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Struggling With Family Traditions

By Emily Mall

Posted on November 23, 2023

Silhouette of family holding hands
Silhouette of family holding hands
Silhouette of family holding hands

With the holidays rapidly approaching, the pressure to make what seems like a million choices about how our family honors holiday traditions has begun. How will we spend our holiday breaks? Who will we spend time with this year, and who won’t we spend time with this year? What is our Christmas budget? Should we give gifts to everyone or do a name drawing? Will we attend church functions, holiday concerts, light shows, and other festivities?

Personally, I’ve never liked upholding traditions, and I’ve always wondered if I’m the only one in the world who doesn’t care for them. Here are three main reasons I haven’t been an advocate of maintaining traditions: 

  1. They are boring (to me). Going to the same place every year on family vacation makes me feel uninspired, especially when I have FOMO about a whole world out there to explore. Singing the same songs in church every holiday, eating the same foods at Thanksgiving, and hosting the same party every year just isn’t something that gets me excited.

  2. Traditions can make people feel left out. They can be the reason people new to the tradition feel like an outsider and “other.” The first time you join your friend or partner’s family during the holidays can feel awkward and uncomfortable, just like moving to a new neighborhood or starting a new job.

  3. Pressure to uphold traditions. Thanks to the USA’s observance of holidays, we are given free time from work and school to honor these special days of the year. Being gifted this free time can make us feel pressured to fit in and celebrate, even when/if we don’t want to. Our own family, friends, religion, culture, and social media can make us feel pressured to follow traditions, too.

If you are like me and aren’t looking forward to seasonal traditions, here a few things to try that have worked for me over the years.

Change your framing

Instead of viewing the upcoming holidays with dread or negativity, explore a different perspective. Perhaps there is a different way you can make the holiday more meaningful or important. If the holiday holds painful memories, write a new story. Give yourself permission and space for the holiday to hold a different kind of significance for you and your family. 

For example, I have never enjoyed nor looked forward to Thanksgiving, so when we became our own family, Dan and I had the opportunity to celebrate the holiday in our own way, especially since we all had time off from work and school. Dan loves to cook, but often doesn’t have the time, so we decided to make Thanksgiving a time for him to do something he loves and share it with us. With this reframe, I’ve created space for this holiday to take on a different place of importance in my life.

Find or create a new memory

If you aren’t particularly ready to be anti-traditional but don’t want to take part in the usual traditions, one way to enjoy the holidays is to take on the task/work of incorporating a new memory every year. You can add, modify, or even replace something special or different to the usual family traditions. In order to keep the traditionalists in your life from losing their minds, talk to them about what you’d like to do. Rather than surprise everyone with change, ask your loved ones if they are willing to be curious, open-minded, and ready for something fun! Since you want to do something new, expect to be one taking on the work of leading and facilitating your idea.

A few years ago, I joined a new group of friends on their annual girls’ getaway trip. As we enjoyed the same location they visited together year after year, I listened to story after story of all the memories they had of each place we went. While it was fun to learn about them and get to know everyone better, I often found myself feeling left out since I wasn’t in any of the stories. At breakfast one morning, I said something like this to everyone: “While I’m so grateful to be included on this trip, I sorta feel left out in revisiting so many memories with you. Would you all be open to doing something together on this trip to create a new memory or tradition that I can be a part of, too?” Luckily, they were all understanding and enthusiastic about creating a new memory together.

Get creative and explore new ways to honor a holiday or tradition. Keep in mind: in order to create change, you have to be the change. Be cognizant and sensitive to the fact that not everyone wants change. Don’t just whine about the traditions; come up with an idea you are willing to do the work for or be in charge of in order to make it easier for everyone to say yes.

Perhaps if it’s tradition that only the women of your family are in charge of the Thanksgiving meal every year, ask the men to cook or be in charge of the feast this time, or have a potluck. Order take out. Host Thanksgiving dinner outside. Support a restaurant, donate food to a shelter, or volunteer in your community.

Make being different a tradition

Normalize being a human who changes and may not enjoy something one year to the same degree as you did the last. Accept the fact that as you grow, your tastes and interests evolve. Model for your kids how okay and normal it is to change your mind. Demonstrate the fact that being different, even to yourself, is a part of life.

One Thanksgiving, we hosted an open-door potluck with tons of friends and family who came in and out throughout the day. One Christmas, I directed a family home movie based off of the children’s book Dinosaurs Love Underpants. Another year, we celebrated Christmas with family and friends by hosting a day-long talent show.

Dare to be different, and involve your kids and family to the degree that they’re willing. Create a scrapbook, a powerpoint, a slide show, a photobook, or an instagram account that showcases all the fun and different ways you celebrate holidays every year. The more intentional you are about the way you celebrate traditions, the more meaningful they become to you and your family.

Try to actually embrace traditions

It wasn’t until only a few months ago that I began to consider the benefits of having family traditions and come around to them (in my own way)!

I appreciate the perspective Kids Village has on traditions: “Another important part of traditions, whether they are holiday traditions, religious beliefs, seasonal rituals or daily routines, is passing on your family culture. This is important because it strengthens family bonds as well as family pride. It gives your family something extra special to provide unity as well as individualism, and to provide more meaning to the world around them. It also helps to pass on heritage and important family beliefs. Traditions also begin to create a routine of seasonality and rhythm to children. Whether it’s Sunday dinners with homemade rolls, monthly movie night at the theater, or changing out decorations every season, these little traditions culminate into your child understanding and sensing time more accurately (and in a fun, meaningful way).”

Traditions have all kinds of benefits for kids. They promote family connection and bonding, increasing self-esteem and help kids have a positive sense of identity, enable the ability to impart family values, and offer comfort and security.

I love this popular quote from Ardis Whitman: “We must cherish our yesterdays, but never carry them as a burden into the future. Each generation must take nourishment from the other and give knowledge to the one that comes after.”

Whether you love traditions or long for new ones, why not join me in spending a little extra time this year thinking ahead about ways to make the holidays special to you and your family? You have permission to be as creative and as different as you want!

If you want a few ideas for new traditions to try with your family this year, Parents.com has a great list that includes getting books on Christmas Eve and spending the night reading, playing tourist in your own town, or starting a silly ritual like an annual beard-making contest out of shaving cream! Have fun with it!

Happy holidays!

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