I was the holiday rabble-rouser. It started with convincing my sister that the green bean casserole would be so much better if she’d use fresh green beans instead of canned. She balked — did I know how long it would take to French-cut all those greens beans? So we struck a bargain: I’d cut the green beans (which admittedly did take awhile) and she’d make mom’s green bean casserole with fresh green beans. She never bought a can of green beans again (another one converted!). And from that, a new family tradition was born from an old one.
Like many people, my own family food traditions began with deciding what I didn’t want and were built from there. In my case, I now make many of the same foods my mom made for our holiday table, though I use more fresh ingredients and probably a lot more butter; still, my take on the spread is a nod to hers and acknowledges the foods I most loved growing up, since a table without cranberry sauce or stuffing just wouldn’t feel right.
Through our traditions, both the meals we cook and the ways we celebrate, our heritage comes to life. For some, this can be an uncomfortable experience that serves to highlight a family’s difference from the norm. For others, a family’s unique heritage can be a means for reviving long lost family rituals or reinterpreting them to fit into a more contemporary family setting.
Food traditions can also be a way of linking newer family members to older generations. In this video piece, a Chicago-born blogger learns the Norwegian-American tradition of making crepe-like lefse from her future in-laws in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Here, a family food tradition links the generations beautifully.
As parents and families head into the holidays, (for better or worse) food traditions loom large. But for many parents, like myself, our traditions aren’t fully formed. My family Christmas celebration is a mishmash of my husband’s and my childhood customs, and we’re still finding our way as a family. So this year, before the festivities are fully underway, I plan to sit down and chart out a few details. I don’t want each step of the holiday to be planned, but setting out a few key markers helps to bring the familiar into the season.
If you’re like me and wrestling with indecision over your own family food traditions, the below pointers will keep you on track this holiday season.
Food Traditions to Keep
The best food traditions are obviously the ones you like, so if you have a few family favorites, opt to make those a part of your holiday celebration.
Traditions that bring your family together over a shared experience, like making and delivering Christmas cookies, are a wonderful way to celebrate the spirit of the holiday. Likewise, as with the lefse example above, foods that are made by a group of people including the young and old, are terrific for bonding and togetherness.
Preserve Family Heritage
Our dearest traditions are usually the ones we learned from our elders and continuing them helps us feel that thread linking present, past, and future. If there’s a particular tradition that offers cultural insight, preserves a sense of identity, or is unique to your family, these can be important things to preserve. Make sure to connect your children with the elders in your family so that the customs and the importance of foods or traditions can be passed down.
Food Traditions to Nix
The holiday season can be so busy that we forget to, you know, actually enjoy it. If your commitment to making sufganiyot for everyone in the third grade is stressing you out, look for ways to pare down, get help, or pass altogether.
If Nana’s tomato aspic recipe has your taste buds stressed out, skip it. You can always save those treasured family recipes and bust them out from time to time or teach older kids how to make them without an annual commitment.
Just Don’t Resonate
If a time-honored recipe just doesn’t have you feeling the love, consider tweaking it to make it your own (like we did with the green bean casserole above), or strike out for something new.
How to Create Your Own Food Traditions
Finally, though it can seem that way, traditions aren’t set in stone. Here are a few low-key ways to develop and nurture your own family food traditions over time.
Let Them Evolve Over Time
Families are constantly evolving — what may have worked for little kids might not for older children. Conversely, older children present the opportunity for complex projects like epic gingerbread houses or intricate cookies. Tailor your projects to suit their needs. To create a tradition that continues through the years, start off simple with something like spritz cookies and move toward more complicated recipes as they grow.
Take Cues from Your Family
Start a conversation with your kids and family members. What do they love? What dish completes the holiday table?
Keep Things Simple
Keep an open mind, since kids may love something simple or a food that you’d thought of as a throwaway. (My oldest daughter once asked for a “round cake,” wondering if I could make that shape. Yes dear, I can definitely pull off a round cake.)