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Celebrating the Holidays with Kids

Travel Tips, Teacher Gifts, Holiday Cards, and More

If you’re anything like me, you’ve barely managed to put your Halloween decorations back in the attic (or perhaps they are still on the porch – shhh, I won’t tell anyone), and you are already feeling the pressures associated with turkeys and Santa. 

Holiday decorations were out in the stores earlier than ever this year. I respect and understand how many people are probably excited to return to at least a somewhat more normal holiday experience this year than what may have been possible last year during what was our first pandemic holiday season. 

To ensure you make the most of your holiday experience and lean into joy, rather than stress, consider these six suggestions for keeping the holiday spirit merry and bright. 

Soliciting Holiday-Appropriate Behavior from the Kids

Let’s face it, we all want our kids to be on their best behavior all the time. During the holidays, our expectations soar, and sometimes, that’s not realistic. Having lots of people in your house or traveling may be overwhelming for your kids, and you may need to work on setting appropriate expectations. But achieving extra-special holiday behavior is not impossible. 

First, try including kids in the planning. For example, at Thanksgiving, I get my kids involved in making cute placemats and table decorations with items we have on hand or can purchase from dollar and thrift stores. Involving them will make them more invested in the outcome and could be helpful, especially with little ones, come mealtime. 

Any help you can solicit with cooking the meal works, too. Kids are surprisingly great at doing things like rolling out pie dough or spreading the topping on that family-favorite casserole, and they relish being involved. 

You might also consider a small reward for holiday-appropriate behavior. Some skin in the game – say $10 worth of money to purchase extras for the video game they love so much – might be just the ticket for good behavior. You should clearly define this system up front, even if the behavior you want is as simple as sitting at the table sans electronics for the entire holiday meal without complaining. 

Traveling for the Holidays

My kids have tablets that we purchased years ago, and they are super helpful on car rides. If that’s something your family is comfortable with, I recommend loading tablets with new books and games they haven’t seen before to keep everyone occupied longer. Also, be sure to create a charger kit. Nothing’s worse than not being able to recharge when needed. You might consider purchasing a charger you can use in the car. 

Also, pull together what I call a travel kit for each child using a tote bag or a large plastic sealable bag. This kit should include activities kids can easily do in the car or on a plane. Activity and coloring books are perfect, but also look into sticker books and magnetic puzzles. I especially love the invisible ink products that only write on paper to avoid messes. And, even if it’s crowded in the car, it might be worth adding in that special pillow or blanket.

When it comes to packing for that holiday trip, set parameters in advance. Each of my kids gets one small suitcase, a toiletry kit, and a backpack. I have a list of must-brings they have to include in terms of clothing and toiletries, and otherwise, they can pack what they want with these two stipulations: It has to fit, and they have to be able to carry it. It’s so fun to see them negotiate with each other on extra space, and they also learn priorities. I have one who can’t leave home without at least five books and another whose collection of Paw Patrol pups must travel. It gives them ownership and takes some pressure off you.

Holiday Card Conundrum

Speaking of pressure – in the culture of social media and filters, the pressure these days around holiday photos is intense! Between a professional photographer and ordering and mailing cards, the costs can be outrageous during a time of year when you are already likely spending extra money. 

If holiday cards are important to you, which they are to me, my advice is to consider cutting out one of the things I just mentioned. For example, I always take my own photos. I simply dress the kids in holiday clothes and plan a cookie-making session or something else to capture the holiday spirit. I try to do this early so I’m not stressed (say, last month!) Then I can order and mail my cards – and I have some flexibility in waiting for a good discount or coupon code. 

If you want to hire a photographer or have a photo taken professionally at a studio, consider splurging on that, but opt to send your holiday card as an e-card. You might also look at printing the card yourself at a local drug store versus using an online printing company. Cutting out just one item might save you some stress and money. 

One other potential time and money-saving option is to wait and send a New Year’s card, which gives you a little more time to pare down your mailing list. You can always post it on your social media channels for others to see.

Most importantly, it’s okay not to do any of the above. Holiday cards are nice, but not mandatory. Perhaps this year is the perfect time to give yourself a break.

Establish Gift Expectations

When it comes to gifts, every family is different in their limits and expectations. One piece of advice, especially for families with multiple children, is to follow the rule of fours. I can’t claim credit for this one, but I learned it from an influencer I love on Instagram, and I think it’s worth sharing. Here’s the rule of fours: something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read. Then set a dollar amount early on and stay on budget. 

I also let my children shop at home for their siblings from a collection of things I’ve already selected – rather than having to take each one to the store to pick out something. I gather things throughout the year, which may be too late for you this year, but you could start after the holidays. When Christmas rolls around, I lay out a bunch of items and have three of my four come in and shop for the other one. This works perfectly in our family! 

Also, have conversations with your kids about the fact that different families have different approaches to gifting, and that’s okay. It can curb disappointment when they hear their friends got an iPad and they got a new pair of pajamas. 

I would suggest getting your children in on making or baking gifts for favorite teachers, bus drivers, and coaches. Your kids can write personalized notes, and you might tuck in a gift card to say thank you. I would also recommend having a few extra wallet-friendly gifts on hand if you or your child receives an unexpected gift from someone and you wish to return the favor. Cookies or other baked goods could be a go-to, for example. You might keep a handy stash of cute boxes from a dollar store to package them in. I also know families who engage their kids in making a big batch of homemade soap or candles – you can find reasonably priced kits online – and have those handy to give as gifts, too.

Learn About Other Holidays

Whatever holidays your family celebrates, take some family time to learn about the many other holidays that are celebrated in the months of November, December, and January. My family happens to celebrate both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it’s always important to acknowledge that there are many more celebrations happening this time of year. 

For example, Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that’s celebrated for eight days and nights, and roughly five million people celebrate Kwanzaa each year, a seven-day holiday that celebrates African culture. Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration observed by some Hispanic families, and Diwali is a five-day-long Hindu holiday. And let’s not forget about the Chinese New Year, which is celebrated for fifteen days, beginning on the first day of the lunar new year. The Chinese New Year marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. What better way to think outside the box and appreciate all the holidays celebrated this time of year than to take the time to learn about them? 

Set and Keep a Cleanup Deadline 

Ever found yourself with Christmas lights still up in March? Or that one box of ornaments still needing to be wrapped and packed away? If you are like me, unraveling from a holiday is almost as hard as planning for one. Set clear deadlines for packing away holiday items, stick to them, and involve your kiddos. We always put up our tree the day after Thanksgiving, but before that can happen, all fall décor must be packed away. The kids help put away and carry stuff to the attic. We also set a January 15 deadline for removing Christmas items from sight, and the kids are very helpful with packing up stockings and non-breakable decorations. After Christmas is usually a great time to stock up on good storage items for wreaths, decorations, and even trees. You’ll have those for years to come once you invest in them once.  

I hope these tips help you and your family find the best ways to celebrate the holidays so they complement, not complicate, your family life. Merry holidays, everyone! 


Photo: Travis Brown 

“Real Mom” Sunni Brown lives in Henrico with her husband, Travis, and their four children: Bonnar, Gigi, and twins, Cooper and Sully. Sunni is the director of media and PR at the University of Richmond.
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