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“This,” declared my 13-year-old, looking me straight in the eye, “is the year we bring back all the holiday traditions we’ve abandoned.”
“Abandoned” felt like a bit of a strong word, but I knew what he meant. Over the past five years or so, our family’s celebration of the holiday season has undergone a lot of small changes – or what seemed like small changes to me at the time. We’ve had good reasons: illnesses and deaths in the family, changed travel plans, new commitments filling the calendar, and pandemic restrictions all played a part in our decisions. But what felt like sensible updates to me, apparently felt like a series of cruelly discarded traditions to my son.
I wondered how other families deal with the need to make changes to seasonal celebrations. After all, people grow, families change, and life sometimes takes unexpected turns. The annual cookie decorating party or 40-person dinner at Grandma’s can’t go on forever. So I turned to our Executive Director, Dr. Anne Fishel, to ask: What can families do when the holidays have to change?
First, Dr. Fishel says, it’s important to remember that change is inevitable. “We tend to think of holidays as being about tradition, doing things exactly the same way year after year,” she says. “But with creativity, flexibility, and reflection, families can shift their weight and reinvent when change is needed. It’s the balance of familiarity and novelty that keeps the holidays feeling meaningful.”
She points out that there are a number of reasons, many of them positive, why families may feel the need to adapt their celebrations. Aside from obvious life transitions like a death in the family or a divorce, there are lots of milestones that might cause a shift in holiday plans. “Maybe, an adult child has gone to spend the holiday with his girlfriend’s family,” she says. “Parents who have hosted the holiday for decades are passing the mantle to the next generation. Or, a grandchild is expected around the holiday, so other plans are put on hold.”
Whatever the reason, as family life evolves, so can our traditions. Here are some of Dr. Fishel’s tips for dealing with change this holiday season:
- Stick with tradition when and where you can. Families might find comfort in holding onto the same recipes or gift-giving rituals they’ve always enjoyed, especially in the wake of a major loss. “Our family always makes my deceased mother’s sweet potato dish,” she says. “It’s slightly boozy and very sugary, and even though there are other potato dishes we might prefer, it’s more important to feel her presence each year through her signature dish.”
- But be open to the idea of making a bigger change. Sometimes, it’s too emotionally challenging to celebrate in the same place, with the same people, eating the same foods as we did before a loss or transition. Changing who hosts the holiday, switching up the menu, or even deciding to opt out of certain celebrations altogether might feel more comfortable.
- Find a way to include or honor missing family members. Whether you have a video call with loved ones who can’t make it this year, or you light a candle or set a place for someone you’ve lost, it can be healing to make a connection with the people you’re missing during the holidays. “Perhaps, at the beginning of the meal, everyone shares a memory of the missing person, or remembers something from previous holiday celebrations with that family member,” Dr. Fishel suggests.
- Be gentle with each other, and remember that the holidays raise the stakes. “Holiday meals turn up the heat,” Dr. Fishel notes. “And the multi-sensory input from holiday smells, familiar songs, sticky confections, makes it easier to remember previous holidays and compare them to our current ones.” It’s that sense of memory and tradition – and comparison – that can make change and loss particularly hard to bear at this time of year. It’s important to keep in mind that emotions will be heightened right now, and try to be extra kind and compassionate with each other as we make decisions about how to celebrate.
- Recognize that even a “return to normal” can feel like a change. “A global pandemic that upended our work, school, social lives, and ability to come together for holidays and celebrations, is now abating. This may be the first holiday season in two and a half years that feels more normal, or like a new normal,” Dr. Fishel points out. Our partners at the MGH Clay Center have some specific advice for navigating post-pandemic holiday changes on their blog.
Above all, my son’s insistence on reviving old ways of celebrating this year reminded me that it’s most important to tackle holiday changes together. Making sure everyone has a voice and feels included in the decisions can smooth over some of the conflict that may arise during a season of change.
Whether you’re celebrating the season as you always have, or trying some new traditions this year, The Family Dinner Project Team wishes you a peaceful and fulfilling end to 2022. Happy Holidays!
A Special Holiday Gift for You!
Throughout the month of December, you can get 30% off your purchase of our book, “Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook” at Familius.com! Enter discount code FamilyDinner at checkout to redeem the offer. The book makes a great holiday gift, or a wonderful addition to your family library as you prepare for a year of family dinners in 2023!
Make breakfast, brunch, or dinner extra festive with this quiche recipe from our friends at GoodCook!
Even in times of change, there’s always something to be grateful for! Enjoy these gratitude-inspiring movies together this holiday season.
Dinner and a Movie: Holiday Movies
Talk about your family traditions, old and new, with these conversation starters.