By Sandy Hsu | @hopefulsmiles
Last December was a crazy time for our family. Baby Rosie was born the second week of November, so we entered the holiday season in the throes of newborn days, sleepless nights, and navigating pandemic life as a newly minted family of four. I accomplished all of my Christmas shopping at three a.m. with a breast pump in one hand and my phone in the other, and my first postpartum outing that wasn’t to a doctor’s office was to the Home Depot Christmas tree lot.
Every morning when I emerged from the bedroom bleary-eyed after a night of broken sleep, my daughter Emme would always cheerfully greet me with the same dreaded question, “So, what are we going to do today?”
That question struck a nerve. Between caring for a baby and the never ending daily to-dos, life was full! Did I really have to add doing holiday activities with my three-year-old to the list?
But as I reflected back on 2020, I realized that perhaps this was exactly what my daughter and I needed: time set aside to slow down and connect. There is something comforting and redemptive about the holidays that I wanted to enjoy with my daughter, especially in the midst of all the change and uncertainty.
So, I fell back on what I’d learned after a pandemic year of stumbling through homeschooling and planning activities to keep my daughter busy (and myself sane): Start with a book.
I began with a list of a dozen holiday picture books and then paired each one to a little craft with a similar theme. Having a simple framework and theme for curating activities helped me to avoid over-planning and Pinterest overwhelm. It was such a joy to spend quality time with my daughter while doing something festive and fun even when life felt crazy.
I hope the ideas here will help you simplify planning holiday activities with your little one this year so you can also enjoy more intentional togetherness. Remember, it can start small: just one read-aloud book and one simple craft at a time. Incorporate your own holiday traditions and do as much or as little as you have time for— whether it’s 30 minutes during the weekend or stretching a theme over the course of a few days by adding activities and outings— it doesn’t have to be complicated to be special.
1. Delivering Holiday Cheer
Book: The Jolly Christmas Postman by Alan Ahlberg | Craft: Making Christmas Cards
‘Tis the season when the packages, cards, and letters come pouring in! The Jolly Christmas Postman is one of our absolute favorites— each page of this interactive book has an envelope filled with a fun letter, card, game, or puzzle. The story follows the jolly postman as he delivers Christmas mail to fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters.
For the craft, I provided pre-folded cardstock and set up a divided tray with stickers, ribbon, sequins, and markers for my daughter to create her own Christmas cards for family and friends. I love open-ended activities like this, and my daughter enjoyed it so much that we left the tray out so she could continue working on cards throughout the month.
More activity and book ideas: Learn more about the post office and mail delivery with The Post Office Book: Mail and How it Moves, make care packages for mail carriers/delivery workers, more ideas for Christmas cards kids can make, Last Stop on the Reindeer Express, Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds
2. Let It Snow
Book: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats | Craft: Snow Puffy Paint
The Snowy Day is a timeless story of a boy experiencing the wonder of winter’s first snow. We live in Southern California where snow is at least a few hours away in the mountains at limited times of year, so that definitely adds a magical “special occasion” quality to anything snow-related.
We loved this super easy puffy paint recipe (equal parts shaving cream and white Elmer’s glue with a sprinkle of glitter) that has a really fun creamy texture and dries light and poofy! Cut a tree outline out of construction paper and create a winter snow scene, paint a snowman, or draw a snowflake and have your child trace it with the puffy paint.
More activity and book ideas: Cut paper snowflakes, make a cotton ball snowman, make a winter snowflake sensory bottle or snow globe (remember to hot glue the lid shut to prevent a mess!), The Mitten and do a mitten lacing activity, Snow, The Magic of Friendship Snow
3. Magical Wonderland
Book: The Nutcracker by The New York City Ballet | Craft: Paint a Nutcracker
Toy soldiers, fairies, an epic battle, dancing snowflakes, and a land of sweets— there is something for every child (and child at heart) in this classic Christmas tale! My daughter started ballet classes again this year so I’m excited to introduce her to the Nutcracker ballet.
More activity and book ideas: Watch The Nutcracker ballet, play Candyland (land of sweets!), listen to music from The Nutcracker while building a gingerbread house, make nutcracker puppets with this free printable and put on a show, The Story Orchestra: The Nutcracker is another beautifully illustrated version of this classic
4. The Season of Giving
Book: My Little Gifts: A Book of Sharing by Jo Witek | Craft: Salt Dough Ornaments
My Little Gifts is a wonderful book about generosity, sharing, and kindness. Whether it’s hand-making a gift, helping a friend, or sharing with a sibling, this book encourages little ones that we all have something to give! In a season where it’s easy for kids to focus on receiving, this book is a great conversation-starter about the joy of giving.
After reading the book, my daughter and I made salt dough ornaments as gifts for the grandparents. We used a simple 3 ingredient salt dough recipe, holiday-themed cookie cutters, and decorated the ornaments with paint and glitter.
More activity and book ideas: Bake cookies for the neighbors, ideas for 12 homemade gifts your child can make for friends/cousins/classmates, caroling or find a local volunteer opportunity (giving time/talent), have your child pick out a toy to donate to Toys for Tots.
5. Oh Christmas Tree
Book: The Tree That’s Meant to Be by Yuval Zommer | Craft: Decorate a Paper Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree is one of my family’s favorite holiday traditions— from picking out the tree to decorating it, opening gifts under the tree, and the smell of fresh pine in the house all month long. The Tree That’s Meant to Be is a sweet, beautifully illustrated story about a lonely little fir tree and the forest animals that help cheer it up.
For the craft, I cut a Christmas tree shape out of green construction paper and set out various embellishments like sequins and ribbon for my daughter to use for decorations. I also loved this idea of cutting up a paper plate and painting it green to create the base of the tree.
More activity and book ideas: Decorate the Christmas tree together, free Christmas tree activity printable activity sheets for toddlers/preschoolers, make a pine cone bird feeder, Red and Lulu, Pick A Pine Tree, Rory the Dinosaur Needs a Christmas Tree
Bonus Resource for Advent: In our family, we celebrate the Christian tradition of Advent and we’ve particularly loved reading through The Jesus Storybook Bible. Check out this free advent toolkit with a daily reading guide, coloring pages, and beautiful printable ornaments that count down the days to Christmas.
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Sandy Hsu | @hopefulsmiles
Sandy is a wife, mother of two, and scientist-turned-writer living in Los Angeles, California. When she’s not reading to her girls, cleaning up mealtime messes, or struggling to keep up with the laundry, Sandy enjoys writing, painting, and planning travel adventures with her family. A lover of good stories and thought-provoking conversations, Sandy strives to find joy and beauty in the midst of the daily grind and hopes to encourage other moms to do the same.