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Our Gratitude Tree

There is much I love about this time of year. The early darkness feels like nature is calling us inside for more togetherness. I love all the festive lights. I love warming our home by baking and cozy dinners made in the oven. My family does more art projects and we are always singing songs. I look forward to our many holiday traditions and the extra connection they create every year.

We have a family tradition that I am excited to share with you - our Gratitude Tree. There is much that I love about this tradition.

First, it gets us outside and I love being in nature, especially with my family. Being in nature calms our parasympathetic nervous system. It reconnects us to ourselves and to each other. We take in the sky, the trees and notice the beauty around us. Walking/ hiking and talking is healthy for us on all levels.

Second, we are creating a family tradition. Traditions and rituals are a primal human need, found in every culture on earth. They give us a way to process emotions, from joy to trauma and loss. Traditions help us and our children make sense of time. This seems even more important in sunny California, where we are without obvious seasons! Traditions also create connection – to each other in the present and to our past and cultures. They give us a way to share our values and they create a sense of order and safety for a child, in what can be, in case you have not noticed - a sometimes disconnected and chaotic world.

Third, this particular tradition helps us put our focus on what we are grateful for at a time of year when it is easy to get distracted by shopping and sales. A time when kids start to go cross-eyed from thinking of all the things they want to get get Get! Nature and the acts of reflection that traditions provide, help slow down a child’s brain (works for adults too) and activates executive function, while the world at large is pulling us all into our amygdalas.

Back to the tradition at hand. Sometime over the Thanksgiving holiday, we take a family nature walk or a hike to find a branch for our Gratitude Tree. It seems we have usually had enough wind to have knocked down a healthy selection. It must be big and

sturdy enough to feel like a tree, yet small enough to fit in a large vase. It will reside on a table, just around the corner from our Christmas tree. This alone gives me a certain balance that I require in the holidays. The branch also needs to have plenty of little branches that are still strong enough for lots of gratitude notes! Next to the vase, I put a bowl full of pretty little folded papers, with strings and a pen. From the end of November, until Winter Solstice, we write things we are grateful for as they come to us. We hang the notes on the tree. All of our guests are invited to participate and add their notes to the tree. By Solstice, we have a tree shimmering and laden with all for which we are grateful. On the night of solstice, we have a fire in our Chim-chimeney (my name for our chiminea). We have special treats and drinks (bubbly for me) and read the notes as we feed them to the fire.

Research shows and psychologists agree that family traditions and rituals are linked to emotional well-being and higher levels of happiness for the whole family. And the marriages that create families with traditions are shown to be stronger and more satisfying. They even show a link to higher academic success!

What’s more - the happiest families seem to not only continue long standing traditions, they also create new ones. If you are feeling a pang of panic, take a breath. It is easier than you may think. Chances are high you are already creating your own traditions. All you have to do is try something new and if you like it, repeat it year after year – and before know it, your family is looking forward to next year when you take a walk to find your branch - and you have created a family tradition!

Here are some ideas from my friends and family:

1. During the darkest days of the year, have dinner by candle light. Light each candle with intention – Love, Good Health, Peace, Playfulness, Joy.

2. Have the kids make a Give-away Box and go through their closets and toys.

3. Adopt a refugee family for the holidays.

4. Share the festivities with friends and neighbors, whether it is trimming the tree, making latkes with homemade applesauce or celebrating Solstice by sipping something delicious and feeding notes of gratitude to a fire-pit!

5. Celebrate and honor nature by making a wreath – or pine-cone bird feeders.

6. Enjoy a candle-lit bath and night of journaling to reflect on the past year and your goals for the year ahead.

7. Celebrate the season of lights by taking a walk or a drive to see light displays or the stars on a snowy night.

8. Add a note of appreciation to each gift you give.

9. Make ornaments or a menorah or bake cookies.

10. Turn your Elf on the Shelf into a Kindness Elf, that leaves ideas for acts of kindness and giving.

11. Have a treasure hunt for the gelt - or Christmas presents. My gramma used to always lose the last clue!

12. Give each child money that they can donate to the charity of their choice. Encourage them to think about causes that are important to them and research charities before making their decision.

13. Start the New Year off in nature by taking a family hike or watch the first sunrise or sunset of the year.

Traditions are not just about the holidays, they are about how we mark our time and pass down our values. It is how you celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, plant flowers or decorate eggs in the Spring, the annual Summer camping trip, apple picking in the Fall, Sledding in the winter, Friday family movie night and Saturday morning pancakes. Traditions don’t have to be about spending money or take a lot of time. Even the way you tuck your kids into bed or your secret handshake when you say good-bye becomes a treasured tradition. They are about connection and love. Keep repeating the activities your family enjoys and allow them to evolve as the kids grow up! These are the memories by which your children define their family and remember their childhood.

One of my first notes of gratitude this year is how grateful I am for all of you. Thank you for including me on your parenting journey and for Choosing Love! Happy Holidays.

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