15 Easy Little Ways to Make the Holidays Magical, from Parents Who Do It Every Year

updated Dec 1, 2022
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It seems like every parent I know has had a sick kid at home recently. However, we’re all still determined to make this holiday season a happy one that ends up feeling memorable and special. I asked moms and dads to share the easy ways they’re planning to celebrate this year. Here are fifteen sweet little ways to celebrate the season that won’t stress you out!

Decorating Magic

Katy McColl Lukens, a mom of two in the Berkshires Mountains area, says this: “We go to a sustainable tree farm, where choosing a tree also means hiking up a snowy hillside, cutting down a tree with bow saw, and hauling it back to the car. For me, the effort is part of what makes it magical—it’s an experience.” Lukens’ kids also love to to warm their hands at the wood stove in the owner’s mobile wreath-making shed, and then have a winter picnic with cocoa.

Once the tree comes home, add some ceremony to the first flick of the switch. “We do a Christmas Vacation-style lighting of the holiday lights, with eggnog and Christmas music,” says Caitlin O’Neil, a mom in Tampa, Florida, “It takes about five minutes, but the kids love it. We also take nightly walks to enjoy the neighborhood lights.”

Jessica Hartshorn, a mom of two teens in Brooklyn, New York, is on the same page. “We decorate the outside of the house to cheer ourselves and everyone who passes,” says Jessica. “The first twinkle lights went up November 7 this year, but I’ll be adding garlands and more lights as the season progresses, and of course we’ll put the tree up in the front window.”

Decorating can also turn into memorable family activities. I’m borrowing a craft idea from Katy Elliot: Cinnamon and applesauce dough ornaments. It’s been almost ten years since I first bookmarked this craft on Katy’s blog, and she generously shared the recipe on Instagram again. This might be the year I finally get around to making them. (Yes, they call for two cups of cinnamon! We suggest buying in bulk; this pound of cinnamon costs $10 and will yield about 4 cups.)

Decor can double as activity in other ways too. Writer and mom of three Christine Lagorio’s family has a traditional pickle ornament, and she makes a nightly game of finding the ornament on the tree.

Food Magic

I’m also stealing an idea from my pal Jodi Levine, the author of Candy Aisle Crafts. Years ago, Jodi tipped me off to how to have more fun with the basic gingerbread houses you find at craft stores and in the grocery store. Jodi loads up on extra candies to decorate, since most kits come with a kind of sad amount of supplies. One year, she even went a step further and created themed houses like a “peppermint palace” and a pretzel log cabin.

Others skip the gingerbread house completely. “Instead of gingerbread houses, which are so finicky, we like to make igloos out of Rice Krispies treats,” says Anne Neff, a mom of two in Seattle. “We decorate them with royal icing ‘snow’ and candies just like you would for a gingerbread house: It’s a huge hit with the kids.” 

Kate Vose, a mom of two boys in Falmouth, Maine, also loves to make and deliver cookies to neighbors. She takes a semi-DIY approach to the cookie-making—maximum magic with minimum stress. “The sugar cookie recipe from Kitchn is excellent for this endeavor, and we get pastry bags filled with royal icing from our local bakery to make it even easier.”

Anything that feels a tiny bit special can be memorable. “Last year, we served the kids sparkling cider for New Year’s Eve, and it was a big hit,” says Joanna Muenz, a mom of two in Queens, New York. “My son Simon was still talking about “New Year’s juice” months later.” To make it feel extra-special, give them a fancy stemmed glass to drink their “bubbly.”

Gift Magic

My sister had a genius idea to help our family out with decision fatigue heading into the holidays. We’re planning a secret Santa exchange for the adults in our family this year, so each person only has to buy one adult gift, instead of many. We’ll still give kids gifts the traditional way, but this has streamlined our to-do lists in a decidedly joyful way.

If you want to go homemade with gifts: “Chocolate truffles are an easy holiday gift because you can makes a big batch and can keep them in the freezer for last-minute gifting,” says mom Jennifer Tyler Lee, the author of Half The Sugar, All The Love.

Lee also has a brilliant idea for gift-giving to teachers, friends, and family. She snaps a picture of a piece of her daughter’s artwork and prints notecards for giving. “Bundling a few cards together with twine makes a lovely gift: It feels personal without having to personalize every single gift,” she adds.

Come Hanukkah time, Christine Lagorio wraps up all her kids’ gifts in matching paper and numbers them for the days of Hanukkah. “This way the kids can find their own right day gifts each night,” she says. Seeing them all together is satisfying for the kids and the display to jolly-fies the house.

Family Fun Magic

Professional organizer Shira Gill and her family usually host a Hanukkah party at their home in Berkley, California. This year Shira says they’re hoping to keep some of the spirit alive by turning the Hanukkah party into a “pop over for latkes and champagne on our patio at staggered intervals” affair.

Jodi Levine’s family has a tradition of watching Elf once a year and her Elf-themed decorations and dishes must be seen to be believed; they inspire us to turn a basic holiday rewatch into an event! (Narwhal candies a must for Elf.) The party can spread to Zoom, too. Jodi’s nephew is a pro: When they couldn’t gather for Easter this year, he reimagined their traditional Armenian egg-cracking game as a distanced experience via Zoom, which led to a side hustle organizing Zoom games for kids’ parties. For this holiday season, he’s planning another Zoom activity. “It’s a surprise, but we had to send him a list of our top two holiday dishes (stuffing, mashed potatoes),” says Jodi.

Katie Clemons, a mom of three in Montana, has long been a believer in the power of journaling and suggests trying it as a group activity with your kids this holiday season. Write a little bit every night leading up to Christmas. If free-form writing sounds daunting, Clemons has written a line of guided journals including Between Mom and Me and Between Dad and Me, to help parents and kids connect through journaling.

“We sleep under the tree for New Year’s Eve,” says Kate Vose. “We adults kind of dread it, but our children love it and talk about it all year long. We inflate our air mattresses for the occasion, which really adds to the excitement,” she laughs.

I’m filling my library request list and my shopping cart with All. The. Holiday. Books. My family celebrates Christmas, but we’re also exploring Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, through stories this year (and I am dying to read my son this chapter book about a St. Lucia celebration that I loved as a child). A few of our favorites are Angelina’s Christmas, The Polar Express, Goodnight Bubbala, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

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