Old rituals may open old wounds during the holiday season.
The holidays are a time when people tend to value tradition most. Some families put up the decorations the morning after Thanksgiving, and everyone participates—no exceptions. Some families serve the exact same menu each year. Some families always watch The Polar Express on Christmas Eve.
“In healthy cultures, customs and traditions bind and sustain a community in shared meaning,” says Natasha Sandy, MA, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and founder of We Mighty Women. Humans are creatures of habit, says Sandy, and traditions help make meanings around our most important events and milestones.
But as people grow and families shift from year to year, traditions can fracture. Arguments between uncles can make the annual card game tense, a recent divorce might result in your favorite cousin being absent, and the passing away of your grandfather might mean there’s a palpable empty seat at the table. During these shifts, not all traditions can be sustained, and you—dreading the thought of these painful or awkward traditions—might consider skipping the event altogether.
“The holidays have a way of reopening old pain points that we may try to forget about during the year,” says Sara Stanizai, MA, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Prospect Therapy in Long Beach, CA. “There is pressure to perform rituals and traditions that we may not necessarily feel connection to.”
This can play out even when there’s no “family drama” causing tension. For example, for first-generation Americans, says Stanizai, “there is pressure to connect with certain traditions that don’t feel meaningful for us … It can be hard to know where we fit in when neither [the American traditions] nor [the traditions of our heritage] feels meaningful.” You might experience similar sentiments after marrying into a family with a different culture, or if you have a different religion (or lack thereof) than the rest of your family.
That pressure may force families to stick to traditions that just aren’t working anymore, or perhaps never worked at all. “Because traditions provide a sense of safety and security for people, ending them can feel unsafe and threatening to one’s sense of belonging,” says Sandy.
How New Traditions Can Help the Holiday Blues
While you’re never obligated to attend events that harm your mental health, there’s a chance a change in tradition may help freshen things up. A new tradition to trade out the old one “minimizes the psychological disruption and works to fill the void created,” says Sandy.
Plus, a new tradition “can give you a sense of meaning and agency,” says Stanizai. “There is something you can take charge of when everything else feels overwhelming. It also allows you to focus on what you enjoy rather than obligation.”
Say your great aunt always made the pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, but she passed away three years ago. Since then, you’ve bought a pie from the store. Not only is it not nearly as good, but each bite just reminds you of her absence, turning the dinner into a somber event. Maybe it’s time to switch things up and wow your family with your snickerdoodle cookies instead.
Be creative, and consider nothing off the table. There is no rule that says you *have* to eat turkey on Thanksgiving; have spaghetti if you want. No room for a Christmas tree in your new apartment after the divorce? Decorate the wall or make a chandelier of ornaments from the ceiling. And who says you’re required to give tangible presents on Christmas and Hanukkah? Your family might even enjoy the holiday better sans gifts.
Got parts of your old traditions you’re not ready to let go of? “Incorporate the good parts [of the old tradition] so you can feel like you’re ‘keeping that tradition alive,’ but tweak it to be even more fun for you,” says Stanizai.
“Ideally, the new tradition should be something that we want and thoughtfully create in collaboration with everyone involved,” says Sandy. Communicate with everyone involved to make sure it’s a tradition that eases stress for everyone.
Consider making a pros and cons list, suggests the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Consider why you’ve stuck to the tradition for so long, and also why you no longer want to. The visual list might help you make an assessment you’re satisfied with, or help you recognize if you’re using the holiday as a scapegoat for another cause (like seasonal affective disorder or social anxiety disorder).
If you decide it’s not worth it, a new tradition might mean taking the kids on a trip away from your feuding aunts or inviting over close friends for a drama-free dinner party. Or the new tradition may be as simple as tweaking the menu of the big family dinner.
Whatever you do, it’s best not to withdraw yourself completely from holiday festivities. Learn more about how isolation makes the holiday blues worse here.