What Are the Traditions That Matter?

By: Jen Shoop
"The Nutcracker" always made me feel connected to my mother and still in a time of holiday freneticism.

My mother took me to see “The Nutcracker” ballet most years of my youth. At the time, I saw in the tradition the treasured Junior Mints from the concession stand, the plush seats I’d kneel on in my Mary Janes and tartan dress, the thrilling hush of the theater as the set emerged from velvet curtain folds, the magic that unfurled on the stage.

Now, I look back and different, wider meanings glint at me.

I see the attention of the woman I love best in the world: how sitting as my mother’s companion made me feel more like a girlfriend than a daughter. Our hands would meet in the Junior Mint box, or we’d whisper about Clara’s costume, and I’d feel a rush of closeness. It’s true, what Simon Weil said: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Especially when you are one of five children.

I see also the way The Nutcracker temporarily absconded us from the freneticism of the holiday season, creating a tenuous still in its center. There would be parties and gifts and the blaring, festive cycle of The Winter Wonderland record in our living room, but for the few hours we were at the ballet, the noise of the season dwindled to a low hum, replaced instead by staged magic, and our mute, shared entrancement by it.

Funny, the way time can do that, as though turning the kaleidoscope. Because when it comes down to it, our Nutcracker tradition had less to do with concessions and costumes and more to do with presence, and connection.

I’ve been reflecting on this as I raise my own two children. What are the traditions I choose to honor this holiday season? What do they say, and what am I really passing on to my children in their re-visitings?


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+Things I have learned from my mother.

+Motherhood is a surfeit.

+Aren’t we always raising future versions of ourselves?

Shopping Break.

This post may contain affiliate linksIf you make a purchase through the links below, I may receive compensation.

nutcracker shopping finds


+High rise velvet jeans! Love the idea of pairing with a statement blouse like this.

+Zara has such fun holiday footwear. How great are these $50 heels?!

+ICYMI: Quince offers a gorgeous, Jenni-Kayne-esque cashmere fisherman sweater for under $100. I own in brown and might need the charcoal, too.

+Hanni sent over a few of their products and OMG. I’m obsessed with the splash salve and water balm, which you can buy individually or as a “bestseller” bundle for a discount. You apply the salve in-shower and do not need to apply lotion afterward — skin feels buttery soft and hydrated after — but the water balm (which is an easy-to-apply spray!) leaves your skin ultra-silky. I was honestly astounded by the results. You will not stop touching your skin! It feels divine! I also kind of love the idea of “skincare for the lazy girl” (or busy girl). It feels like each of their products removes or streamlines steps of the showering process. The spray-on balm is such a clever application. You can also buy the water balm in this bundle with Gwyneth’s favorite hair clip.

+My most recent trip led me to order some AirTags for my roll-a-boards. I’m finding that I am usually forced to gate-check a bag these days (and/or United will not give you space for a roll-a-board if you are in economy / do not have premier status). This is nice peace of mind if bag goes missing, but also handy, logistically, for knowing whether your bag is even remotely close to being placed on the claim. More great travel gear here, and the best travel tips (crowd-sourced from Magpies!) here.

+My children love the “Story Orchestra” books, especially the Nutcracker one. The illustrations are lovely and you can hear Tchaikovsky’s music by pressing a button on each page. (The Swan Lake one is also a favorite.)

+I bought my children Nutcracker-themed jammies in anticipation of our viewing this year. I also love these (ultra-soft — size up one size for your children, as these run snug!) and these (also comes in the sweetest nightgown format).

+I’m planning to dress my son in this sweater and my daughter in this dress for this year’s performance. These personalized hair bows would be cute for a little lady, too. For a more casual affair: this sweatshirt!

+For dressing myself up for “The Nutcracker” (and other holiday festivities) — shared some thoughts (and a try-on!) here, but also love these glitzy heels, this tulle midi (look for less here; layer over a black midi-length slip), and this embellished cardigan. Also love the idea of incorporating tartan somehow. Love these platform heels or this tartan dress.

+More showstopping holiday/festive looks here.

+This isn’t explicitly “Nutcracker,” but this sweet knit doll reminds me of Clara. I gave my daughter a similar doll for her first “Nutcracker” experience (seen above). This year, I surprised her with this “Nutcracker” sticker book and this Nutcracker-themed sensory play kit.

+For an itty bitty baby!

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10 thoughts on “What Are the Traditions That Matter?

  1. This reflection is so sweet — and so is your comment to Veronica’s prompt! I loved reading about that — I’m one of four children of a father who worked long hours and traveled often for work, and I have so many memories of special moments similar to your fondue night, thanks to my angel mom who made commonplace activities so magical. I also smiled at the reference to a younger sibling coining a funny term that sticks forever in family lore — this is so familiar to me!

    Also, on the AirTags — I just recently did the same to use with whatever suitcase I’m checking, and I must say, what took me so long?! I’m in the (somehow really drawn-out?!) process of transitioning my status from one airline to another, so the gate-check thing is something that looms over me from time to time. I usually just check my bag up front, and that helps my own anxious mind! Anything to make the travel experience more seamless (even if it means waiting a bit on the other side…)


  2. I just loved this beautiful honoring of a special holiday tradition. My beloved grandmother took me to see The Nutcracker every year until I graduated from college and moved to DC, and I am keeping up the tradition with my kids. Two years ago was my Nana’s last time seeing it, but we were with my son for his first time ever – so it was so incredibly special for us all. I’m bringing my husband and 4 year old daughter for their first showing this year, and can’t wait to be with my whole family for this wonderful personal tradition.

    1. I love this so much — thanks for sharing. It must have been such a special occasion to have your grandmother and son together for that viewing. Wow! Her last and his first. So touching!


  3. Something about this line: “the woman I love best in the world” make me choke up at my desk!

    Just like Anna who commented below (above?), this made me more excited for the upcoming holidays. I have a few days alone with my mom due to some wonky travel plans this Thanksgiving and oh how I am going to treasure those days!

    1. I’m so happy for you to have that time with your mother! So special. You’re making me want to call mine up to schedule an afternoon of just lazing around on her couch…


  4. Jen,

    Love this tradition for you and mini!

    Have you read Jenny Rosenstrach’s How to Celebrate Everything: Recipes and Rituals for Birthdays, Holidays, Family Dinners, and Every Day In Between? It’s part cook book, part memoir of her own family’s traditions, but I love how she frames the conversation–it doesn’t have to be elaborate to have a lasting impact on your child. I also love her question, “What food can transport you to your childhood dining room table?” For me, it’s my mom’s spinach enchiladas which she always made on Christmas eve. Is there something for you?

    1. Veronica! This is such a sweet prompt. The first thing that came to mind is SO bizarre — but my mother used to occasionally make us “cheese fondue” as a special treat (such an 80s move), usually when my Dad was out of town. She’d cube and toast bread and arrange crudite around a little Swiss fondue pot, and we’d used long wooden skewers to dip things into the fondue. My sister for some reason (five at the time?) called this “chick fondue” and the name stuck for all of us. I think perhaps because it was SO out of the ordinary for us (my parents were pretty formal growing up, so the idea of crowding around a big pot in the middle of the table was delightfully off-brand) it jumps out at me. It also feels like another way in which my mom made the ordinary (or even slightly stressful) magical for us all. It must have been so hard for her to look after so many children week in and week out, especially when my Dad was traveling a lot for work (one year, he traveled 50 weeks of the year!), but she went the extra mile to give us fun experiences like this.

      Wow. Thanks for the prompt! Hadn’t thought about that in ages…


  5. This is such a great reminder that the things we remember most about the holidays often aren’t the big showy gifts, but the small moments tucked in between. Skating on frozen ponds after school, chasing the setting sun home. Clipping holly branches in the woods with my mom to decorate the mantle. Long walks at dusk with extended family, each of us breaking off into our own little pods for head-to-head chats. I’m excited for Christmas now- thank you for this reminiscing moment!

    1. Amen, Anna! I was thinking about this the other day — when my husband goes out of town for travel, I will occasionally invite my daughter to stay up late and watch part of a movie with me in bed (with snacks, of course — her favorite and most demanded part). It is such a small sliver of time (maybe 30 minutes?) and so simple, but you’d think I’d given her the world on a platter. She talks about it for weeks and weeks and asks me constantly when we can do it again. This is such a big reminder that sometimes doing the small thing is best in parenting. Like, she doesn’t need an elaborate gift / surprise / set-up. She just needs my attention and an out-of-the-ordinary act of love.


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