10 Holiday Traditions You’ll Regret Starting

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

“Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”

That’s the accompaniment to Depair’s demotivational poster for tradition, which can also be used to represent December in its build-your-own calendars.

The sentiment is harsh, but fair, especially as we enter the holiday season. Many of our most beloved “traditions” are best consigned to Christmas past. Here are our top ten traditions to skip this year…and one to hold on to.

1. Sending photo cards

If you’ve opened your computer or mailbox today, you’ve been reminded that there’s still plenty of time to order and send holiday cards before the big day.

By all means, keep taking gorgeous photos of your family. Write heartfelt messages to your loved ones. But don’t stuff your friends’ and families’ mailboxes with poor-quality reproductions of photos you instagrammed in late October. Hold back at least one photo from that shoot to make your card special. Better yet, consider *not* sharing photos from that exclusive, print-only shoot.

Or better yet, send a card that sticks out of the sea of family portraits festooning people’s refrigerators. Sapling makes many delightfully irreverent options.

2. A nativity scene

You may be out of time for creative holiday cards, but you have got plenty of time for another frequently flubbed Christmas tradition. Nativity scenes are often used within pleas to focus on “the reason for the season,” but they are notoriously inaccurate.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with owning or displaying a nativity scene. It is wrong to display it all starting December 1.

Remember where you stored all of the characters and hew closely to the traditional calendar. Baby Jesus shouldn’t appear until December 25. And those wise men better be traversing your lawn through Epiphany.

3. Santa

You know when you tell a little white lie, only to have to create increasingly elaborate narratives to support the original lie until eventually, the truth comes out and everyone feels terrible?

That’s Santa.

No matter how parents dress up the celebration, Santa is a lie. That alone should disqualify this long-standing holiday tradition. Santa’s staunchest defenders suggest that lying about Santa isn’t really lying, but just pretending to lie.

Those parents aren’t very creative liars. Pretending is all about imagination, and if everyone around you is pretending the same thing, how much are you truly stretching your imagination?

4. Elf on the Shelf

If Santa’s out, his messenger should be too. Even if you’re continuing your Santa observance, consider leaving the Elf in his box this year.

The Elf suffers from the same key problems as Santa, but in overdrive. He’s there to report your activities to Santa, an obvious lie because Santa’s not real and toys are not sentient.

You might reasonably argue that the Elf requires more imagination than Santa, because parents all put their own spin on the Elf’s nightly misdeeds. Introducing this tiny stalker into your home seems fun on days 4 and 5, when he’s taking a sink bath full of miniature marshmallows or fishing for Goldfish crackers under your kitchen island. Boundaries do lead to creativity, and it’s possible that you’ll come up with terrific ideas for the whole of December. If you last the month, what you’re really teaching is an unfair standard: the same transgressions your Elf visits upon your household would be unacceptable if your kids did them.

5. Christmas book countdown

Christmas countdowns don’t have to be creepy.

A chocolate-filled advent calendar is a useful educational tool and an excellent answer to the question “Is it Christmas yet?” But new traditions have broken free from the calendar, such as the Christmas book countdown. The tradition has many variants. Some parents buy new books each year. Others build their collections slowly and mix old with new. Some even use library books.

Some holiday books — like old favorites The Grinch and new classics like The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming — are terrific. Many are not, so by limiting yourself to holiday books only you make it difficult to read good books every evening.

What’s worse about this annual countdown is that it’s thought of a tradition instead of everyday activity. Bedtime stories shouldn’t happen only 24 nights of the year. While parents should of course be allowed to pick the story sometimes, kids should have a say in their own reading materials.

If you want a book-based holiday tradition, consider looking to Iceland, where many families gather on Christmas Eve to gift and read new books. All that reading pays off: Iceland has more authors per capita than any other country.

6. ’Twas the Night Before Christmas

Most families going all-in on the 24 books of Christmas trend read ’Twas the Night Before Christmas on the last night. But there’s plenty of reason to skip that book, and not just because its author may have been unfairly misattributed for over 200 years.

Given that complaining about the commercialization of Christmas is one of our proudest traditions, its surprising that so many families still read the poem, which is credited with creating the very Santa-and-present-filled culture that exists today.

This poem is also about someone breaking into your house without defending it. Where’s the spirit in that? If you must include a well-worn holiday story, at least watch Home Alone instead.

7. Stockings

According to one legend, the first stockings belonged to three young women, and were not set out in anticipation of gifts, but because they were wet and needed to dry. St. Nicholas, overheard a conversation about the women’s financial troubles and in response tossed bags of gold into the house. One of the bags landed in a stocking, everyone was surprised and delighted, and the women had enough money to get married.

Modern stocking traditions perpetuate the idea that money buys happiness, but they’ve otherwise lost sight of the legend. The original stocking of this legend was an act of giving. Instead of filling your family’s stockings, consider starting the day by filling someone else’s. Choose a charity like Make a Wish and donate the money you would have spent on trinkets. Or, if you really want to do stockings, fill yours with Bombas socks. The company matches each purchase with a gift of socks to people in need.

8. Any collection you intend for there to be 18 of

This tradition seems like a great idea at the start. You start collecting holiday ornaments, or teddy bears, or first edition children’s books, and by his eighteenth Christmas your child will have a beautiful and meaningful collection.

You’ve also saddled your loved ones with a collection that not even Swedish Death Cleaning can weed out. They’ll feel guilty throwing the items away, so they’ll sit in a box for decades to come.

There are plenty of ways to build holiday collections absent of emotional guilt. Start your own collection of ornaments that represent the growing and changing interests of your family. Add a new item to your family’s library or board game collection. Over the years, you’ll have a rich mini-history of your family.

9. Matching Christmas pajamas

Buying new pajamas for your family is a practical tradition. Kids grow. Fabrics wear. Pajamas exist in every size, shape, color, and pattern, which means you can choose a set to match each wearer’s personality. Everyone will have well-fitted clothes for the holiday photos.

When you gift matching pajama sets, however, you haven’t bought something warm and cozy and personalized. You’ve bought a picture to show social media how coordinated your family is.

Unless your family is talented enough to produce the next jammie jam, matching pajamas lose sight of the point of gift-giving: thoughtfully selecting gifts you think the recipients will enjoy.

10. Complaining about how the holidays aren’t like they used to be

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how each of us is split into an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self.” These selves are at the root of much of our holiday complaining.

The present holiday can never compete with the previous one because the remembering self if so much more selective than the experiencing self. The experiencing self if busy living. The remembering self tends to smooth over last year’s stocking-stuffer fight, burnt batches of Christmas cookies, and cranky kids up past bedtime for five nights in a row.

The “war on Christmas” and its related “war on Starbucks cups” is a good example. You may think that the holidays are under siege because you remember a time when everyone slowed down and spent time together without commercial interruption, or when no one celebrated a different holiday than you.

Starbucks’ latest “assault,” a coloring-book styled cup that may or may not have same-sex mittened hands on it, is nothing new. Nor were the customer-drawn designs from the year before. Nor the ombre cup of the year before that, or even the plain red of 2014. We’ve just forgotten about all the ones that came before. The Starbucks holiday cup is actually a 20-year tradition. The first cups were jewel-toned and featured holly leaves studded with coffee beans, and over the years they’ve featured equally religion-free symbols like snowflakes, candles, ornaments, ice skates, houses shaped french presses, and snowmen.

Skip the nostalgic whitewashing of Christmases past and just order kiddie cocoas.

One Tradition to Keep: Ugly Sweaters

An Amazon search for “ugly Christmas sweater” yields nearly a half million options, which include tasteful options like Santa melting snow from a rooftop, santa-hatted kittens inexplicably atop pizza slices, or a Christmas tree doubling as beer pong.

Some argue that the sweaters may be among the purest, most guileless traditions. Consumer research psychologist Kit Yarrow argues that ugly Christmas sweaters offer connection: “You are wearing something that other people want to talk about, which then gives people a reason to talk to you. It makes you seem kind of big-hearted in a way, that you’re willing to wear an ugly sweater for other people’s amusement.”

In our increasingly fractured social climate, when politics, religious expression, and even our coffee cups divide us, ugly Christmas sweaters may be bringing us closer together. So now you can buy that raging gingerbread man with impunity.


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