This year more than ever, I think that many of us are longing to savor the warmth of the holiday season with the people we love. On one hand, we may just want a “normal” holiday season filled with parties, presents, and all the events with family and friends we’ve been missing. On the other hand, I find myself wanting to incorporate what I’ve learned over the past two years to make it a holiday season that feels more aligned with who I am now. And one of those things is the joy that’s found in a slower pace and a calendar that has some breathing room. So this year, I’m focusing on a handful of old (and new!) family holiday traditions that will make the season magical—without trying to do it all!

In years past, I start the season with ambitious plans to cross everything off my holiday bucket list and make it the best holiday ever. But really, want I want to do is make memories and spend time together as a family, and when it comes to creating lasting memories, it’s usually the little things: spending an evening drinking cocoa and reading holiday books, adding festive details to the kids’ bedrooms, or finding matching pajamas for the whole family to cozy up in together. So, hang the stockings and light the fire, we’ve got a few joy-sparking ideas to add to your no-stress, no-guilt holiday bucket list this year.

Read on for 10 family holiday traditions to spark joy this year…

Spend an evening reading holiday books & drinking cocoa by the fire.

Growing up, my mom would buy one or two new Christmas books each season, and some of my favorite memories include getting cozy together with a cup of cocoa and reading these magical stories. From The Velveteen Rabbit to The Gift of the Magi, there are so many incredible holiday classics that are as enjoyable for adults as they are for kids. Now, I add a book to our collection each year and my kids love digging them out and revisiting them when the holidays roll around. There are so many great new holiday reads for kids, I can’t wait to see which ones we add to our collection this year.

For the ultimate fireside reading experience, you’ve got to have hot cocoa.

Here’s my go-to Peppermint Hot Cocoa recipe:

In a pot on the stove, stir together 4 cups milk, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/4 cup cocoa powder, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract, and a pinch of salt. Stir it together until warm and the sugar and cocoa are fully dissolved. Whisk until frothy, then divide into mugs and top with marshmallows and cinnamon sticks.

Deck out your child’s room for the holidays.

This is one of those holiday activities that I always intend to do at the beginning of the season, but after all the decking the halls around the rest of the house (plus gift shopping, meal planning, and everything else) it often gets pushed off my list of priorities. I’m so glad we did it this year though—Henry’s excitement was off the charts, and it was as simple as topping the bed with a few festive throws and pillows, hanging a wreath (thank goodness for command hooks), and propping a cute little faux tree next to the bed. Every evening when we tuck him in, the holiday vibes are major.

Countdown to Christmas with an advent calendar.

We’ve done an advent calendar in the lead-up to Christmas a few different years, and it’s always crazy how obsessed my kids get with it—literally the first thing they do when they wake up in the morning. There’s just something about that countdown that builds major anticipation and kicks off the holiday spirit right when the calendar turns to December.

This cute felt version has adorable little felt trinkets in each pocket (ie it does the hard work for you), and I’m supplementing ours with a tiny candy for each kid. Let’s be honest: the sweets are what they’re really excited about.

Lay down a holiday mat at the front door.

I love to set the tone for the season right when anyone walks in our front door, so what better way to do it than with a festive holiday doormat. I love that this “Merry Everything” mat sends a message of inclusivity—all are welcome to come on in, kick off their shoes, and stay awhile.

Wrap up in cozy blankets with popcorn and your favorite holiday movie.

If you don’t watch Elf, was it even Christmas? There’s no doubt that, at our house at least, a handful of holiday movies are what really strikes the holiday feelings in our hearts. Make an event out of the first holiday movie of the year by giving it a name “Holiday Movie Night!”, making cups of peppermint hot chocolate, and popping popcorn.

We asked our editors to share their list of the best holiday movies to watch all season, and here were their favorites:

What did we forget? Add one to the list in the comments!

Make the house smell like the holidays by lighting all the wintery candles.

Anyone else start lighting “Evergreen” and “Christmas Cookie” candles around the house in early November, or is that just me? There’s nothing like scent to evoke the warm fuzzies of the season, and I love to cozy up our house with those fragrances that make the whole house feel magical.

Invite a few friends for holiday cocktails to toast the season.

Real talk: I’ve majorly missed our annual holiday parties. Usually, we host one dinner party for a group of our closest couple friends, and everyone dons their sparkly dresses and I make a full-on feast. It’s such an amazing time to connect with the people we love, and always results in the most lovely and hysterical memories we talk about for years. Plus, the neighborhood happy hours, school classroom parties, cookie exchanges… even though we may not be able to do them all in the way we’d like to this year, it is possible to invite a few of your nearest and dearest to a safe (ie. masked, or outside, or whatever you need to do based on where you live and your personal circumstance.)

I kept drinks simple but festive, and poured prosecco and sparkling waters. Add a few garnishes like fresh herbs, citrus slices, and skewered cranberries, and you’ve got the easiest, prettiest holiday bar with a little something for everyone.

Gift everyone in the family a personalized ornament to hang on the tree.

When someone asks me to name my favorite Christmas gifts I received as a child, I can honestly only recall two or three of them. But ask me about my favorite Christmas memories? Baking cookies with my mom, opening one special gift on Christmas Eve, going to see the Nutcracker at the ballet… the list goes on and on. With that in mind, I’ve started making an effort to prioritize creating and fostering family holiday traditions instead of buying loads of presents to wrap up under the tree. After all, cherished memories are some of the very best gifts we can give the people we love!

This is especially true when it comes to one of my favorite family holiday traditions, which my mom began when we were growing up, and that I carry on with my own children today. On the evening that we decorate the Christmas tree, I give everyone in the family one special ornament for them to unwrap and hang. In subsequent years, the fun keeps building as we treasure the act of unpacking our ornaments from years past.

Put a Brunch-y Twist on Gingerbread Houses By Making Them From Waffles!

There’s nothing like family holiday traditions that center around food to create lasting memories. My mother-in-law is English, and makes the most incredible roast beef with horseradish sauce that’s the centerpiece to our Christmas dinner. My mom shapes her famous loaf of Almond Kringle into the shape of a heart every Christmas morning. It’s fun to let everyone have a “specialty” that they look forward to making (and everyone else looks forward to eating!) each year.

This year, we tried out a new one, but putting a brunch-y twist on the traditional Gingerbread House by making it out of waffles!

Here’s what you need to make a gingerbread waffle house of your own:

It was definitely my kids’ favorite activity of the year so far—endless sugar, and frosting-covered fingers! There’s nothing more fun than covering the table with butcher paper and letting them go crazy with their edible creations.

Wear matching family holiday pajamas.

It’s cozy, it’s festive, and my kids think it’s the most fun thing ever. And I tend to agree. Target has so many cute pairs of matching family pajamas for the holiday season—go with a comfy pair of long johns in a fairisle print like we did, or curl up in a set of oversized flannel PJs. Either way, your uniform for the season is sorted, and your Christmas morning photos will be on point.

No matter how many of these family holiday traditions you check off your list, even just making some time to create memories will make it a season to remember.

One tradition I always try to make time for is to find ways to brighten the holidays for those less fortunate, as a family. There’s no better time of year to start a tradition of service, and the holidays present many meaningful ways to give—both our time and our resources. Our family has always participated in a program called Operation Christmas Child, where you choose a child of a certain age, fill a shoe box with gifts—both necessities and toys—then drop it off to be shipped to impoverished countries around the world. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, pull a stocking on a giving tree, join carolers at a nursing home. As much of a cliché as it may be, the act of giving is really the best gift of all.

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