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Building Strong Families, One Ornament at a Time

Published Aug 1, 2014 | Updated Feb 19, 2020

It has been said that having regular family traditions is one way to help children develop a healthy sense of self within the context of family rather than seeking their life orientation from peers.

Could something as simple as an annual White Elephant party really help our kids better navigate the wayward pull of their peers?

Experts say yes. In fact, Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Mate, M.D., in their acclaimed book, Hold on to Your Kids, discuss the concept of “peer orientation” as the phenomenon of children becoming more attached to their peers than to their families. They suggest that having family traditions is one of the ways to keep your child from seeking that acceptance and identity through the harsh reality of peers.

They are not alone in this thinking. A study published in the Journal of Marriage and The Family by John Condry of Cornell University and Michael L. Siman of Queens College, showed research from a study of 482 sixth graders, that proved “peer-oriented children generally conform to a socially undesirable peer subculture...out of necessity rather than choice” and that this necessity “is created by a family in which the parents establish a climate of ‘passive neglect’ thereby pushing the children from the home and forcing them to seek approval and affection elsewhere.” (1)

Obviously there is a great deal more to “passive neglect” than just not having regular traditions but as parents, we should always be looking for ways to enhance our family environment. To do that, my husband and I always look forward to our favorite annual family traditions and often look for ways to incorporate new ones. For the Christmas holidays we have a few traditions from our own childhoods and a few we created ourselves, as a couple. As our twin boys get older, they also start to feel the eager anticipation that comes from having a well-loved annual tradition and I believe it provides a sense of comfort to them, knowing that each year Mom and Dad put aside time and resources to make these special events happen.

On Christmas Eve, we each open a pair of new pajamas, freshly washed and ready to wear. It also gives the boys that coveted “one present to open on Christmas Eve”. We curl up and watch Charlie Brown’s Christmas on Boxing Day, bellies full from turkey dinner leftovers. And my personal favorite, we gift each other personalized Christmas ornaments that celebrate that year’s personal accomplishments.

This ornament exchange is more than just some off-the-shelf Hallmark ornament. We start by first thinking about the moments and experiences that have held the most meaning to each of our lives in the past year. Once in a while it’s simple and we can find a conventional ornament that works but more often than not we need to get creative and build the ornament ourselves. Things start to get competitive as we try to one-up each other in building, hacking, or sourcing a unique and personalized ornament for each family member. 

In 2007, Tim spent hours and hours looking for a model-sized Honda CBR to represent the year I got my first motorcycle. He eventually settled for a Yamaha, drilled holes in the gas tank to install an ornament hook, and used a fancy silver marker to inscribe “Honda CBR” on the fairings. For the year Tim was hired by Apple, I found an Apple logo ornament, made out of computer chip board (score!). And then there was the year where we made the mistake of buying a 100-year-old house and thinking “cosmetic upgrades” were all it needed. After a year of construction, tool belts, and paint splatter, Tim took home prize for best ornament with a pre-made Hallmark “home renovations” ornament which perfectly depicted the thousands of hours (and dollars!) we had spent re-building a house from the ground up. 

Although this tradition started before our twins were born, it’s one that has improved with age and it’s so fun being able to brainstorm together on what we’ll come up with for each child. I love knowing that they’ll take this special box of unique ornaments with them when they move out on their own and decorate their own little apartment-sized Charlie Brown tree! Each ornament speaks to a special part of their childhood and has a way of cementing those moments in our memories, bringing a smile to our face each year we pull them out to decorate the Christmas tree. 

For instance, after Jack spent the entire year proudly displaying his “Jedi Knight in Training” certificate from the Star Wars show at Disneyland, we knew his annual ornament would be a Jedi. I’m sure you can buy wonderful Star Wars ornaments (at a premium price, of course) but we found an inexpensive toy figurine, drilled a few holes, wrote “Jack the Jedi 2011” on the back, and voila! 

In that same year, Liam had taken home the first place trophy for Chess Club not once, but twice. After racking our brains for a chess-related ornament idea, I found a portable chess game in the dollar section at Target, put all the plastic black and white chess pieces into a fill-it-yourself clear ball ornament from Michael’s, and attached a sticker that said “Liam — Chess Club Champion 2011”. Cost me $1.50!

There was the ceramic boy on a bicycle to represent the year Jack learned how to ride a two-wheeler (that did not cost me $1.50...and taught me a valuable lesson in not waiting until the last minute!); A fishing ornament to honor the year Liam caught his first fish while out on the lake with Grandpa; and Swiss tourist tchotchkes-turned-ornaments for the year we moved to Switzerland. 

It’s great when family traditions happen organically but more often than not, our greatest traditions are orchestrated and planned. And that’s okay! In the first years of me insisting on an ornament exchange, it felt forced and we definitely had a few duds (I still don’t know why Tim got me that buggy-eyed cat! I hate cats.) but eventually, the tradition caught on and we now have a lot of fun with it.

No matter what your family does, remember that the best investment we can make in our kids is our time. Whether that’s spending quality moments together or alone in the garage drilling holes into a Star Wars figurine that will make our kid feel important, it all comes out as love to the heart of a child. 


1. Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol.36, No. 3, Aug., 1974, Characteristics of Peer- and Adult- Oriented Children.

Natasha Drisdelle
By Natasha Drisdelle
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