Every Thanksgiving for over a decade, Jen Darnell would pack her kids up and hop on a flight from their home in Argyle, Texas, to meet the rest of her family where they live in Las Vegas. As the season approached each year, she dreaded spending thousands of dollars on flights for herself and her four kids only to contend with tension and bickering once she arrived. “There is some fight of some kind,” Darnell, 40, says. “Always.”
Eight years ago, Darnell had a change of heart. She made a conscious effort to only partake in events or people that brought her peace, she says. This particular tradition didn’t. She sat it out — and continued to skip Las Vegas Thanksgivings thereafter. Instead, Darnell and her kids swap turkey for tacos at a local Mexican restaurant, a less stressful tradition. “It seems harsh, but [for] the last eight years I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving with my family, I have had the best, most peaceful times,” she says, “with tacos and margaritas.”
The holiday season is prime time for family rituals and customs. From baking and decorating to games and gift-giving, many of these traditions can be unifying and bring back fond memories. “It’s something we can all agree on,” says Alexandra Cromer, a licensed professional counselor from Thriveworks in Richmond, Virginia. “It’s a really stressful world we live in, so having something to look forward to, in the form of a tradition, can help us because it’s something that’s safe, it’s something that’s reliable, and we know it doesn’t change.”
Often, many of these customs become shorthand for the family and are passed down from generation to generation without evaluating their purpose, says licensed marriage and family therapist Mona Eshaiker. However, there may come a point when family members who championed certain rituals die, new partners and children enter the fold, or long-held customs simply don’t serve you any longer and you want to shift the way you celebrate. Broaching the topic can be unsettling for members of your family, so you want to consider their attachments to certain traditions but move forward in a way that feels most authentic for everyone. Here’s what to keep in mind.
When a tradition needs an update
Holiday rituals can fall out of favor for any number of reasons, from the painful to the mundane. Coordinating travel with young kids can make gathering at your out-of-state relative’s house a pain. Maybe singing songs with the entire family lost its sheen when you were 12. Perhaps the gift exchange game your grandfather loved feels too painful to continue after his passing. This year, inflation is making gifting an expensive and potentially stressful endeavor, so continuing a tradition of buying individual presents for every friend could be unfeasible.
Cromer recommends looking at your customs and evaluating whether they’re both healthy and helpful based on what is considered normal for your family or friend circle. (Because what one group considers healthy may differ from another’s.) Even though it may be inconvenient for you to get to your parents’ house for Hanukkah, their place may be the most helpful place due to its central location for most of the family and the fact that they have a big living room where everyone can fit.
When thinking about the upcoming event or tradition, check in with your body and see what feelings and emotions are brought up, says Moe Ari Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Notice if you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or uncomfortable. Is your heart beating fast? Are you dreading the tradition? “That’s a sign that you’re not really wanting to engage in that if there are any of those symptoms,” Brown says.
The cause of your anxiety could be an issue more complicated than simply “I don’t feel like cooking with my family.” For those with relatives who don’t accept your sexuality, your partner, or other aspect of your identity, seeing these people or engaging with their old-school customs may harm you, Eshaiker says. Depending on how safe you feel in the situation, Eshaiker recommends talking to your relative and letting them know how you’d like to be treated. Tell them how their words or actions impact you. Try saying, “It doesn’t make me feel welcome. I don’t know what parts to bring. The world is changing. I think you might be surprised if I’m just myself that things might end up being fine.” If you know this conversation wouldn’t go over well, Eshaiker says to give yourself a time limit of an hour or two of family time and leave.
Think about why the ritual is triggering those bodily reactions — and get specific. It may not be that the potluck-style meal itself upsets you, but the fact that everyone criticizes your cooking after. You could love spending time with family, but get exhausted after only a few hours. Knowing what your exact pain points are can better help you frame a conversation later.
Avoid falling into the trap of obligation, too. Just because a holiday has always been done this way doesn’t mean everyone is enjoying it. If you’re noticing the tradition is causing more stress than it used to and is bringing up more negative feelings than positive, it’s worth reconsidering.
How to talk about changing a tradition with family and friends
Before broaching a conversation with your family, be prepared for a wide range of emotions and responses. Holiday traditions can mean a lot to some members of the group. Brown says to focus on the positive emotions the custom once brought you. Open up the conversation to your family members and ask them their thoughts on changing the ritual. Inviting others into new tradition-building is a way to get everyone on board and excited. Try saying, “I love how our family gift exchange brings us all together, but my finances won’t allow me to buy presents for everyone. How does a White Elephant or Secret Santa where everyone has to bring an item they already own sound to you?” It can be helpful to emphasize that the change doesn’t have to be permanent, but you’d like to see if something else might be more enjoyable for the whole family.
Keep the focus of your concerns on yourself and your experience, Cromer says, by saying something like, “I feel like this tradition has lost its luster,” or, “This tradition is hard for me to participate in,” and explain why. The cost of these events can be a huge factor in whether you’re able and willing to continue, so make that known to your loved ones.
It’s common to fall back into old dynamics when speaking to family members — like parents treating their adult children like little kids — and it can be difficult asking for what you need, but it’s important to set boundaries around the holidays, Eshaiker says. “This is an opportunity for us to show them how to treat us and what’s accepted and normal,” she says.
What to consider when starting a new tradition
As families grow and change, so will the ways you celebrate. If your parents are used to having a big breakfast on holiday mornings but you have your own kids now, take the opportunity to build a new tradition instead of harping on how things have changed, Brown says. Acknowledge how it can be hard for parents to experience these new dynamics while still finding ways to fulfill the positive emotions the tradition brought. “What is it that you always wanted to get from that tradition?” Brown says. “There are ways that you’re able to access that even if you’re not with your [parents].” Maybe you can offer to host the holiday breakfast at your house instead.
Be ready to meet family members halfway. When Darnell began skipping family Thanksgiving, her grandmother was upset. To compromise, she says she visits her and other family members throughout the year.
When suggesting new holiday rituals, think about your audience, Eshaiker says, both in terms of logistics and finances. You might not want to suggest a long day of baking with a group of kids. A lavish warm-weather holiday getaway may not be the best option for a loved one who recently lost their job. Also keep any ideas light and fun since “people have enough going on in their lives,” Eshaiker says.
After the event, you may want to ask for feedback to see if everyone enjoyed the trial tradition, Eshaiker says. “I actually do have a family member who, after they organize something, will literally text us one-on-one and will be like, how was that? Was there anything I could have improved?” she says. “Which feels very business, but I remember really appreciating it.”
Don’t get upset if some family members aren’t jazzed about trying something new. Take that feedback and adjust for next year. Or if you’re really dedicated to your idea, make it a tradition of one. “Maybe we used to have an ugly Christmas sweater party but now that grandpa’s died, everyone else hated it and doesn’t want to have it,” Cromer says. “Maybe I just wear an ugly Christmas sweater being like, ‘Hey, this is a tradition that makes me feel festive.’”
How to manage the emotions that come with changing traditions
Because holiday traditions are rooted in family history and fond memories, some may not be too thrilled about the idea of changing them. Cromer says to expect emotions ranging from anger and blame to sadness and nostalgia. Honor your relatives’ reactions and approach a conversation with curiosity. Ask them what the tradition meant to them and then offer what it meant to you, Brown suggests. What is a compromise that centers those emotions and memories? “It’s important for us to be clear about what our desires are,” Brown says. “So if it’s for connection, joy, love, to really put that at the forefront so that that one member knows … we’re not trying to change all the things you want to keep, it’s really about wanting to connect with you deeper.”
A change in holiday customs may be sad for you, too. This could be a first holiday without a loved one or after a breakup. Acknowledge those feelings; it’s likely you’re not the only one feeling them. This can also bring you and your loved ones closer.
The goal of family rituals is to foster closeness and warmth, not obligation and resentment. Remember to keep the lines of communication open, focus on the feelings you hope to achieve with the tradition, and be open to renegotiation.
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