Making fond memories doesn’t have to be a big deal, says Meg Cox, author of the how-to guide The Book of New Family Traditions. “Sometimes it’s as simple as making Sunday mornings special by putting chocolate chips in the pancakes.” Little rituals “set up an alternative culture, your own safe world, and give kids a sense of identity and an enormous feeling of comfort.” But don’t be afraid to improvise. “Upend the rules, turn things sideways. Make it a cozy, insider moment that says ‘Only our family would be this kooky,’ ” Cox advises. “The goofier the better.”
Mary Beaton and Jels McCauley, Portland, Ore.
“It’s the first really cold day that announces winter is here,” says Beaton of Overcoat Day, begun by her New Zealander husband McCauley when he moved to the U.S. in 1993. Phoned that morning, friends drop by to toast the chill with bubbly al fresco. “If it arrives on a weekend,” Beaton says, “the celebration is an all-day affair.”
Dessert First Sundays
Denise Stephens, Kansas City, Kans.
“Life’s too short to miss dessert,” says single mom Denise Stephens, so on Sundays she and sons Corey, 15, and Kyler, 8, begin their meal—at home or in a restaurant—with sweet relief. Mom gets leverage to enforce healthy habits the rest of the week. “I’ll say, ‘Eat the good stuff. Sunday is coming.’ ”
The Nappa Family, Loveland, Colo.
Every Dec. 31, out come the decorated oatmeal canisters that hold the cherished mementos from Amy and Mike Nappa and their son Tony, 14. They reminisce about the contents—they started the tradition in 1993—then fill a new container with items saved during the past year, like ticket stubs and Mike’s hospital bracelet from gallbladder surgery. Says Mike: “It’s a fun way to make memories and laugh as a family.”
The Olsen Family, Joes Valley, Utah
It was Abinadi Olsen’s deathbed wish that his 10 children return to his 160-acre homestead in remote Utah for regular reunions. Since 1939, despite a lack of electricity or indoor plumbing, the mostly Mormon clan has done so every other July 4 weekend. Their number has grown to 411, but the reasons Olsens come from as far away as England (and pay a $20 fee that rents 24 portable Johns) have remained the same: softball, volleyball, ghost stories, a talent show and everyone’s favorite, the square dance. “Love is the glue that pulls us back,” says Bruce Olsen, 65. Adds Marcy Olsen, 38: “The kids would rather come here than go to Disneyland.”
Pooh Bear Party
The Leone Family, Princeton, N.J.
Tradition specialist Meg Cox and her husband, Richard Leone, devised a ritual for her Winnie the Pooh-obsessed son Max: a tea party celebrating the birthday of Pooh author A.A. Milne. Stuffed animal guests enjoyed tea and honey cookies shaped like Pooh and Piglet. Now 10, Max “is growing out of it,” Cox says, “but we’ll always have the memories.”
The Bakkum Family, Yorktown, Va.
Elsa and Carleton Bakkum get back-to-school spirits soaring with a tea party inspired by the children’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Each Labor Day Elsa bakes scones for her three sons—ages 16, 13 and 10—and their friends. A soccer game and scavenger hunt follow before Carleton, an Episcopalian reverend, gathers partygoers around a bonfire. “It helps me to begin the school year,” says Elsa, “something I hated as a kid.”
…And Four More
Check out these unique celebrations
Most years when June 12 hits, Washington, D.C., documentary filmmaker Ray Farkas and his three grown kids start his birthday with Krispy Kremes and head on to fries, burgers and BBQ. “Anything we can find, one item per stop,” says Farkas, now 68.
Former teacher Leo Grenier of York, Pa., has given his wife, Carrol, a single rose on the 21st of each month since their Nov. 21, 1987, marriage.
Between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, New Yorker Jennifer Reibstein’s daughters Alana, 10, and Sarah, 14, mark Sisters Day by making each other cards and gifts; Mom and Dad supply breakfast in bed and bowling.
After her golden retriever Rudi turned 13 in dog years, New Jersey resident Diane Herbst threw a ceremony complete with prayers and dog yarmulkes.