The holidays are a time for celebrating traditions. For some, it’s watching favorite movies (“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “A Christmas Story” top my family’s list). For others, it’s digging into that special once-a-year treat (Aunt Christine’s pumpkin cheesecake, anyone?).
No matter what is on your list, just the thought of the upcoming holiday season can elicit joy. But what happens when you know that a beloved tradition is about to be broken? That is the situation in my house. We are experiencing a huge change this year, one that my teenage daughter is already dreading.
“I can’t believe my favorite holiday is going to be ruined!” I’ve heard that phrase more than once since summer, and as turkey day draws near, it’s uttered with more frequency.
You see, Thanksgiving is a big deal in my family. For us, it’s the official kickoff to the holiday season – at 11:59 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day to be precise. That’s the moment when Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive in Herald Square during the Macy’s parade. “The holidays can begin!” my mother would exclaim. It’s what I have been telling my daughter every year as well.
What followed was a daylong feast – either at my sister’s house or mine. Sometimes the day was cut short if one of us has to work on Friday, but oftentimes we stayed late and laughed often. Some years we had extra guests – friends, family from out of town, neighbors – but most years it was just our two families. Thanksgiving weekend wrapped up with my family getting a tree and decorating the house from top to bottom.
But this year … this year will be different. My sister and her family moved away over the summer, and my daughter was devastated. Since she is an only child, her cousins are more like siblings, and being hundreds of miles away from them has been tough. What’s worse, we are now left with no immediate family close by. This holiday season, it’s just me, my husband, and our daughter. Not exactly a party, especially for a 15 year old.
The times, they are a changin’
Shake-ups to holiday traditions are nothing new to my family. We already experienced a major change two years ago when my mother passed away. Our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without her were hard, but we leaned on each other for emotional support and made it through. There was no shortage of “remember when” stories to ease the pain. We continued that tradition the following year, much to everyone’s delight.
That’s not to say that adopting a new tradition always works. If not done properly, it can backfire. Years ago, when my husband and I lived in Florida, we were lucky enough to have both our families there as well. We would conveniently bounce between homes to celebrate the holidays. However, my family eventually moved north, leaving a void that I tried – very unsuccessfully – to fill.
One year, I had the brilliant idea to host Thanksgiving dinner for my husband’s side of the family – parents, siblings, etc. “I’ve got this!” I proudly proclaimed. Everyone would gather in one place and have the best holiday ever.
I was so proud of this glorious meal that I created, which included made-from-scratch scalloped potatoes, fresh veggies, homemade biscuits, and more. My bubble quickly burst as soon as my in-laws walked in the door: “Where’s the green bean casserole?” “I don’t see sweet potato pie.” “How come there are no mashed potatoes?”
They weren’t trying to be mean. (Side note: I love my in-laws.) They were just used to the food they always had on Thanksgiving. I was unintentionally breaking their tradition. Did I realize that then? Absolutely not! I burst into tears and locked myself in a bedroom. What else do you expect a twentysomething to do? Today, some X number of years later, I get it.
Not long after that debacle, my husband and I moved north, too. (Additional side note: Yes, I have a wonderful husband who moved away from his family and the warmth of South Florida to the Northeast with no argument.) That move meant that the new holiday traditions with my side of the family would take hold.
So let’s get back to 2016, where I realize that my situation is hardly unique. Every day, people experience a variety of events that can easily change their holiday customs. Here are a just a few:
- Divorce: This is a big one, especially due to the impact it can have on children. Discuss how to handle the holidays in advance, and if the children are old enough, involve them in the planning.
- Death: When loved ones die, the holidays can bring about a flood of emotions. Take the time to honor their memory – set a symbolic place at the table, visit the cemetery, take turns sharing stories, look through old photos. Grieving is a natural part of healing. If you need help, here is a guide to healthy grieving.
- New family: When a marriage or relationship brings new family members into the mix, setting boundaries, learning to say no, and resisting the urge to compare one family’s past with the other’s can go a long way toward reducing stepfamily stress and tension. Don’t forget to take different religions and cultures into consideration. Take the time to learn about the observance and incorporate some of those traditions.
- Financial difficulties: Whether you are dealing with job loss or other financial pressures, you need to be realistic. Overspending will only lead to future stress. In fact, money concerns top the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America™ report year after year. Creating – and truly sticking to – a budget can help ease this stress.
If you are facing any of the above-mentioned or other stressors this coming season, here are coping tips to help guide you through. Exercise, healthy eating, and meditation are other ways to destress over the holidays.
Anne Fernandez, MD, a CDPHP® medical director who oversees the behavioral health department, makes a good point: “The only constant is change,” she says. She also points out that help is available for those who may experience more than just the “holiday blues,” including an after-hours crisis line (1-888-320-9584) for CDPHP members.
Ways to Create New Traditions
If you are ready to retire old traditions or are looking to fill in the space where one might be changing, here are some suggestions to get started.
Stay connected: If you are separated by miles, use technology to your advantage. Apps like Skype, FaceTime, and Snapchat are fun ways to bridge the gap. Open a video chat and watch the gift-opening extravaganza, for example.
Play games: Our get-togethers always include time for games. One of our favorites is the Salad Bowl Game, a unique take on charades. All you need is a bowl, a timer, paper and pens, and a good imagination. Put out a few board games or a deck of cards and encourage some healthy competition.
Tell stories: Holiday gatherings are the perfect time to share memories. Ask family members to bring old photos to help illustrate.
Attend an event: The holiday season is filled with local events, such as tree lightings, holiday concerts, religious events, and plays. Pick an event and invite your friends and family to come along. Many are free or low-cost!
Volunteer: A wonderful way to embrace the spirit of the season is through volunteering. There’s an overwhelming need this time of year. In the past, my daughter and I have been bell ringers for the Salvation Army and have served holiday dinners at local shelters. Contact area nonprofits to find out how you can help.
Cookie swap via the mail: Every year, my sister and I would have a massive baking day at her house. The kids would decorate the sugar cookies and build gingerbread houses. While we can’t do that in person, there is a way to share that baked goodness – a mailbox cookie swap! Have each family bake up a batch of their favorite cookies, divide them among the groups, put them in pretty packages, and mail them to each other. Make sure you share the recipes. You can also whip up extra batches to share with friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
Go caroling: This is a fun activity to do with kids. If you don’t want to travel around your neighborhood, check with local senior centers and nursing homes to find out if they allow these impromptu “concerts.”
Host a “Friendsgiving”: While it’s more of a millennial tradition, you don’t have to be one to host this gathering of friends. Many celebrate either the Wednesday before or the Friday after Thanksgiving. You can also host a mid-season party with friends and neighbors. This could help satisfy your desire for participating in a large gathering if you don’t have your family around.
Cook together: It’s a great way to introduce dishes to new family members or to perfect that classic family recipe. Kids love to help in the kitchen, too, so make sure you include them.
Try a different meal altogether: Thanksgiving without turkey? Maybe. Remember my “made-from-scratch” nightmare dinner? (OK, it really wasn’t that bad!) Take a lesson from that and try something new. I would just strongly suggest you get your guests’ buy-in first! You can always start small – say swap out mashed potatoes for those fabulous scalloped potatoes instead.
Go shopping: Yes, I know this hits a nerve with a lot of folks, but let’s face it, many stores are open on Thanksgiving and they offer great deals. The middle-of-the-night run to the mall is always big in my brother’s house. He makes it a true family affair by including his wife, kids, and mother in-law in the chaos.
No matter what you do, keep in mind that traditions take time. If something doesn’t work, don’t feel bad about dropping it altogether. The ultimate goal here is peace, love, and happiness – and maybe a piece of Aunt Christine’s pumpkin cheesecake!