Holiday Traditions: Why We Need Them

By Victoria Duncan 

          Show me some hands: Who admits to having mixed feelings about the upcoming season of festivities? Just what I thought, I have company. But even the most Grinch-like soul usually finds moments of joy along with those usual reasons for ambivalence — the overloaded schedules, never-ending shopping list, food to prepare and presents to wrap. 

          Yet among my acquaintances of the same age, a new melancholy lingers in the air along with the tinkling of silver bells. The reason? Our family dynamics have changed and, with them, our traditions, those rituals and customs that add beauty and depth to our lives, are altered too. In some cases, it’s enough to take the happy right out of the holidays. 

          Many of us have grown children who may be married with families of their own. Now, if we’re lucky, we share holidays with our offspring and a new set of in-laws. If we’re unfortunate and one side of the family corners the market, we may be left with nobody coming home for Christmas ever again. Over time, we’ve also lost a number of loved ones to divorce, illness or death. Our holiday table looks rather bare and in fact we might spend this holiday alone or nearly alone, perhaps for the first time in our lives. 

          A friend lamented that her newly married daughter and son-in-law have elected to spend Christmas at a luxurious country inn after explaining that it is time for them to make their own holiday traditions. For years, my friend has created a merry celebration for her family, complete with church services and piles of presents. Now, she dreads an empty December and resents the idea of shopping and mailing the usual bounty of gifts to her absent family. 

          Perhaps this daughter’s holiday approach has the making of a trend, because I’ve heard this viewpoint several times. My guess is this “it’s all about me, or rather, us” perspective comes from some well-meaning bridal magazine article gone awry with the message taken out of context. Of course, new couples must create their own traditions, but that doesn’t require that they eschew their families or holiday customs they were raised with. A couple encompasses more than a husband and wife. Rather, each brings to their union a history that stretches back generations. This history, including the positives and negatives unique to each family, shapes who each partner is today.  

          In an ideal world, a wise and sensitive couple selects positive elements from each family, adds their own rituals, and blends them into a holiday of inclusion rather than exclusion. Doing so honors their own childhoods, bolsters family ties, pays tribute to their parents and connects them to the generations that preceded them in life. Everyone benefits. 

          If this was an easy task, holidays would not be fraught with tension and many a would-be reveler would not end up feeling like the grandma that got run over by the reindeer. But before lobbying for an amendment to ban all holidays, remember that these special occasions do serve a purpose besides stimulating the economy. When handled well, holidays lift us out of the ordinary, celebrate our faith and foster connections with our loved ones. 

          Perhaps those newlyweds feel overwhelmed with trying to balance the expectations of two extended families or are trying to assert their independence. And perhaps they are simply misguided about the functions of traditions and have misunderstood what makes a custom meaningful. While a stay at a country inn might be a treat, it falls pretty flat as a Christmas tradition of depth and substance. 

          Traditions, those regular rituals which can range from a daily practice such as saying grace prior to meals to the more weighted customs of a major holiday, solidify our identity as a family. They say we belong, to each other as a couple but also to our extended families. These traditions provide a predictable rhythm and security to our lives within our chaotic world. When our traditions are challenged, we fight to keep them and when our traditions are broken, something within us dies. 

          Tevye, the main character in Fiddler on the Roof, opened the popular 1964 musical with a question and an answer which he belted out in a song: “How do we keep our balance? I can tell you in one word… Tradition!” Tevye couldn’t tell us where each tradition originated, but he knew it spoke loudly to security, belonging and connection with those who comprised his clan and his circle of support. As he pauses before another booming chorus, Tevye says, “I’ll tell you this: Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is. Without traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” 

          An alteration or loss of our treasured traditions unsettles us. We expect and look forward to our holiday rituals. Change is always difficult. So, if you find that you are feeling as shaky as that fiddler on the roof because your own traditions have been challenged or lost, consider these suggestions to help steady you through the season: 

   Feel your sadness: Grief is an appropriate emotion in reaction to the loss of your traditions. Find a good friend for support.

   Accept Change: It’s hard to let go of things we hold dear, but avoid laying guilt trips on family members who want to make changes. This only alienates them and cements their resistance.

   Practice patience: Most of us don’t know how important our traditions are until they aren’t there any longer. Your family may gravitate back to some of your customs as they mature.

   Share: Support and encourage married children to share holiday time with both families—even if your family is the preferred choice. Alternate years or holidays. You’ll do their marriage a favor and grandchildren will learn to appreciate their wider extended family and have a healthy example to emulate when they become adults.

   Pass the Platters: Be gracious when your children take over hosting the festivities. Offer assistance and enjoy your free time. Smile when you think how sorry they will be when they find out how much work is involved.

   Tweak your traditions: Make changes to enhance your own life. Downscale buying those gifts. A magazine subscription, a park membership or a pair of tickets for a sports event make a thoughtful gift and reduce the labor of mailing packages

   Sooth your soul and lift your spirits: Plan ahead for activities that uplift you rather than waiting until you are down and nothing sounds appealing. Deepen your faith commitment. Host a brunch or treat yourself to a concert. Stay busy, volunteer and plan projects around your home. If you feel more upbeat around others, reach out for company. These activities form the basis for new traditions. 

          As we age, our family constellations change along with our traditions and part of us will always mourn for those good old days. However, focus on those new memories waiting to be made. Remember that someday, today will be the good old days, so decide now to make it the best it can be. 

Vicki is a licensed professional counselor and can be reached at [email protected]





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