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As a Family Changes, So Can Holiday Traditions

How to let go of the old and embrace the new

Bruce Ayres/Getty Images

It doesn’t matter whether it’s Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Christmas, many people feel pressure to maintain family holiday traditions — be it dusting off the usual recipes, bringing out your mother’s china, or traveling to have dinner at grandma’s house.

“Holidays are infused with expectations. I think this is part of what gets us in trouble,” says Michelle Baumgartner, an integrative psychotherapist with Sutter Health in the San Francisco Bay Area. “If you think about the Hallmark Christmas or the Hallmark holiday, there is some pressure to live up to some idea of what a holiday or tradition means.”

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Sometimes we want to change the pattern — maybe there’s a new baby in the family and travel to the usual holiday host’s home becomes more difficult, or you’re tired of the same roast beef every year. As we age, roles shift; often family members in the younger (or sandwich) generation want to start their own traditions.

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But something as seemingly simple as changing what’s for dinner can create unexpected angst and stress during the holiday season, Baumgartner notes: “Foods are important, and if certain foods didn’t show up or didn’t get made, or [deciding] let’s go out for dinner this year instead of making dinner, some people are going to like that, and some are not.”

It doesn’t help that we’re already often under more stress  in general  this time of year, points out Mason Turner, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii, “so we enter into the season already primed for conflict.”  

A few ways to sensitively break with tradition when family members might be resistant:

End one tradition, start another

If you’re contemplating modifying or ending traditions that have lasted decades, Turner recommends taking the time to think about why the tradition came about in the first place. “If you can create a new tradition that honors that reason and the feelings and emotions behind it, the risk of conflict will be much less,” says Turner. That could mean sharing a special brunch with in-laws the day after Christmas so the holiday itself can be dedicated to your own family. “If you want to break a long-standing tradition, make sure to offer something in its place, either during the holidays or at another time,” adds Turner.

Communicate your needs respectfully

Families’ needs and expectations are always changing. Communication, though sometimes difficult, is important and can go a long way toward avoiding conflict. It may be about creating boundaries. You can tell your grandmother that the annual 5 p.m. church service “doesn’t work so well for my new baby. Could we be flexible or maybe I can join you later?” advises Baumgartner. “Families are very complicated. Everybody’s family is complicated. There are multiple nuances in every grouping,” says Neeta Jain, M.D., medical director of integrative medicine with Sutter Health’s Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Her advice: Be respectful of everybody’s needs and make everyone in the family feel comfortable and included.

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Be flexible

Resistance to change is normal, but the ability to be flexible and resilient — even if others aren’t! — can help keep families in the holiday spirit. Instead of focusing on traditions being changed or eliminated, take time to be grateful for being together and having the chance to connect. It will bring more enjoyment to the holidays.