One of the privileges of being a mum at Christmas is that you get to choose your family’s traditions – the little things you do each year that your youngster will grow to cherish. But these traditions have a more powerful impact – they can boost your child’s emotional wellbeing. ‘Taking part in traditions together fulfils a hugely important developmental need for children to have a sense of belonging and of being part of something bigger than oneself,’ says child psychotherapist Dr Sharie Coombes. ‘The repetition is crucial as it embeds a pattern of “this is how we do this” and lays down a template for tackling future problems together.’
While you may have Christmas traditions from your childhood that you want to continue, you can also take inspiration from around the world – cherry-picking the festive rituals that make Christmas so special. Here are some of our favourite international traditions…
1. Curl up with a book
Every Christmas eve, people in Iceland give each other books, then spend the rest of the evening reading. The tradition is so popular it is known as the ‘Book Flood’, and the majority of books in Iceland are sold at this time of year. ‘This is a beautiful tradition that provides a concrete support to children,’ says Sharie. ‘There is so much evidence that reading together creates healthy brain structures and patterns.’ Sharing a love of books with your tot is also a calm way of unwinding together before the excitement of Christmas day.
2. Find time for a family favourite
Forget the Queen’s Speech, in Sweden families gather around the TV for their own Christmas tradition – watching Donald Duck. The cartoon is watched by around 40 per cent of the population and has been a staple part of Swedish celebrations since 1959. Choosing a particular show that you can all watch and enjoy every year is a simple way of spending quality time together. ‘This creates a lovely sense of shared joy and pleasure in each other’s company,’ says Sharie. ‘We shouldn't underestimate how much a tradition can “hold” a family and provide a very strong sense of unity, belonging and familiarity.’
3. Get active together
In Venezuela, those living in the capital, Caracas, rollerskate to Christmas Eve mass. Your toddler might not quite be ready to take to the streets on skates, but getting outdoors and doing something active together is a great way of boosting the natural release of stress-busting chemicals endorphins. Once all the presents have been opened, or you’re recovering from Christmas lunch, head outside with your little one. take his trike or bike, or simply stroll together. ‘Undertaking something physical together can encourage the idea of being part of a community where people enjoy shared experiences for pleasure,’ says Sharie. ‘This strengthens bonds and builds a sense of mutual purpose and support.’
4. Bake some sweet treats
Speculoos are festive treats baked in Belgium for St Nicholas Day, on December 6. These sweet biscuits are simple to make and can be used as tree decorations. Your toddler will love having a turn at stirring the mixing bowl and even decorating the finished result with icing. ‘Celebrations are often expressed through food, as it is all about providing for your loved ones,’ says Sharie. ‘Children enjoy this, too, which is why they make a lot of cups of tea for adults in their role play.’
• 100g plain flour
• 1 tsp cinnamon
• 1⁄2 tsp ground ginger
• 1⁄2 tsp nutmeg
• 1⁄2 tsp baking powder
• 1⁄2 tsp salt
• 50g soft brown muscovado sugar
• 1 tbsp whole milk
• 75g butter
1. Preheat the oven to 160 ̊c/350 ̊F/ gas mark 4 and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
2. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl, and then knead it into a dough. Sprinkle flour onto a clean surface and roll the mixture out until it is around 5mm thick.
3. Use a cookie cutter to make festive shapes, then bake the biscuits for 15-18 minutes, or until they are golden brown.
5. Countdown with gifts
In Norway advent is about more than a chocolate calendar. Children are traditionally given one small gift every day. Young children often find waking up to a pile of gifts on Christmas morning overwhelming, so this could be a clever way of making sure each one is played with and appreciated. ‘This way of giving presents is so much healthier than giving your child too much at once,’ says Sharie. ‘I also love countdowns, as they teach
children to manage expectations.’
6. Have a no-pressure picnic
Christmas may not be a big celebration in Japan, but the nation has still created its own holiday tradition. Thanks to a successful marketing campaign in the 1970s, an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families tuck into KFC for their Christmas dinner. You probably won’t want to swap your turkey for fried chicken but there is something to be said for enjoying at least one laid-back meal over the festive period. Give yourself a break from cooking and enjoy a no-fuss carpet picnic with your little one. Put out a range of toddler-friendly snacks and encourage him to help himself. ‘Picnic teas are a real favourite with kids as they are simple, cosy and familiar,’ says Sharie. your child will happily swap a home-cooked meal you’ve spent hours tied to the stove creating, in exchange for some quality time spent with you.
7. Feed the birds
In Finland, it’s traditional to hang out food for the birds on Christmas morning, as peasant farmers believed it would bring good luck. Feeding birds will encourage your tot to care about other creatures. Have a go at making your own feeder by hunting for pinecones on a trip to the park. Attach string to each one, then spread peanut butter or lard onto the pinecone and get your toddler to roll it through a bowl of bird seed. The seed will stick to the mixture and your tot will have lots of fun getting messy. Hang your creations somewhere high and watch out for feathered friends. ‘It’s important for children to have a sense of being connected to something bigger than themselves, and observing nature is a wonderful way to do this,’ says Sharie. ‘It helps children understand that there is life beyond their immediate concerns, and teaches the message of giving without expecting anything in return.’