On Creating Family Traditions: How our Tiger Came to Life

Elf on the Shelf creeps me out. The kindness elves seem overly-moralizing and reactionary, sitting around judging the Elf on the Shelf.  Three years ago, that duality was almost a war on my social media feed, and with my then 3-year-old and twin 1-year-olds, I thought I might be required to pick sides. My childhood traditions didn’t seem to fit my adult mothering style, and more importantly, my oldest child has what I think they call “sleep difficulties” — at that time, the twins didn’t sleep either. I was losing my mind trying to get the kids to just go to sleep by myself while my night-working partner was out of the house. I needed an incentive to get my oldest to go to bed (and stay in there!) while I put the twins down for the night in a complicated ritual that seemed to take about five eons a night. Elves seemed like the big thing, and I was willing to do anything for sleep. Fortunately as a millennial my social media consumption is incredibly vast, and right around the same time I ran across this story about a family who had the kid’s plastic dinosaurs come to life every day in November to create havoc and fun.

Dinosaur shenanigans resonated a lot more with me than elves. My oldest didn’t have any plastic dinosaurs when I was looking to start this little tradition, so I grabbed the closest thing that wouldn’t get broken, seemed fairly poseable, and that he wasn’t attached to sleeping with: a stuffed tiger purchased on impulse from the zoo a year earlier. Thus, the Tigey Chronicles were born.

Every year, on the first of December, Tigey comes to life. The tiger has made candy cane ziplines, paper chain decorations, and fuse bead snowstorms. Sometime there’re presents- like a set of amazing glitter dinosaur tree ornaments and sometimes Tigey just hides in a bowl next to all the ingredients one would need to make gingerbread cookies. On days that the tiger may have been working late before turning in, sometimes the morning surprise is just a piece of paper that says they can have hot chocolate in the morning. I love that I can weave in some Winter Solstice lanterns and light walks into the ever present Christmas messaging, and that the kids talk about Tigey all year like magic is real.

                Magic is real, of course. Terry Pratchett wrote in Wee Free Men that “It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works”, which stuck with me a lot better than the Clarke’s “Magic is just science that we don’t understand yet”.  As a dedicated daily scientist with more than one degree in science, magic has always been a fascinating topic. This tiny magic that I make each December is very real now, and what makes it real is the belief and the kinship that Tigey forges into a living thing. The freedom of creativity, of allowing children to make their own connections, creates these beautiful spontaneous conversations on so many different topics. Their belief kindles in me new joy. Fun shared with others is scientifically shown to be more fun than playing alone and play has long been shown to be important to our health.  Me putting this stuffed tiger into a pretend car wash scenario is basically a longevity potion. Sure, you can call it enhanced limbic activity or increased probability of sustained increase in exercise but it’s still magic all the same.

So here I am. Three years later, mid blowing up balloons because our magical tiger is going to have a ball pit hidden in a play tent. All three of my kids are sleeping, even the one who usually doesn’t. My partner is also blowing up balloons. Somehow that desperate December choice ended up not only getting my big kid to stay in his big kid bed, it created a truly enjoyable holiday tradition that not only my family but my community loves to participate in. Yeah, it’s a little more work to do things every night- and that’s the main push back I hear from so many other parents.

For me, it’s totally worth the trade off. Having this tradition spreads out our holiday excitement, which decreases some of that holiday overwhelm, and gives us space to tailor the day to best fit what the kids need to fill up their love bucket. All that setup and coming up with ideas over the year results in teaching my kids that play is a lifelong effort, that being together and prioritizing that connection is the reason we all make it through the dark every year, and that sometimes the best way to achieve goals is to think creatively.

Ok maybe all they’re picking up at six, three, and three is that if they go to bed on time, the morning is more fun. But they’ll get there.

Alicia is a naturopathic primary care physician based in Oregon.  She's a mother of three, a lover of science, and a huge proponent of motherhood support. You can find out more about her practice here