting and memorable. Here's what I remember really liking:

1. Specific food for specific celebrations. This wasn't expensive, just fun, and included people in the preparation. Some examples: New Year's Eve make your own mini pizza, same for BBQ skewers on the 4th, mini gingerbread houses in the winter

2. Playing dress up for the celebration using what is available plus a "celebration box" of inexpensive goodies like beads, scarves, etc.

3. Giving the celebrated person a choice of menu/activity. Example: my birthday dessert was always cream puffs, my brother always asked for apple pie. Activities ranged from charades to camping out in the back yard to Mad Libs, skits, magic tricks, or limerick contests.

4. Crafts leading up to the celebration to be used at the celebration created excitement and incentive to participate. The obvious one is decorations for the celebration, but also tie dying shirts, making piƱatas, or masks or crowns.

I was lucky to grow up this way but really took it for granted. It wasn't until my friends started asking if they could come celebrate too that I had my first inkling that this was an unusual way to grow up. But looking back it is also one of my very favorite aspects of my childhood and I am so grateful that my parents took the time to do these things with us. If it helps, this gratitude may well fill your children's hearts as well. Good luck!
posted by scairdy chicken at 2:17 PM on November 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

As for new celebration ideas, how about focusing on the element of surprise? Coming up with a wacky thing to do that they don't expect, or that "break the rules", so to speak, would definitely make things memorable. Some ideas: surprise them with a buffet of Ben & Jerry's pints -- for breakfast. Or have a full-on junk-food only day. Transform a room in your house by making it into a giant sheet fort, and hold the party there. For a gift-giving occasion, instead of one or two gifts for the recipient, give a dozen or more small gifts (like putting a lollypop in a box and wrap it) in addition to the main gifts -- stretching out the fun of opening gifts. A surprise road trip - pack a bag for each of them and put them in the car but don't tell them. Tell them you're going somewhere then "change your mind" and go somewhere else special instead (a different city, a beach, a water park).

Unexpected things will leave a lasting memory they will talk about the rest of their lives.

Regarding feeling small celebrations are more fun than you think they are, overcoming the "none of use are into the same thing" barrier is key. It's an important life skill for young people to learn that cheerfully doing something you don't particularly like because someone you love really likes it is a way of showing your love and respect for that person. Not that you should always live that way minute to minute, but it's all right to say, "It's X's birthday, this is something s/he loves, and today is her/his day, so we're all going to do the things s/he enjoys."
posted by leticia at 2:36 PM on November 12, 2016

Just like art is more special in a nice frame, celebrations are more special if they are framed by reflection, and by connecting with others and with the core ideas behind the celebration. So, if you take a moment to actually pause and think about what you have to be thankful for, and then listen quietly and with interest when everyone says something pertinent, the moments after that will be special.
posted by amtho at 3:45 PM on November 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Music can make a huge difference. Think about putting on festive or personally meaningful records when you're doing things like cooking special food or decorating the house, and softer but still happy music during meals and while hanging out together. I love jazz standards for being with people, but you might like something only instrumental or your kids' favorite albums or whatever puts you in the right mood. You can also spend some time before the celebration putting together playlists, or give this task to your kids or whoever would like to contribute something but can't do physical stuff (or whoever is just enthusiastic about it, of course.) And it has a reinforcing quality where if you have a special album you listen to for happy times, you can listen to it during other times and be vicariously cheered.

I've stolen my two favorite parts of Passover for all other celebrations. One, you're specifically supposed to wear comfy clothes and have comfy seats during the seder. So I have a rule that I'm going to be physically comfy and do stuff like have pillows to rest on and wear soft skirts and refuse to feel any guilt or worry about not being fancy or decorous. It helps that I have a lot of clothes that are bright and colorful and happy while also not being constrictive. Two, I always loved the idea of opening the door for Elijah and setting up an extra place setting and drink for him, and the associated principle that I should be welcoming to someone who might need an invitation. So I keep an ear open for anyone who might want to be included ahead of time, and always have a little extra of everything, just in case. An extra chair, an extra brownie, an extra choice of movie, an extra glass of wine. Even though there's often not an extra person or a surprise guest, the attitude of generosity and hospitality helps me feel like the day is special, and like the event is more meaningful.
posted by Mizu at 5:24 PM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I like to think of appealing to the senses to make things feel different and special.

Sight - change the lighting: use Xmas lights, candles, a cute lantern, birthday candles, etc. Also use special decorations that you can see during the meal. Go look at something beautiful or put Planet Earth on TV.

Sound - play special music. Sing together in a silly or sincere way (carols, monster mash, Johnny Appleseed for grace, home karaoke, put on a musical DVD or a fun song in the car and sing along, etc). Singing together is very good for bonding.

Smell - cook specific foods. Use scented candles or seek out natural smells (Xmas tree, campfire, jackolantern-making pumpkin smell, etc)

Taste - eat something delicious just for that day. Extra snacks, too. Talk about the flavours and savour them.

Perhaps most importantly: Touch - do something interactive and a little messy with your hands (eating shellfish or ribs, icing and decorating cookies, kneading dough, tossing stuffing ingredients, visiting a place where you can pet animals, making snowballs). I find in North America we keep our hands too clean and separate ourselves from tactile pleasures by using tools or gloves- experiment with something that literally gets people's hands dirty. That creates very strong visceral memories. A cuddle pile is good too if people enjoy that.

If you can find a way to engage all 5 senses I think you will have created an engaging and memorable experience.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:03 PM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of good ideas here, but I think the ages of your kids should be taken into account. Both of them, IMO, are old enough to participate in the creation of family traditions. At 12 I would have wanted to be included in the process and at 16 I probably would have been insulted if I weren't. Be honest about your goals/intentions: ask them what they like best about your holidays (food, activities, decorations, etc), highlight those things and cut back on everything else. It makes a small holiday feel more personal, and then you can build future traditions around those things that have the most meaning for you and your kids.

*Regarding feeling small celebrations are more fun than you think they are, overcoming the "none of use are into the same thing" barrier is key. It's an important life skill for young people to learn that cheerfully doing something you don't particularly like because someone you love really likes it is a way of showing your love and respect for that person. Not that you should always live that way minute to minute, but it's all right to say, "It's X's birthday, this is something s/he loves, and today is her/his day, so we're all going to do the things s/he enjoys."

This is really great advice from above. <3
posted by givennamesurname at 7:42 AM on November 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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