The Importance of Establishing Family Holiday Traditions


One of our favorite holiday traditions is to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at some point during December. Can you ever get enough of cousin Eddie in his periwinkle blue suit sitting down for turkey dinner and remarking, “Save the neck for me, Clark.”?

That said, it’s not a family-friendly tradition. It may not be Bad Santa, but Christmas Vacation is definitely not PG enough for little kids. While it may not be appropriate for family viewing, Christmas Vacation does, however, highlight some of the best holiday traditions, one of which is the family outing to cut down a Christmas tree.

Before moving to Traverse City, we used to head to a nursery or Lowe’s to pick out a pre-cut tree, and have it loaded onto the roof of our car for the short trip home. Since moving Up North, we’ve started a new tradition and now head to a tree farm to cut down our own tree.

What’s the appeal? Well, it’s probably best explained by Clark Griswold to his son Russ as the Griswold family trudges through waist deep snow to find the perfect tree in the forest.

Russ: “Dad, didn’t they invent Christmas tree lots so people wouldn’t have to drive all the way out to
nowhere and waste a whole Saturday?”

Clark: “They invented them, Russ, because people forgot how to have a fun, old fashioned family Christmas,
and are satisfied with scrawny, dead, overpriced trees that have no special meaning.”

There’s something special about cutting down your own tree.

The Importance of Family Traditions 

Traditions are one of the foundations of a family. They are the activities engaged in at the same time and in the same way that define a family’s culture. They are rituals, big and small, that often mark particular times and events throughout the year. Christmas holiday traditions are among the most cherished and sacred.

Three traditions, in particular, stand out from my childhood. We’d always go to church on Christmas Eve. We’d take a walk after our Christmas Eve meal. And the meal would feature a once-per-year side dish, Yorkshire pudding (made from batter consisting of eggs, flour, milk and beef drippings). More than opening the presents under the tree, these are the traditions that I remember most fondly and acutely. Traditions are the magic moments that bind families together.

I know I’m not alone in cherishing these little moments. In her book Ask the Children, author Ellen Galinsky discusses a survey by which she asked children what they would remember most about their childhood. Most responded by talking about simple traditions like family dinners, holiday get-togethers, and bedtime stories.


This is our second Christmas in Traverse City, and since you need to do something more than once to call it a tradition, we headed out again this year on the weekend after Thanksgiving to hunt down a tree. We drove up to the Kolarik Tree Farm near Suttons Bay on Sunday with our good friends in search of a 7.5 foot Fraser Fir.

It was a beautiful day – cool not cold with pockets of sun. Despite having one year of tree-cutting experience under my belt, I arrived to the farm wholly unprepared. I had no saw and no straps to tie the tree down. Fortunately, most tree farms are prepared for people like me. Kolarik has saws and twine that customers can use.

Upon arriving, my friend and I surveyed the scene. There were rows of freshly cut trees lined up for customers near the entrance, just ripe for the picking. But, like Clark Griswold, we weren’t there to do things the easy way. Hacksaws in hand, we headed out to the forest to claim our trees. Unlike the pre-cut trees in the parking area, these ones weren’t going down without a fight. But first we had to choose.

Picking out a tree with kids in tow is kind of like taking your kids to Kilwin’s to get ice cream.

They want to sample everything and can’t make a decision. “This one! No this one!” But it’s hard to complain while watching kids run joyously outside in a giant maze of pine.

Eventually we made some decisions, so it was time for the dads to get to work. Before my first experience cutting down a Christmas tree, I had always assumed that you were supposed to use an ax, a la Paul Bunyan. So I was slightly disappointed to learn that a hacksaw is the tool of choice. As those few people who have seen me wield an ax can attest to, however, it’s better that I stick to a saw.

Because the branches at the base of the tree stick out so far, it’s typically necessary to have your head shoved into the branches in order to reach the trunk with the saw. So with a face full of pine needles and sap, and body contorted on the ground in a pathetic side plank position, I sawed away as the rest of the group enjoyed a few chuckles at my expenses. I’ll admit – the performance was more Paul Rudd than Paul Bunyan. Eventually I got about 80 percent of the way through the trunk and stood up, red-faced, to triumphantly shove the tree to the ground.

Our friends then bagged their own tree, and we proudly strapped our bounty to the roofs of our vehicles for the ride home. We capped our day with another activity that we hope to make a tradition – a beer and some sandwiches at The Hop Lot in Suttons Bay.

The rest of the weekend was also marked by fun traditions. For the second year in a row we met other great friends in Petoskey for the annual downtown parade, followed by lunch and a visit with Santa. Our kids haven’t stopped talking about it ever since – that may be due to the fact that they’re still hopped up from the holiday sugar cookies they consumed that day, but I think it’s just because they had such a ball!

Bring on the Holidays 

Too often, the holidays are a hectic, harried time, full of shopping and social obligations. This year we’re making a concerted effort to be more present, mindful and grateful throughout the season, while focusing on things – family, friends and fun – that really matter. A big part of that mindfulness is following through with established traditions, and creating some new ones, that will make great memories that last a lifetime.

FamilyJay Harrington