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Ways to help young children build their own holiday traditions

Every time I hear the musical version of '' 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, '' I am tempted to start acting it out just as I did year after year with my sister. It's a silly little memory, seeing two little girls prancing around the living room for hours at a time. But it's part of my memories of Christmas, and it makes me very happy.

As Christmas approaches, we are constantly bombarded with reminders of past holidays as we hear our favorite carols, look at familiar ornaments, or catch the scents of pine boughs and potpourris. Our children, too, will have warm memories if we include them in holiday preparations. Individual activities and family projects will help frame their ever-broadening vision of Christmas.

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But traditions don't just happen. Here are some proven activity ideas for children of all ages:

One-year-old. Take a family trip in the car some evening to see the best decorations in your neighborhood. Encourage an extralong nap that day. Little ones are rarely out at night and even more rarely see beautiful colored lights. They seem to sense it's something special and act accordingly. Make this an annual outing even as children get older.

Two-year-old. Have your two-year-old use his shovel to fill some empty lunch sacks one-quarter to one-third full of sand or gravel, then let him or her place a short, thick candle in each one. Line the driveway, front walk, or porch with the bags. On Christmas Eve, light the candles and let this little one stay up late enough to see how pretty they look. Don't forget to blow them out before you go to bed.

Three-year-old. Let your three-year-old help you decorate the house. Give the child a bowl, some bright-red apples, pine cones, uncracked nuts of various shapes and sizes, and perhaps some shiny ornaments. Let him or her ''arrange'' them for you. Then pick a special spot for the arrangement to be placed.

Four-year-old. Pick out several ornaments (either old or new) and designate those as the child's own to care for and hang on the tree. When the tree comes down, he or she must carefully wrap them up and pack them away until next year. The child will look forward to opening the boxes of decorations with renewed enthusiasm each year.

Five-year-old. Gingerbread men never go out of style. Get your five-year-old involved from the start, from cracking the eggs to hanging cookies on the tree. Don't rely only on cookie cutters. Let your children design their own. Encourage them to make special ones for special friends. These are wonderful gifts. Children can also design clothes for their gingerbread men and women by adding drops of food coloring to small containers of egg yolk. These colors can be painted on after the cookies have been baked and cooled.

Six-year-old. Children this age are old enough to take charge of decorating their own trees - tabletop variety, of course. You provide construction paper, glitter in pie tins, glue, little candy canes, jingle bells, and pipe cleaners for hangers. Let them do the rest. When complete, a tree like this makes a very special gift for a neighbor who is housebound or otherwise treeless - at the same time reinforcing the spirit of Christmas in your youngster.

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Seven-year-old. Play lots of Christmas music. Borrow records from the library or from friends, or buy one or two special albums. Expose your children to many different kinds of music - international Christmas carols, traditional hymns, ''The Nutcracker Suite'', songs for children. Take them to a Christmas concert at a local high school or church.

Eight-year-old. Go through your eight-year-old's toys with him or her. Together, pick out several that are no longer used. Let the child clean them off and fix them up. Pick an organization that provides used toys to needy children and let him or her go with you to donate the toy personally.

Use your imagination to come up with additional ways to have fun with your children. Take the time to do it. Whatever our ages, we can all get involved in the planning, preparation for, and enjoyment of Christmas. As parents we reap the most as we watch our children grow in their love for and appreciation of this meaningful holiday season.

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