The holidays with little ones can be crazy. Just getting presents bought, wrapped and shipped, and Christmas cards out on time can be about all a new mom can handle. And for the past four Christmases our family has been doing the bare minimum to get festive. Only half the decorations come out, very little baking is done and gifts are bought online to save time.
But my oldest is almost five, and this year I decided it was time to start making some memories and teaching Christmas to my kids. It was clear they were understanding more and more about Santa. But I wanted them to get the whole holiday in more than just a commercial context. So that meant a little reflection on my part. What things are important for me to share about this season with preschoolers?
December can be filled with shopping and spending or it can be about savoring the lights, colors, songs, smells and tastes of this month. Because once January and February comes, it continues to be cold and it’s back to business as usual.
I had read in a Wondertime article about a mom who did an activity a day with her kids during Advent in lieu of candy/gifts everyday. We’ve done the candy Advent calendars and still do because it’s just fun to have chocolate, but this year we took our wooden Advent calendar and filled it with fun things for us to do together as a family. Things that, for me, make the season what it is. So here are 24 days of activities:
Make paper snowflakes and decorate the windows
Learn/sing some traditional Christmas carols
Decorate the house with decorations
Make a gingerbread house
Make Christmas cookies for a friend
Celebrate St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6)
Decorate the Christmas tree
Read a Christmas classic
Do something nice for someone we don’t know
Look at Christmas lights
Bring food to someone who needs it
Go see The Nutcracker
Celebrate St. Lucia Day (Dec. 13)
Attend a Christmas event
Make popcorn garland
Read the Christmas story
Make hot chocolate
Go ice skating
Watch a Christmas movie
Make a Christmas paper chain and hang it
Hang lights up in the house
Family game night
Buy a toy for a child who doesn’t have one
Unwrap/open one present each
By doing these, our family gets some dedicated time together. But we’ve turned Christmas “chores” into fun activities. I even had them wrapping presents and helping to stamp the Christmas cards.
Celebrating St. Nicholas Day and St. Lucia Day are important for me to incorporate in some way during the season. Saint Nicholas imparts the real Christmas spirit of giving–which is what the season is about. After living in Germany as a child for a while, this became a familiar name, but the tradition has been lost. St. Lucia Day is a Swedish holiday, one we learned about while living there. While not celebrated so much at home anymore (more at school), it’s still a wonderful way to celebrate the season.
We’re less than halfway through the month, but the kids still run to the calendar each morning to see what we’ll be doing for the day.
Thanksgiving is such an American holiday. And in my travels I have yet to find another celebration that’s really analogous. Interestingly enough, some of my favorite Thanksgivings were the ones spent in other countries with new friends and non Americans. I think Thanksgiving has such a wonderful history to it, and I love to introduce it to people from other places.
Our first Thanksgiving away from home was spent with a Russian family while living in the Middle East. We loved introducing them to the concept and the food. At the time, I was newly pregnant and barely able to stay awake for the feast. Good thing since they left as soon as their six-month old started to melt down. Finding turkeys in the Arabian Gulf can be tricky. They ship them in for the Americans who celebrate the holiday and if you don’t get them in time, they’re gone. I learned then one of the great things about traditional Thanksgiving food is that it can really be found almost anywhere. Stovetop Stuffing may be a bit hard to come by, but I always found the ingredients to make it from scratch. That’s one of the wonderful things about Thanksgiving food, it really is simple food.
The following year, I had a baby and was again newly pregnant. Luckily, I was only responsible for one dish–the turkey! We celebrated with a huge group of friends from the US, Scotland, Egypt and Australia. Everyone brought something from the traditional American Thanksgiving menu—even those unfamiliar with the food. I remember the Egyptian man asking about the origin of this American holiday. Those of us who were American talked about the American Indians and the pilgrims who were celebrating the harvest using our best third-grade Thanksgiving knowledge. Then the conversation transformed into more of the meaning of Thanksgiving for us–to be with those around us and give thanks for the many blessings we do have.
The following year we found ourselves replaying this ritual with a Swedish family. We had just moved to Stockholm and had very few friends around but our neighbors seemed like good people to share this holiday with. I remember my neighbor remarking that Thanksgiving food was one of her favorites–fall comfort food really helped warm up a cold body on a dark Swedish day. In return, we had the chance a month later to experience the Swedish Julbord with them.
This is where I started realizing we should be sharing celebrations with each other–even if they didn’t celebrate it. Holidays and traditions are important to understanding cultures and this, particularly American one, has deep roots in our own history. It’s wonderful to be able to experience a holiday to its fullness when you’re with people who are not familiar with it. We share it with others, and in turn, it reignites the celebration spirit within us.
“Where is Daddy today, mommy?” I walk to the refrigerator where the itinerary is posted. “Today, Daddy is in Morocco.” Yesterday it was Spain and the day before it was France. As a seasoned traveler myself, this particular itinerary makes me a bit green with envy as I’m here at home parenting the kids.
I think travel is extremely valuable for children. Not because a three-year old needs to see the Great Wall of China, but because they need to experience a world outside their own—new food, new sounds, new smells and new encounters outside their comfort zone.
After my second child was born, less than two years after my first, we discovered traveling with two very young children was nearly impossible since we could barely keep it together at home, let alone in another place. And once my children were old enough to travel—which is right now—we’re simply strapped for the cash to do it.
However, my husband has the opportunity to travel the world—almost monthly—for work. Not to just the normal “businessy” places, but to locations many of us only dream of ever seeing and other places we don’t. So while he hops from place to place (leaving me and the kids behind wishing we could be there), I find the best thing for us is to learn about where he goes and try to “travel” along with him.
The first thing we do is get out the maps—the puzzle maps. Melissa and Doug have a wonderful line of floor puzzles and our two favorite are Children of the World and the World Map. We do the puzzles together and find where daddy is traveling to and talk a little bit about the country.
Depending on where he’s going, we try to check out books from the library with stories from that culture. Even if it’s just “generally” about that area, I like to have things we can talk about while reading to a four and three year old. Here are a few suggestions:
Spain: The Story Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
France: Madeline (The entire series) by Ludwig Bemelmans
The Netherlands: Boxes for Katje by Candace Fleming
Egypt: We’re Sailing Down the Nile by Laurie Krebs and Anne Wilson
Russia: Clever Katya: A Fairy Tale from Old Russia by Mary Hoffman and Marie Cameron
Japan: The Funny Little Woman by Arlene Mosel and Blair Lent
China: Tiki Tiki Tembo by Arlene Mosel
India: Mama’s Saris by by Pooja Makhijani
Africa: Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale by Verna Aardema
Busy Busy World by Richard Scarry
After we’ve identified where he is and read a little more about the place, sometimes we even take it one step further and try to eat something from that region of the world. I can’t say I’m making Russian Borscht regularly, but we do try to manage a trip to a nearby ethnic restaurant–even if it just means picking up Chinese food, pad thai or some kebabs.
My love of travel will have to be put on pause for a bit, but for now I’ll do the best to give my children a little taste of some places around the world. And I hope by doing this, we’re able to instill a desire for them to travel as well.
It was early October. We had only recently arrived in Stockholm, but the days were already shorter than in the States. By half past six, the sun was officially gone. And every day sunset came three minutes earlier, not enough to notice right away, but quickly do and you know in 30 days we would lose an hour and a half of daylight.
By the time we “fell back” from Day Light Savings Time, sunset was right about when my kids would wake up from their afternoon nap. My kids would sleep until 3:30 or 4 p.m. and when they woke up, it was dark. Really dark. If you’ve been to Boston or Seattle, you can say you know dark, but this seemed different than anything I’ve experienced. It’s strange to see children walking to school in the dark at 8:30 a.m. and coming home from school at 2:30 p.m. in the same darkness.
Winter in northern countries means a change in lifestyle with, oh, six hours or so of daylight. While my Swedish neighbors would use this opportunity to bake and spend time together as a family, I found it strange to have it pitch dark at 3 p.m., and needed some life around me. I had two young children under the age of two. They were driven by schedule and light helped tell them determine when it was dinner or breakfast time.
We learned to adjust. They would wake up from their naps when other mothers of toddlers back here at home were setting out to do afternoon errands or playdates. I found it difficult to pack up the diaper bag and head out to grocery shop in the dark. But I did my best to reset my internal clock; or perhaps it was my mental clock. Perhaps I should have done the “when in Rome ” thing and retreated inside like the Swedes did, but I didn’t. The kids would wake up from their naps, and to help expose them (and me) to some kind of light, we’d head to the mall. Lots of fluorescent lights do wonders to help establish daylight. Why else do airports create this “hey-it’s-day-time-somewhere” feel at international hubs? We would zip to a grocery store, department store or indoor play area that was fully lit and full of life, even if only for a little while. I soon discovered we were not the only ones going this route. I actually made a few friends with this game. (Side note: I saw first hand why people centuries ago needed a winter solstice celebration in the darkest of dark days. I craved lights for six weeks.)
This was definitely a lesson in learning to adjust to what you are given–a different kind of culture shock for me. It was, perhaps, just an introduction to the next four months of snow that would cover our front yard. You can’t fight Mother Nature. I realized I had to just get in there and do what I could to make darkness fun for all of us. It gave me new appreciation for those who forged this path a century ago without electricity.
The good news is that daylight comes as quickly as it wanes. Once December 21 passes and each day gets lighter, it’s back to 6:30 sunsets sometime in March and a few months later you’re back to round-the-clock daylight. Which I have to say is even weirder than the darkness.
Several years ago when my son was about a year old, and I was five months pregnant with my daughter, we were trying to find a place to take a last family vacation with our small family before we grew one more person. At the time, we were living in Qatar and looking for an escape from the boring city of Doha during the Eid al-Adha holiday. We desired a fairly short flight, but insisted on going somewhere with real culture (ruling out the Gulf). This essentially meant Cairo, Damascus, Amman, or any number of cities in India. I was not ready to brave India with my pregnant self. Flights to Cairo and Amman were booked so we were left with Damascus.
Turns out this crapshoot turned into a wonderful trip.
Despite the fact the cobble stone-lined streets were not designed for our $40-lightweight stroller; the kebabs from the street vendor did not sit well with my pregnant belly; the Damascene taxi drivers didn’t have seat belts in their cars; very little English was actually spoken outside the major downtown area — it was still one of the most memorable weeks.
My son didn’t seem to care about the bumpy roads. We put aside our fear of taxis not driving in their lanes. No seat belts = no car seats so we hung on for dear life and prayed. If you’ve ever been to Damascus, you know why.
It just goes to show you first impressions can be deceiving. This poor smog-filled city proved to be a very family-friendly one. Even with our limited Arabic language, we had no trouble interpreting kisses the Syrian women planted on my son’s blond head. We even figured out bargaining at the souqs. They are master negotiators, but not necessarily great at math. We scored five Damascene tablecloths for less than $100. We hit all the major sites, Straight Street, the Umayyed mosque, and the Souq Hamidiyeh. Part of why my husband and I loveto travel is to see things from the other side. So during our trip, we spent the vast majority of the time in Damascus walking through regular city streets, sitting in local, non-touristy restaurants, and observing how Damascenes live their lives.
We were relieved that we could still do this, even with a young child. The trick is to revamp your traveling expectations. Kids still may need naps so plan for shorter outings and stay close to the attractions. Eating at nice fancy restaurants never works out with little ones. There are always great eats off the beaten path that will be just as yummy and cater to kids. Spending time in lines to see “sights” just for the sake of saying you were there, may not make the most sense. A trip to a neighborhood playground might give you all the insight you need into the local culture. Which was exactly what we did one day. Turns out next to it, you could get a small cup of Arabic coffee and smoke a shisha pipe while the kids played. Excellent!
Food and lodging are two of the major hurdles when traveling with kiddos. Our philosophy is to splurge as much as you can afford on the hotel and eat cheap.
Our hotel was the Cham Palace, classified by them as “one of the Leading Hotels in the World.” It was pretty weak for an ostensible five star, but it sufficed. One decision we made early on was that, if at all possible, we’d either spring for a suite or two rooms. Our son at the time slept for 12 hours at night, and another two to three during the day. So spending six waking hours in our hotel room every day walking on eggshells while he slept would, essentially, suck. The separate, connecting room turned out to be a fantastic investment. It meant we could put him to sleep, and then I could run out and get takeout from a restaurant, and we could have a good conversation over dinner, keep the lights on and read, etc. And by investment, I mean we managed the “embassy rate” for $85 a night, which came with two rooms smelling a bit like sewage and probably a wire-tapped room. But it was a cheap, clean and came with free yogurt one evening when my son wouldn’t eat anything else. Fortunately, the hotel was in the heart of everything (less than a 10-minute walk or death-defying $2-cab ride away) so made it easier to pop back and crash for nap each day.
When it comes to food, fortunately for us, our kids eat just about anything as long as ketchup is offered as a condiment. The Al-Kamal restaurant turned out to be our best bet. They had everything my son would eat: hummus, yogurt, cucumbers, lamb and french fries. We ate there at least everyday, sometimes just to get take out. Their family-friendly atmosphere allowed us to sit alongside several tables full of locals with strollers. The one day we decided to splurge on a fancy feast near the Umayyed mosque it was just as good, but twice the price and we had to keep our son contained as high chairs were not offered since you sat on the floor.
While I know my son will never remember this trip, I like to think these worldly experiences make us better parents. And if not, I’m sure it explains why both my kids love hummus.