Building traditions with intention.
How we Christmas.
By Marissa Loper
What’s your holiday superpower?
Some of my friends bake and decorate delicious Christmas cookies that are (nearly) too beautiful to eat.
Others fill their homes with so many ornament-laden trees that they could apply to become national forests.
Then there’s the family down the street who plans and executes a Griswold-esque, multimedia light and music display in their front yard every year.
Me? What’s my special celebratory skill?
I’m the (self-appointed) queen of Christmas tradition.
And because ‘tis the season, I’m here to offer you some festive-tradition-planning inspiration—for both your personal life and your professional life.
[Cue falling snow, the Radio City Rockettes and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”]
Tip #1: Carry forward some favorite traditions from your childhood.
Not sure where to start when shoring up your own holiday traditions?
If you’re lucky enough to have enjoyed a happy childhood, begin with a trip down Memory Lane.
For a heartwarming example, let’s jump into my time machine and set the destination for the Murphy home on Christmas morning in Birmingham, Alabama, circa 1983.
Blocking the view to the Christmas tree and our stockings, my parents are making all four of us children gather anxiously on the stairwell.
We know the drill. We must wait in rapt anticipation until our father has thoroughly inspected the living room to determine if Santa Claus has come.
After much audible lamenting and rustling around for what feels like an eternity, Dad finally yells out, “Nope! I’m sorry, children. Santa must have skipped our house.”
Then he and Mom step aside at last, opening the path to the tree. Squealing with laughter and excitement, my siblings and I blow by our parents like Indy 500 drivers and rip into our Christmas presents.
My parents’ annual lesson in the power of delayed gratification heightened the drama of my childhood’s Christmas mornings … and my husband Brook and I chuckle every year as we are now the ones who proclaim, “Sorry, kiddos, looks like Santa didn’t come.”
Tip #2: Feel free to borrow a different family’s ideas.
Hey, not everyone comes from a family background seeped in creative Christmas traditions.
I’m here to testify that it is 100% okay to steal a few good ideas from someone else’s family. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
When we were expecting our first child, my husband Brook and I polled the students in our Young Life group about their favorite Christmas traditions.
The question proved to be a good ice breaker to get a bunch of surly teenagers talking, and it turned out to be a veritable gold mine of ideas for us, too.
One young lady told us her parents gave her and her siblings new pajamas every Christmas Eve.
“I love it because I get to open one present early!” she explained. “And Mom loves it because we all look adorable in all the photos she takes on Christmas morning.”
The “Christmas Eve New PJ” tradition has been a Loper staple ever since.
Tip #3: Sometimes traditions are, errr, bestowed. Roll with it.
When my kiddos were little, Brook’s mom winked at me and handed them an early Christmas gift.
They tore into the brightly wrapped box.
It was an Elf on the Shelf.
The grandmother was delighted. The children were thrilled!
The mom was miffed.
“Thanks a lot for basically handing me a chore that I must do every single night during one of the busiest times of year,” I remember grumbling under my breath.
(Side note: I genuinely lucked out in the mother-in-law department. No one loves Christmas like she does. I was simply an overwhelmed and sleep-deprived young mother who came to embrace and even look forward to the elf tradition. Eventually.)
So, after a deep sigh and a sharp glare at my husband (who wasn’t even trying to conceal his amusement), I forced a smile and asked the kiddos what they’d like to name our elf.
And that’s how a creepy little elf doll named Gilbert became a beloved part of the Loper family.
Please note, dear readers, that although I fixed my attitude about the whole elf tradition, I also made up some important rules to save my sanity.
Gilbert never gives presents or does anything “magical” whatsoever. (Inventing creative elf pranks and spending hours every night setting up those hilarious scenes is a Christmas superpower I admire in others, from a distance.)
From December 1 through December 24, Gilbert simply moves to a new hiding spot after he returns from his nightly check-in at the North Pole.
Sometimes Gilbert is super tricky and returns to the exact same hiding place because he knows we would never think to look for him there! (*Parents of young children, feel free to borrow this explanation when you forget to move your elf. You’re welcome.)
Today, my children are 20, 17 and 14 years old, so our elf tradition looks a little different. I put Gilbert out on December 1, and then our children move him every night. Brook and I get a big kick out of the role reversal.
Tip #4: Don’t forget to create holiday traditions at work, too.
Do you have a moment to hop back in the time machine with me?
Excellent. Let’s go.
It’s November 1987. We’re back in Alabama again, but this time we’re peering into the big picture windows of a fancy-looking store in Mountain Brook Village called The Dandé Lion.
Inside the shop, my father and I are talking to a salesperson. I am feeling super proud and grown-up because Daddy has asked me to help him order Christmas gifts for his top clients.
(My father was a career ad agency executive and was famous for his ability to keep his clients happy and loyal. Many of them continued to hire him for 30+ years. #goals)
After a few moments chatting with the salesperson—we are southerners, after all, and you can’t just dive headfirst into business matters without first inquiring about the other person’s family—my father asks to see the newest nutcrackers for sale.
I turn to my dad with a raised eyebrow.
“Didn’t you give your clients nutcrackers for Christmas last year?” I ask.
“Of course,” he answers. “I give my clients nutcrackers every year.”
“I don’t understand. Isn’t that boring? Shouldn’t you mix it up … and think of something new?”
“No, Reese,” he explains patiently, “I don’t give them the exact same nutcracker every year. I give them a different nutcracker every year. After a few years, thanks to me, they’ll own a collection of nutcrackers. And every year, when my clients pull out their Christmas decorations, all of those nutcrackers will remind them just how long we’ve been working together. They’ll look forward to seeing what this year’s version will look like. And they’ll want to continue hiring me year after year because this tradition reminds them just how much I appreciate them.”
Damn. (That’s present-day Marissa’s reaction. I didn’t cuss back then.)
This particular pearl of wisdom has had a huge impact on me. When I opened my agency some 15 years later, I knew I wanted to start a Christmas tradition of my own.
Every year, Thinkwell sends out whimsical ornaments inspired by patient artwork from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital … an incredible organization located right here in Memphis, Tennessee. All proceeds from these ornaments go toward taking care of families at the hospital and funding research to accomplish St. Jude’s goal of ending childhood cancer. Theirs is a mission I love to support.
A select group of our very top-tier clients get an even fancier Christmas ornament. For many years, we sent those top clients gorgeous crystal ornaments from Tiffany & Co.
Oh, how my clients (and/or their wives) loved receiving those little blue boxes every December! Some of my clients would hang their collection of a dozen or so crystal Tiffany ornaments from their chandeliers and send me pictures.
It was perfect.
Until it wasn’t.
In 2021, Tiffany shut down all business account discounts and, even worse, stopped making crystal ornaments. [Marissa shakes fists in the air.]
I was so upset. My tradition was ruined.
So, we pivoted.
I hired a Memphis artist—my incredibly talented friend Stacey Meredith—to create hand-painted ornaments. Stacey’s ornaments are beautiful, and I absolutely love supporting a local artist. (That said, if any of you know executives at Tiffany & Co.’s corporate headquarters, please deliver to them a huge lump of coal from me. They are not on my nice list.)
To round out our Thinkwell Christmas traditions, every single year, we send all of our clients and partners a custom printed, paper Christmas card.
Please note I did not say a digital message.
I also did not say a generic greeting card.
Good gracious, people, Thinkwell is a creative agency! It’s literally our job to design things people will actually pay attention to and appreciate.
We Thinkwellians recognize that sending an email (even if it includes a festive holiday gif) to an already overflowing inbox doesn’t impart the holiday wishes of peace and joy we want for our client friends.
But a clever, tangible surprise nestled amongst the boring bills and ads in your postal mailbox? Yes, please!
So, we write, design, print and mail a fabulous card every year that includes a photo of each Thinkwellian. In the card, we always offer our sincere gratitude. Without our clients, Thinkwell’s doors couldn’t stay open. And we want every single client to feel the love.
My father would be so proud.
So, what are you waiting for?
Traditions make us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Traditions give us things to look forward to and count on.
Perhaps most importantly, they connect us to the people who follow the traditions with us.
So, hurry up! Build some fun traditions of your own.
And if you don’t know where to start, come sit down with me. I’d be delighted to help you. (Bonus points if you bring chai tea lattes to this brainstorming session.)
Merry Christmas, friends!
P.S. Don’t forget to move your elf tonight.