We asked Canadian Living readers to tell us about their own special holiday rituals and family traditions. The response was a great mix of new and old traditions, with an overwhelming majority placing a high value on the importance of family.
The following 15 letters are just a few of the many wonderful responses we received. Perhaps they can inspire you to create a new family ritual of your own. Enjoy.
For more festive family traditions, check out the December 2003 issue of Canadian Living magazine.
Our Christmas angel
Each year we place a special angel on the top of our Christmas tree. She is the Christmas Angel" reminiscent of the angels who watched over baby Jesus on his birthday.
She watches over us throughout the holiday season, and on Christmas morning when we get up and our eyes are drawn to the lighted tree, we make our Christmas wish to the Angel prior to opening gifts.
Over the years the wishes have ranged from hoping the special present that was asked for from Santa was under that pretty tree, to wishes about issues dear to our hearts. These wishes are not secret; they will not come true unless you share your wish with the rest of the family. It is sometimes surprising to hear some of the wishes and we all do our best to make everyone's wish come true throughout the coming year.
â€“ Maureen Daoust
My mother started a family tradition when I was about two years old. Every Christmas, she made a different stocking for my sister and I. Our stockings were always original and always slightly different from each other's. She used all kinds of materials and just when we thought she had done it all, the next year was a whole different stocking!
One year she knitted our stockings. Another year, she sewed them to look like high-heeled boots. One time, they were made out of old jeans. Sometimes they were decorated with buttons, other years with lace. My sister's and my stockings were usually different colours (various shades of green and red) but were always the same style. In early December, we would wake up one morning and see our stockings hanging by the fireplace. We couldn't wait to see what my mom had come up with!
She filled our stockings with seven little gifts. One to open each day from Dec. 25 to Jan. 1. My sister and I would sit near the fireplace and take out all the wrapped gifts, trying to decide which we would open that day and which one we would open the next. We loved looking at our stockings hanging over the fireplace.
My mom died of cancer in 1997 but every year, from the time I was two until I was 24, there was a new and original stocking waiting for me at Christmas. Nothing stopped my mom from fulfilling this tradition that she started. Even when my family was going through financially tough times, even when my mom was so busy trying to start a new business with my dad, even when she was sick... there was a stocking for us at Christmas. I don't know how she did it!
Now that I have a baby of my own, I'm looking forward to taking out those stockings and filling them up for my own children!
â€“ Caroline Rousseau
Click "SEE ALL IMAGES" under the photo above to see some of Caroline's treaured stockings from her mother.
My family has a lot of rituals that we celebrate throughout the holiday season but I will tell you how we begin our festive season.
The first Sunday in December is the day we go to get our Christmas tree. We go to a tree farm in the country . It's about one hour's drive so we bring along Christmas music to play in the van along the way.
My three boys, husband and dog Sandy always choose the same tape â€“ Bing Crosby's Christmas. We sing all the way there and we know all the words. When we get to the farm we all run around trying to find the perfect tree. I like short and fat, my husband likes tall and thin. I usually win with the help of my boys and our tree is always too big for our house. We love it anyway!
We stop for a hot chocolate on the way back and when we get home we put up the tree and have a big spaghetti supper with friends. The smell of the fresh pine with the seasonal smells of gingerbread and cinnamon are abundant in our home .We are usually lucky and get a few snowflakes on that day. We love Christmas!
â€“ Debbie Starkey, Porters Lake, Nova Scotia
The spirit of gift giving
We started a special holiday tradition a few years ago when we noticed we were all becoming frazzled with gift buying.
We were worrying whether people would be satisfied with their gifts and whether we purchased a balanced amount for each person. We were forgetting the real spirit of gift giving. This, combined with the fact that as marriages and new babies came along, our family was expanding. So we decided to try something new.
We still buy for the young children, but the rest of us pick names at New Year's for the following Christmas. Each person then has a whole year to make a gift for the person whose name they picked. This isn't always easy but it really inspires the imagination. Over the years, the gifts we exchanged have included a painting, a carved wooden boat, a painted buoy, handmade placemats and runners, sewn clothing, a small bench, a painted floor cloth, a handpainted telephone table, a stone sculpture, wood burnings, and a memory scrapbook.
It's more difficult for some of us than others, as certain individuls are more artistically inclined, but everyone has come up with unique and original ideas. The trick is that everyone has to be involved and committed to it. My father really enjoyed doing this, and since he passed away this past January the many things he made for us over the years are even more treasured.
â€“ Judith MacDonald, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Worth the wait
In my family we have a tradition on Christmas morning that used to seem like cruel punishment when I was a child.
We would wake up on Christmas morning at some ridiculous hour like 6 a.m. and find that magical stocking at the end of the bed. It would take me what seemed like hours to get it all opened because at our house, Santa liked tape. It was a good thing Santa and the elves liked tape because of the next tradition: we had to wait to open our presents till the second cup of coffee after breakfast.
It was agonizing as a child seeing all the presents under the tree and waiting for the adults who were lingering over coffee to allow my brother and I to start opening presents. I now know why things were done this way and think my parents were brilliant for the tradition they started.
The extra tape to keep us opening our stockings so they could get a little more sleep. Waiting until after breakfast to open presents so everyone was awake and alert and able to enjoy watching the children's surprise at the gifts. Even though it was hard to take as a kid, I am glad of this tradition and will do the same thing when I have kids.
â€“ C.E. Cowperthwaite, Kingston, Ontario
An environmentally friendly Christmas
We work at finding more and more environmentally minded holiday rituals each year.
For our stocking stuffers our rule is, two-gift limit per stocking (except for the dog â€“ he, being spoiled, gets more). All stocking stuffer gifts must be recycled items (second-hand books, etc.). This can be challenging and fun, finding nifty second-hand stuff.
We don't use wrapping paper, ribbons or bows. Instead, we keep various sizes of boxes (food containers, etc.) throughout the year. They are then used as wrapping after we paint and decorate them.
When we buy gifts, we don't go for the wow factor anymore. That seems to be what gets people spending far too much money and spending far too much time in the stores. Instead, we stick to a handful of gifts, moderately-priced and simply nice.
At least one gift to each person must be handmade. As an example, my husband made our daughter a mirror last year by finding a second-hand (and quite old) window frame. He knocked out the four panes of glass, then replaced them with mirror glass. He then refinished the wood surface and voilÃ ! It's gorgeous.
A bit of a challenge, but worth it: Preparing a tasty Christmas dinner that doesn't involve meat. We enjoy it though, and each year we have a different menu.
Our Christmas tree is a genuine member of the family. Some people call such trees fakes but we prefer to think of ours as Henry. He is never decorated with a theme, but rather is decorated with 30 years of memory-filled ornaments. He is so beautiful when we're done that we can always declare, "Oh! Henry!"
â€“ Jo Slade, Kelowna, British Columbia
The lights of Hanukkah
We celebrate Hanukkah. The holiday begins at sundown on Friday November 29th and lasts for eight nights. The lights of Chanukah are a symbol of joy. In time of darkness, our ancestors had the courage to struggle for freedom: freedom to be themselves, freedom to worship in their own way. Theirs was a victory of the weak over strong, the few over the many and the righteous over the arrogant. It was a victory for all ages and all peoples.
The candles are placed in the candle holder called a Menorah. The middle candle is used to light one candle for each night for eight nights. This is done from the right to left. This reminds us of the days of long ago when the miracle of Hanukkah occured. A small container of olive oil that was found to light the very first Menorah during the time of the Maccabees led by Judah, lasted miraculously for the full eight days.
â€“ Marla Howard, Windsor, Ont.
The living matriarch of our family is our 80-year-old mother who taught her 5 daughters (no sons) to sing grace when we were very young and we have carried that tradition to our Christmas table nearly every year since we left home.
Each new member of our family usually hears the song at their first Christmas dinner with us. We always explain that this is a traditional family grace initiated many generations ago by our mother's family. Because it has been such a long and joyful tradition each new member of the family on hearing the song always learns the words and melody before next year's Christmas dinner.
It is a very happy time for us and we sing the grace sometimes with harmonies but always with much joy in our voices. Despite its joyful sound, many new members upon hearing it for the first time have tears in their eyes by the final refrain. We have been singing this grace for Christmas and other large family dinner gatherings for nearly forty years.
We singing it with the memories of our life wrapped in generations of mothers' love and when our mother passes on we will sing it as a tribute to the joy of her life and lineage. The words of the grace do not truly reflect the joyous tradition but I have included them below:
Be present at our table Lord,
Be here and everywhere adored.
Each creature bless and grant that we,
May Live in paradise with Thee
â€“ Freda Crake
I am one of six siblings and numerous grandchildren. The Christmas before our mother passed away ( 1981) she did something new that she called "The Plum Pudding."
She bought small inexpensive gifts for everyone and wrapped them up. She attached each gift to a ribbon and threaded the ribbon through a tissue-paper-covered decorated box. We've never been sure where the idea came from but the Christmas after her passing we decided to continue this new "tradition" in her memory.
Each year a different sibling or grandchild takes a turn doing Nana's "Plum Pudding." The children particularly enjoy watching the box explode open as everyone pulls on their own ribbon. Depending on the person preparing it, it may have colour-coded ribbon for male and female adults and children or it may be individually named. The requisite photo has also become part of the ritual. This special tradition has become our way of remembering out mother and grandmother.
â€“ Lenora Brown, Sutton, Ontario
(on behalf of the Luscombe family siblings)
Activity advent calendar
My family has enjoyed an "Activity Advent Calendar" since my kids were little. I can remember my mom had a paper advent calendar with tiny doors that we used year after year. Each door had a number (they were sometimes hard to find), and inside a picture or verse. It seemed so special just to take my turn (I have a brother and a sister) and open the door.
When I had children of my own, all I could find were calendars with chocolates in them, as well as a variety of clever crafty calendars. I wanted something special and more personal so I designed an activity calendar. The family loved it so well, we've been doing it every year since.
I begin with a large sheet of poster board, then use last year's Christmas cards, stickers, photos, cutouts from wrapping paper, felt pens and whatever else strikes my fancy to decorate the poster. Using construction paper I make 24 "doors." Sometimes they look like real doors, but they have also been snowballs, tree ornaments, even small tree cutouts on a field of snow under a starry evening sky. Each door is numbered from one to 24. On the flip side of the door, I print something special that we'll do that day. Some examples:
• Fiona's Christmas concert tonight!
• Take some food to the food bank today.
• Have a bath with candles and Christmas music tonight.
• Enjoy hot chocolate with whipped cream and a candy cane for dessert.
• Wrap Grandma's present today.
• Get a special Christmas pin today to wear on your jacket.
• Read "The Night Before Christmas."
• Read the Christmas chapter from "Little House on the Prairie."
• Go ice skating.
• Help Mom address and mail the Christmas cards.
The activities vary, and they do get a chocolate on one of the days (my kids sometimes still think those chocolate calendars would be more fun.) On Christmas Eve, the calendar tells us to walk around the neighbourhood and look at all of the Christmas lights, then go to church for family Christmas Eve worship.
My children are now nine and 12 years old and they still want their calendar. My crafty daughter now looks forward to helping me decorate it but I still get to put in all the activities myself. The calendar helps me make sure we have time for the special activities of Christmas throughout December, and also helps our family emphasize the enjoyment of more than just gifts during the busy Christmas season.
â€“ Sue McIntyre, Port Moody, British Columbia
Doing for others
Years ago, when our oldest son was a young boy, this was very stressful time of year for him. As soon as the first Christmas advertisements appeared on television and the toy catalogues were delivered, he would begin to worry about what he wanted to get for Christmas, whether he would get what he wanted and whether he would like it if and when he did get it! He was not much fun to be around and his mood affected us all. Perhaps you experience this with your children.
One year I decided to do something about it and it was such a success that I want to share it with you.
We decided as a family to change our focus from "What do I want for Christmas?" to "What can I do for others to make them happy during this season of joy?"
We made an Advent wreath; we started a project called "Kris Kindle," doing something thoughtful in secret for another member of the family each day during Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas). Picking a new name each evening was best for us.
We used an Advent calendar along with some Bible readings to help us understand what this season is all about. We built a manger out of popsicle sticks and, using strands of wool as straw, we were able to prepare for the Christ child by putting a "piece of straw" into the manger each time we did something nice for someone else. We lit lots of candles on our supper table to bring light into the darkness of the December days. We baked Christmas goodies as a family project and we looked for ways to help make Christmas happier for children who might not have much Christmas without our help â€“ Family and Children's Services or perhaps the Salvation Army or St. Matthew's House in Hamilton, Ontario.
The good news is that it worked! The focus began to change. The whole family began to look forward to the weeks leading up to Christmas with a new and different kind of anticipation and, one year, David (the one whose worrying had got us started) announced that he had "decided that getting ready for Christmas was better even than Christmas day!"
It has become such a tradition in our family that when our youngest moved into his own home, one of his first requests was, "Mom, would you make me an Advent Wreath?"
â€“ Jane Rokeby, Guelph, Ontario
For as many years as I can remember my mom has made the family what has now become our Christmas dessert tradition â€“ a tasty concoction called Pink Cloud.
A mixture of whipped cream, strawberry Jell-O and crushed candy canes, all stirred together and then set in a mold. (Half the fun was always trying to get dessert out of the mold.) Top it off with really rich chocolate sauce, and violÃ , the best dessert after turkey and all the trimmings. No matter how full, we always managed more room for Pink Cloud.
The real story began many years ago when my cousin, around 14 at the time, heard we were having Pink Cloud and was so excited that she actually crawled on hands and knees across the dining room floor to the table. We've never let her live it down and to this day, 25 years later, she still gets reminded of the event.
Well last year we had a new event happen that may have overshadowed the infamous crawl.
My 2-year-old nephew was given his first taste of Pink Cloud. My sister-in-law put a small amount right onto the tray of his high chair. The first taste was tentative, the second taste was enthusiastic, the rest was history. He went face first into the Pink Cloud, only coming up long enough to utter the cutest Mmmmmmmmmm! any of us had ever seen.
He's hooked! Just like the rest of us.
â€“ Jane Hornell
Christmas for me has always meant cooking special gifts for family and friends. My mom and I had a list of things we would do every year â€“ braided yeast breads, short bread cookies, gingerbread families and preserves. Each year we would try something new to share.
That first Christmas after she died looked pretty bleak to me as I tried to muster up enough energy and enthusiasm to carry on with the traditions. But I was determined to try.
My daughter and I were at the grocery store picking up the fruit and the nuts and the chocolate and flour and all of a sudden I felt tears on my face.
"Sara, what is the matter with me?" I asked, confused by my sudden emotion in the supermarket!
"Don't you know Mom? This is what you and Nan did every year â€“ came and bought the ingredients and cooked for Christmas. Now, you and I'll do it together."
And so we do. Each year there is still something new and something old and family and friends still enjoy the baskets of goodies from our home to theirs.
But the greatest gifts are to me â€“ from my mother for the memories of our time spent together and from my daughter who understood the importance of our Christmas baking.
â€“ Barbara Case, St. John's , Newfoundland
"Hocus Pocus" was a much welcomed visitor in our home when we were children. This wonderful being appeared when you least expected him, leaving messages with our Dad that treats or candy were to be found somewhere in our home â€“ behind the kitchen clock or in a cupboard â€“ half of the fun was the hunt to find them.
We were never sure when Hocus Pocus would appear, except for that one special time of the year, Christmas morning. When all of the presents had been opened and the stockings had been emptied, a quick trip to your bedroom would lead you to a wonderful gift (from the wackiest least expected surprise, to the most desired treasure you had been dreaming of forever).
These gifts were placed there by the elusive Hocus Pocus who had a spirit of giving and sense of humour suspiciously similar to that of our Dad. We are all grown with families of our own now but the tradition of Hocus Pocus lives on in each of our homes.
â€“ Linda Loder, Carleton Place, Ontario
Ringing Bells for Santa
I would like to tell you about a special family ritual that has been passed on down through the generations of my family.
It started with my grandfather's family in Massachusetts, when every Christmas Eve, just before bedtime, the children would go outside onto the porch in their nightgowns and pajamas and ring bells for Santa.
We would use sleigh bells, jingle bells, cow bells, anything that would make a great noise in the cold crisp air.
I remember the excitement I felt Christmas Eve going out in the cold night knowing that when we woke in the morning there might be a new doll or some art supplies!
Now I have a two-year-old son and still treasure that good old family Christmas ritual.
Looking forward to getting a chill on Christmas eve!
â€“ Holly Miller, Londonderry, Nova Scotia