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When Is it Time to Stop (or Start) Hosting the Holidays?

Passing the baton and changing traditions can be difficult for families

grandmother carrying turkey for family dinner
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​Hosting for the holidays can be a marathon sport. There’s planning the meals, buying the groceries, cleaning the house, cooking the food. It’s a lot of work, especially for older adults who have been at the holiday helm for two — sometimes three — generations.

When is it time to call it quits and let the younger generation take over?

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That’s a difficult question for all involved. It can be difficult to give up the role of host after so many years; on the other side, it can be hard to take over that role, especially after a lifetime of baking, decorating, game-playing and gift-giving traditions.

“It’s a very emotional topic,” says Andrew G. Celli Jr., a 57-year-old attorney in Manhattan.

The traditions at his mother’s house — the home where he grew up in Rochester, New York — have “a rhythm and a regularity that makes it incredibly special and specific to her and the way she does things.”

But their family is large. Celli and his two siblings each are married with multiple children, some of whom have significant others, which means gatherings draw nearly 20 people. It’s a lot of work for Dolores Celli, who lives alone and is approaching 90, to make her usual lasagna; prime rib, or chicken with lemon, garlic and rosemary; pizzelles; and the apple pie recipe her grandmother always used in Italy.

“It means taking the house apart and putting extra tables out, but I enjoy every moment of it,” she says, adding that she also provides breakfast for guests in the mornings. “Fortunately, I’m healthy enough to do it. Every year is a blessing as far as I'm concerned, even though I’m sure one of these days one of the kids is going to say, ‘No more.’”

While Andrew Celli says neither he nor his siblings have put their foot down once and for all just yet, he will be hosting Christmas at his home this year.

His mother “is incredibly strong and somewhat stubborn, but at the end of the holiday weekend, she is pretty tired,” he says. “We want her to enjoy the traditions that we can re-create at my house, without her having to do all the work.”​

The importance of holiday rituals

Going to the same house, eating the same food and interacting with the same people for decades brings a sense of comfort and belonging.

“Traditions help create meaning in our lives, and help find and establish family connections,” says William C. Torrey, the Raymond Sobel professor of psychiatry and interim chair of psychiatry at Dartmouth Health and Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine in New Hampshire. “Any change in how you celebrate the holidays can easily feel disruptive, but it also creates an opportunity for more conversation and expression of appreciation.”

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That’s not so easy for Evey Meyer, 76, to believe. “I will be at the edge of my grave when I stop hosting,” says the former biology professor from St. Louis.

Rather than a chore, Meyer views hosting Hanukkah (“It wouldn’t be Hanukkah if I didn’t make potato pancakes”) as an act of survivorship, “something the Jewish holidays are partly about.” She points out that her generation may resist relinquishing the holiday reins in part because subsequent generations are less likely to engage in religious rituals — a worldwide phenomenon confirmed by a Pew Research Center analysis in 2018.

Meyer says that providing meals is linked to her self-image: “I’ve always been the feeder. When people think of me, I hope they think of food.”

At some point, however, the duties can become too much. It may take an older person days to recover, and younger adult guests may start to feel guilty for remaining on the receiving end. When this happens, it’s time for an honest, and possibly tough, conversation.​

Adjusting to new holiday approaches

The loss of a tradition requires both an emotional and a cognitive adjustment, in part because our brains are wired to resist change. One way to adapt may be to mark the transition and even celebrate it.

“Maybe that’s gifting the apron you always wore when cooking holiday meals to the new family member who will take over that responsibility,” says Kasley Killam, a leading expert in social health, including the science of human connection. “Or maybe it’s making a toast at dinner where you share one thing you’ve learned from hosting over the years and officially pass the baton to the next generation.”

Gay Strickland is trying to figure out what her family’s holidays should look like these days, as the grief from her mother’s death a year ago melds with her grief over lost traditions that spanned generations at her childhood home.

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“I keep thinking, ‘We did this, we did that,’” says Strickland, 66, who lives in Tabor City, North Carolina. “It’s going to be very hard to do something different.”

This brings up the idea of impermanence — the reality that nothing stays the same forever.

“Once we change the tradition,” she muses, “what other changes will follow?”

Continuing to honor some of the family history you appreciate most may help preserve a sense of familiarity. Or consider putting your own spin on an old favorite.

Regardless of the reason holiday hosting may look or feel foreign this year, Killam recommends reflecting on the reason for gathering in the first place: “The holidays are about spending time with loved ones. Remind yourself of that and savor the chance to connect with family or friends.”​

Focus on what matters most

Andrew Celli envisions going back to his childhood home for another Christmas or two if possible, but he also hopes to find other times of the year for everyone to get together there and celebrate family traditions

In the meantime, his mother still will be baking her legendary lasagna and apple pie this Christmas to bring over to her son’s house.

“If the children someday insist that they don’t want me to ever host again, I would just have to accept it,” Dolores Celli says. “I would rather have them here, but more than that, all of us being together is the most important thing.”​

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