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What are your family’s Christmas rituals?

Taking the family photo is the most maligned part of my family’s Christmas Day. It is a ritual we all complain about, but the complaining is a compulsory part of the process. It goes like this:

Mum: It’s time for the photo on the front step.

Us: Urghhh, we’ve just eaten, we’ll do it later.

Mum: No, let’s do it now before people start disappearing. 

Us: Urrggghhh

Mum: Come on. Don’t whinge. You’ll be happy when you look back on it.

Us: Urrggghhh

Mum: Hurry up. Where’s Jason? Why are we always looking for Jason? Who can use the self-timer on this camera? We’re missing a kid, there’s only five. Where’s the other one? No, we don’t need all three dogs in the photo. Put your wine glasses down, you look like a bunch of alcoholics. Yes, you can wear those ridiculous hats…

She’s right. I am glad I’ve got all those photos of my messy, loving family being characteristically chaotic. It’s one of our rituals, one of the tiny little processes we go through that pull us together.

Family rituals are important. They are the gentle binds that tether us to something greater than ourselves. They help instill in us a sense of connection and belonging. That foundation allows us to face the world with the confidence that we are not alone. Our niche is solid.

Christmas rituals tend to pull together even more threads than usual. The rituals often include extended family, and the friends we call family. Our niche in an even bigger web is defined and reinforced. 

Syracuse University psychologist Barbara Fiese, PhD and her colleagues researched family customs, routines, and rituals over a period of 50 years. They found that family routines and rituals could be positively linked with strong personal identity, health in children, academic achievement and close family bonds. They found that rituals offer stability during times of stress and change.

It is little wonder that Christmas is the busiest time of the year for helplines, psychologists and medicos. When people lack connection, Christmas puts that fact into glaring focus…and that’s painful.  For this reason, I don’t believe in Christmas being family-only. Invite everyone. Don’t let anyone be alone. 

Some people’s Christmas rituals have been handed down through generations. There is a sense of honouring all those who have gone before when we recognise those processes. That said, it is never, ever too late to begin a new ritual. 

New rituals should mark new communities, and especially new families, and they should be spoken about.  I love hearing a child say, “In our family we always…” In the age of new blended families, this is especially important. These families are often the result of turmoil and loss, but they are also a bright new beginning and they should have celebrations of their own, while still recognising rituals from the past.

30 Fabulous Family Rituals

  1. Choose a tree and decorate it together. Untangling the lights and reminiscing about where and who the decorations came from is part of the process. 
  2. Make a gingerbread house with the little ones in your family. It can be constructed by an adult and then decorated by the kids with help from older cousins. It will be a mess, but they will be super proud of it. 
  3. Sing Christmas carols at a Carols by Candlelight event, Mass and also in the car…and all throughout the month of December. Sing them loud and strong!
  4. Create collections of Christmas baking with old family recipes. Maybe have all willing family members bake a batch of biscuits from a different recipe. Then create mixed tins of family recipe biscuits for all the family.
  5. Attend Mass on Christmas Eve as a family.
  6. Start a present draw. Every family member draws the name of only one person they buy a special present for capped at whatever value you choose.
  7. Have special Christmas meals. Christmas ham on croissants for breakfast with champers and orange is the go in my family. Prawns and crayfish at Christmas lunch…it’s totally Oz.
  8. Spend time at the beach to start or finish Christmas Day. 
  9. Have matching, ridiculous family t-shirts. Everyone who is absent from the main group has to skype in or take a selfie on Christmas Day wearing their Christmas shirt.
  10. A family cricket match and of course watching the cricket on Boxing Day.
  11. Each year buy an ornament for the tree with your children. Help them pick an ornament that represents something about the year just past.
  12. Catch a train into the city to see the Christmas lights
  13. One of our teachers at Santa Maria College said, “Our ritual, carried down from my mum’s childhood, is that all of us kids receive a can of condensed milk under the Christmas tree – to drink straight out of the can! We love it.” Which just goes to show…family traditions can be as quirky as our families!
  14. Ensure presents are not opened until the receiver guesses the clue that is written on a card, it will slow down the frantic rip and destroy!
  15. Place on the tree, ornaments with the names of each family member, including animals and those who have passed.
  16. Everyone in the family invite a Christmas orphan to Christmas lunch/dinner. The more the merrier.
  17. Have a prayer and a drink for deceased family members. One staff member’s family pour a drink on the ground for each deceased family member and then take a moment in silence to think about those people.
  18. Each year a different family member can dress as Santa to hand out the presents. Kids can be elves.
  19. A crazy hat tradition always goes down well, because those Christmas cracker hats just aren’t enough ugly for some people!
  20. Have a Christmas planning meeting where you plan the food, drinks, activities etc. The planning meeting can be a party in itself.
  21. Walk around the neighbourhood as a family to see the Christmas lights.
  22. Have a Christmas cake/pudding preparation day a couple of months before Christmas so that fruit is well marinated.
  23. Have a family cricket, volleyball or soccer match after lunch – adults vs kids, Gen X vs Gen Y etc
  24. Allow kids to open one present after dinner/Mass on Christmas eve.
  25. Watch a favourite Christmas movie
  26. Read a traditional Christmas story book to young children.
  27. Have kids perform in a Christmas concert.
  28. Have a Christmas collection of music that you play each year.
  29. Each family member can choose a World Vision or Christmas Appeal gift for a less fortunate family. Then explain to kids where those items are going, it will enhance their sense of gratitude. 
  30. Have that family photo on the front steps. You’ll enjoy looking back at how you’ve all evolved over the years.


It really doesn’t matter what the ritual is. They don’t have to make sense, they just have to be remembered and repeated. It is the repetition that gives us a sense that at least one little part of the world is predictable and safe and wonderful and ours. That’s especially important in 2020.

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