It's what I call an accidental tradition -- unplanned, a little silly, and my favorite kind of tradition. It was Christmas Eve in 2010. My daughter was two and a half years old and I was telling her about how the reindeer were going to pull Santa's sleigh to us from the North Pole.
"May we feed the deer?" she asked, looking enthusiastic and clapping her hands.
I knew where she got the idea; there was a petting zoo not far from our home where an exceptionally friendly doe delighted in nibbling food from kids' hands. I explained that the reindeer would be arriving after we went to sleep, but we could certainly leave something for them. The only problem was that it was 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve - a bit too close to bed time, and certainly not any time when I'd want to stand in line for two hours to get a carrot. I looked through the house and found an expired packet of oatmeal, which my daughter gleefully emptied into a bowl for the reindeer.
"They like hot chocolate," she announced. I got out a packet of hot cocoa and she emptied that, too, into the bowl. Then for good measure I told her that she needed to add some glitter to make it magical. That's how reindeer fly. She absolutely delighted in each of the simple steps in this "recipe," and for the last three years we've continued it - although, last year, we used rice instead of oatmeal.
This is one of those traditions that is as simple as it is memorable. There's no huge expense, no massive investment of time, no Pinterest page that will result in a project going horribly and embarrassingly awry. Reindeer food is something that any child, even a very young toddler, can make, and its only cost is your unwanted pantry leftovers. But, despite its simplicity, I've got a feeling that it's a tradition my daughter will treasure forever, and maybe one day repeat with children of her own. I can see how much her eyes light up every Christmas when she knows it's time to make the reindeer food.
A huge part of the appeal of making reindeer food, from the child's perspective, is that it makes children active participants in Santa's miracles. Without my daughter's contribution of glitter and hot cocoa to the reindeer's diets, she's absolutely certain that they would run out of magic and be unable to get to the next city. And where would all the other children of the world be, without her ever-important help? It not only solidifies the feelings of magic and wonder that every child feels at Christmas, it makes them part of it.
If you want to start making reindeer food with your kids, it's an easy tradition to start. The "official" recipe for reindeer food that we use is one half-cup of grain (rice, oatmeal, corn - anything goes), one packet of hot chocolate, and 10 shakes of glitter. Next, kids have to blow five kisses into the bowl and leave it aside for Santa. The next morning, most of the mix will be gone… perhaps even spilled out a little on the floor by eager reindeer.
Holiday traditions don't have to be complicated or expensive. More often than not, moments of simplicity and beauty will comprise a child's most treasured memories of holidays and family. The simple spur-of-the-moment decision to make magic with hot chocolate and oatmeal just might turn into a memory that my entire family will cherish forever.
Do you have any "accidental" holiday traditions that are very special to you?
Juniper Russo is a freelance writer living in Chattanooga, Tenn. She's a dedicated mama to one eccentric five-year-old, two affectionate cats, one high-need border collie, and another munchkin on the way!