I was raised Ukrainian Catholic by hardworking immigrant parents. Christmas was a very big deal at my house, but mostly from a religious and culinary perspective. Gifts were never lavish, and I grew up understanding that my wish list for Santa had to be brief and reasonable. The modest celebrations of my childhood helped me appreciate the things I did receive and focus on the comfort and joy of our holiday traditions: cooking, welcoming carolers, decorating the tree and being with family.
When I married my husband and we decided to raise a Jewish family, I grieved the loss of Christmas for a bit, but then fully embraced Hanukkah as an opportunity to create new traditions and warm memories for our children. The one thing I couldn’t really support was eight nights of gifts. It seemed excessive, and I worried that it would detract from creating other, more important holiday traditions—particularly around giving back and spreading joy to others.
Since my kids were very young, I had been passionate about introducing them to age-appropriate service. I understood intuitively (as most parents do) that the key to raising kind, compassionate, grateful, and grounded kids is to encourage them to recognize the needs of others and find ways to help. We don’t wait to start reading to our children, why wait to start volunteering with them? I made it my mission to find opportunities for our family to give back to our community whenever we had the chance. A big part of this effort involved creating family service traditions around holidays and milestones. The easiest way to find time for service in hectic schedules is to incorporate it into things you are already doing. Sharing the joy of your special occasions elevates every celebration, creating warm memories that last a lifetime.
I wanted to be sure some of the eight nights of Hanukkah didn’t involve receiving gifts at all but were still fun. One night we bake cookies for our neighbors or local first responders and deliver them. Another night we’ll shop online for a family we’ve “adopted” for the holidays or write thank you notes to the postal carrier and maintenance staff in our building.
One of our favorite holiday service traditions has been visiting with an elderly neighbor through a program at our local senior center. I signed up for our first Hanukkah visit when our kids were very small (and our youngest, now 13, was not yet born). We were matched with Betty and Fred S., Holocaust survivors. Fred had been incapacitated by a stroke but was always present for our visits, sitting in his recliner, observing the activity with smiling eyes. Betty was spry and sweet. She always wore her finest fluffy pink sweater, and with the help of an aide, prepared mini potato latkes and honey cake for our visit. We would light the Hanukkah candles, play dreidel, and sing songs together. The Schwartz’s became like family to us, and photos of our kids adorned their refrigerator next to photos of their own grand- and great-grandchildren. We requested to visit the couple year after year until they both passed away. It was always the most special night of our holiday. The best feeling in the world was having my kids ask me each year as Hanukkah approached, not “What am I getting this year?” but “What night are we visiting Betty and Fred?”
Most families are great about engaging in service around the “giving” holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Three Kings Day. It’s important to remember that there are people who are struggling with hunger, homelessness, poverty, and illness every day of the year, not just in November and December. Many national and religious holidays are slam-dunk opportunities to volunteer with your family. The MLK Day of Service in January and the 9/11 Day of Service in September have been designated as such, and volunteer events in your community abound if you keep your eyes open for them. Valentine’s Day is a perfect chance to create a tradition around spreading love to those who might be lonely or isolated. Veteran’s Day and Independence Day remind us to show support and gratitude to our active-duty military, veterans, and their families who have sacrificed so much for our freedom and safety.
Birthdays are perhaps the easiest way to incorporate service traditions into your family life. Many families have a special birthday plate or candle holder, a favorite type of cake, a silly song, or sparkly crown—some type of ritual that is expected each year and cherished by the birthday child. Why not add one small element of “giving” into a day that is often so focused on “getting?” Depending on their age or interest, your child can ask for donations in lieu of gifts for their birthday, or donate one of their birthday gifts to a child in need who shares their special day. My family has hosted “parties with purpose” for our kids at every age. We’ve collected baby books at a first birthday party and pajamas at a sleepover, we’ve created toiletry kits for the homeless at a “spa-themed” party, and collected dog food for the ASPCA the year we adopted our beloved rescue pup. All of these efforts were seamlessly integrated into parties filled with all of the usual trimmings, adding notes of kindness and generosity to these events, making them even more memorable and meaningful.
It doesn’t matter what your service traditions are, the most important thing is to start early—even when children are very young—and to stay consistent. Your kids likely won’t remember a toy they received at the holidays or on a birthday, the decorations you carefully selected, or the cake you meticulously frosted. They’ll remember the memories that were made when you were volunteering together, how great they felt doing good for others, and the way that this shared experience connected you all together, making a special day even better.