It’s easy to repeat the same old traditions we’ve always done around the holidays. The annual turkey trot. The Christmas tree lighting. The staff holiday party. The tree chopping, the decorating. The traditional meal. The gift buying. Over the years, the “sacred traditions” pile high. And once something’s a tradition—it’s there to stay. And there’s something great about that. The consistency. The legacy. But what makes traditions so meaningful to us—well, it’s also why traditions drive us crazy.
Think about it. What’s wonderful about old traditions?
Traditions mark the passage of time; they remind us of our earlier selves and of generations before us. Traditions connect us to the past and future.
What’s the problem with old traditions?
Over time, things change! We have new ideas, opinions, preferences and needs. The makeup of our friends and family groups has shifted. Our health is in a different place. Our jobs have new requirements. Sometimes, a tradition that used to fit is too small or worn out or baggy in the middle.
But giving up traditions can feel closer to throwing away a family heirloom than donating old clothes.
In trying to change a tradition, we will face resistance from family and friends (“But we always decorate the tree together”) and—perhaps surprisingly—from ourselves. If strolling the decorated streets interrupts my kiddo’s bedtime schedule, hypes her up on sugar, and makes for a miserable next day at daycare, a halt in any productivity at home and a chaotic 48 hours, why do I still kind of want to go?
This is when we need to pause. Listen to yourself. Carefully. That inner resistance signals that we need to listen to ourselves. You are complex, and your attachment to your traditions is complex too.
Ask yourself, where is the fear?
- fear of disappointing others
- fear of disconnecting from the past
- fear of closing a life chapter
- fear of rejection
Then, turn the page. Ask yourself, where is the love?
- love of time together
- love of a cultural tradition
- love of a faith tradition
- love of a certain food or activity
- love of the weather, the smells or the experience
Think, what is the cost to you?
- in finances
- in emotional energy
- in time
If we feel like our only two options are (a) to throw out the tradition entirely or (b) get in line, we become stressed. Because, either way, we feel like we’re disappointing ourselves.
But the best kept secret about traditions—what the old guard doesn’t want you to figure out—is that traditions change too. Time changes even the most culturally-reinforced traditions. Christians have not always put up Christmas trees. Grandma has not always brought her famous mashed potatoes to Thanksgiving. It’s just not true.
Traditions are not set in stone. Pick them up, and you’ll find they’re built with softer material than you might have been led to believe.
To the surprise of Grandma—and everyone else—traditions can change in time, in place and in composition. The tree can be smaller—or plastic. Grandma can bring her potatoes to Christmas. Gifts don’t have to be wrapped. Thanksgiving can even happen on a Tuesday.
In my family growing up, both of my parents worked every Christmas Eve—at least until 6 or 7pm. We also hosted Christmas for the extended family, all of whom had driven in and, by 7:30, were hungry and tired and wanting to sit down. Having a home-cooked meal, although meaningful in its design and intention, left my parents flustered and stressed—and the rest of our family starved.
But the big Christmas Eve family dinner had been a staple of our family for years. Generations. Since the dawn of time.
But once we clarified what we valued about the meal—the food, the time together, and having it at Christmastime—as well as what it cost us to keep the status quo (stress and hunger)—we realized that having the meal on Christmas Eve actually undermined why we loved the meal in the first place. Moving our Christmas meal from the 24th to the 25th was the best holiday change we’ve made. Since then, my family orders out on Christmas Eve, and we have home-cooked favorites the next day.
And guess what: now, my favorite Christmas tradition is Chinese food by the fire on Christmas Eve. And that’s something I’ve held onto.
Take a moment to list out all the traditions and events you have in this season.
- religious gatherings
- family visits
You might be surprised about how much you have going on. No wonder you feel stressed!
- For each event, list the parties involved (you, your parents, your co-workers, your sister-in-law, your college friends).
- For each person or group, imagine why they might value the tradition.
- Now, consider yourself: how does each of these traditions benefit you? What is making each of them difficult?
Now that you have this list, compare and contrast the values and benefits for others and yourself. Do they align? How do they differ? Can you imagine how you might preserve the values—while shedding some of the cost?
Then, check it out in real life! Ask your friends and family what they value about each tradition. Brainstorm ways to keep what you love—whether its songs, pumpkin pie, a time to honor the past—and discard what doesn’t serve those ends.
Write about it. Talk about it. Dream up what this season could look like this year.
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