Engage the Generations to Make Holiday Memories and Celebrate Traditions

family recipes scattered across a plaid tablecloth

The holidays are upon us. With them come family gatherings—a perfect time to engage in intergenerational activities as they offer some of the best opportunities for memorable, meaningful connection.

What are some of your favorite childhood holiday memories? Likely they involved an older family member who delighted you with stories, festive foods, or a fun activity.

family photoMy Grandma Hulda was that soul for me. She was a marvel in the kitchen. Her holiday meals and baking were the stuff of legend. Polka music always played in the background. Dancing in the living room before dinner was common. Even today, when I bite into an almond shortbread cookie or hear polka music, I think of her.

I loved her stories about taking the trolley to art school in a neighboring community, making bandages at church for the war effort during WWI, and watching her brothers race iceboats on Lake Winnebago. She also taught me how to make potato stamps with cookie cutters, dip them in paint, and decorate craft paper and flour sack towels for gifts.

Multiple generations together can open conversations to family histories and traditions, as well as exploration of talents and interests.

Following are some activities that can be adjusted for age and ability of participants, ensuring lasting memories and fun times together.

Get outdoors

landscape photo

Keri Pollock captured the beauty of nature in this photo, taken in Bellingham.

We are fortunate to live in a temperate part of the world, where the winter holidays are often peppered with mild weather and perfect walking conditions. And we don’t let a little rain stop us from getting outside.

Walking is a beneficial activity that everyone can enjoy. Fresh air, some physical activity, combined with time together can be magical. Wear comfortable shoes, dress in layers, and don’t forget your water bottle. Stay hydrated.

As you plan, be mindful of routes and potential obstacles—sidewalk and walkway conditions, elevations, possible tripping hazards, safety considerations of young and old alike.

Collect treasures along the way—acorns, other seeds, leaves, branches, feathers, and stones—for artmaking later. Point out the variety of trees, other plants, animals, and birds discovered on the walk. Take pictures. Bring a sketchbook and pencil.

Ramble in a neighborhood park. Visit a body of water for some beachcombing.

Feel adventurous? Check out the books at the public library or independent bookseller:

Start a winter tradition: ski, sled, skate, snowshoe, build a snowman, participate in a “polar bear plunge,” take a winter hike or a stroll on a beach, or walk through a favorite park or arboretum, followed by hot chocolate and warming yourselves around a fire pit or fireplace.

Capture personal histories

StoryCorps flyer

For tips on organizing your interview, click on the image above. The StoryCorps website has dozens of additional resources that can help you capture a personal history—maybe even your own!

One of my favorite organizations is StoryCorps, where “every story matters.” Their mission is to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.”

What better time to capture the stories of a loved one than at the holidays—usually a time of tradition, warm remembrance, and sharing.

StoryCorps has a free app that provides instructions and allows you to record your interview from a smartphone or computer, preserve it, and share it. They also offer resources such as Great Questions. Use these instructions in thoughtful preparation for interviews, whether you use the app or not.

Asking questions and writing down or typing the answers on your computer is just as effective. The key is to carve out time to talk and ask those questions to which you’d like answers. Get to know one another on a more personal level. This experience is adaptable to any age or ability.

Kids are often curious about what it was like when family members were their age. And the adults can turn the interview around and ask kids about their dreams, school experiences, and friends.

Take it a step further and add videos. Many smartphones offer great video-capture and editing capabilities. If you aren’t comfortable with the technology, I think I know who is: your grandkids!  Ask them for a tutorial. Make learning how to use the technology part of the project.

Click above to open tips to help you plan your family interview.

Family photo projects

The possibilities here are only limited by your imagination. With the ubiquity of cameras on phones, scanners, and platforms such as Facebook, there’s an endless opportunity for pulling together family stories and events through images.

Some families choose a more traditional approach, creating photo albums or memory books with supplies from a craft store. Younger kids especially love working with colored paper, stickers, and glue. Craft and bookstores are filled with supplies and options for tools and ideas. Baby pictures are always a fun first step and can lead to lively conversations as the project is developed.

Shutterfly has platforms for creating photo books and calendars for a reasonable price and nice quality. Apps such as FamilyAlbum or 23Snaps are great ways to privately share photos and videos of family.

Gather photos and other mementos. Consider how you would like to capture, display, and share these family treasures. Some families make a family tree. Others create collages using large pieces of poster board, stickers, and markers.

Collect family recipes

My Grandma Hulda was a master baker. She made the most incredible sponge cake for our birthdays. The cake was held together by a delicious chocolate frosting in the center and a fluffy vanilla icing on the outside. My mom made copies of this recipe for all of us kids after my grandma died.

While I’ve never mastered making the cake on my own, I’ve had fun in the process. It brings back wonderful memories of time spent in my grandma’s kitchen, which was always filled with luscious aromas and mouthwatering delights of yummy baked goods and scrumptious dinners. To me, that cake translates into loads of love.

Family recipes can be the conduit to all sorts of great activities: from making a grocery list, shopping for the ingredients, working together in the kitchen, to collecting family favorites into a cookbook.

Share a long-loved family recipe. (Some of my own family favorites are pictured at top.) Use it as the starting point for a personal history or family heritage project. For instance, in the Pacific Northwest, families have salmon, Dungeness crab, blackberry, and apple recipes to share and fond stories to tell.

Helping others

Helping others in need isn’t limited to the holidays, of course, but the holidays are a wonderful time to share with others. From adopting a family through your faith community or a charitable organization, or shopping for food and donating it to a local food bank, families can find deeper purpose through charitable projects and giving.

In my old neighborhood, a family of wonderful knitters always creates scarves and matching hats for those experiencing homeless, donating their creations to a local shelter. Another family I know has a band that performs at senior centers and community events on the weekends.

Does your family have a special talent that can benefit others? Share that gift generously.

Let your imagination guide you

With a little imagination and minor modifications for age and ability, families can find new ways to bring the generations together for engaging projects. Don’t be limited to what’s on this list!

For example, I have a friend who lives in Columbia City, near the Link Light Rail Station. Her grandsons love trains. On a lark, they decided to hop on the Light Rail for an adventure to SeaTac/Airport station. They enjoyed the scenes and sights on the route. The roundtrip ride was affordable. With the destination being a major airport, it added the exciting experience of watching jets take off and land. They are planning new Light Rail adventures.

Let this article serve as a springboard for ideas. Give one or all of them a try. Adapt activities to common interests. For some that might include sports, travel, pets, or outdoor adventures. The key is bringing all generations together around a project or activity that everyone enjoys.

Check out these additional ideas and resources:

  • Plan a boardgame or movie night. Don’t forget the snacks!
  • Attend a holiday performance or concert each year, such as the “Nutcracker,” the local symphony, or a theater production of “A Christmas Carol.”
  • Area zoos and parks feature evening winter displays with lights and music that are enchanting for all ages. Woodland Park Zoo has Wildlanterns and the Point Defiance Zoo offers Zoolights. Bellevue Botanical Garden will again feature Garden d’Lights.
  • The Legacy Project offers free online activities and guides for all ages.

Keri PollockContributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, a care management, consultation, and creative engagement practice based in Seattle. She is a member of the Age Friendly Coalition for Seattle and King County, serves on the Advisory Committee of the Frye Art Museum Creative Aging Programs and the Marcomm Council of the Alzheimer’s Association, Washington State Chapter.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of AgeWise King County.