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Creating New Holiday Traditions

by Robert Taibbi, LCSW

Ah, the holiday season: The delicious aromas from the kitchen, the wonder in the eyes of children on Christmas morning, the joyous bustle of friends and family gathered together around a crackling fire. It’s a time of enchantment, of magical moments and memories — undoubtedly the best of times.

Well, maybe not. All too often the real-life holiday season doesn’t quite match the media images that swirl about our heads. Instead of being enthralled by vistas of glistening snow, we’re more likely to be aggravated by bone-chilling cold, sleet, or mud. Rather than being swept up in the excitement of little children, we’re more likely to be swept up in a parade of cars circling the parking lot at the mall or by the mobs packing the aisles of the overcrowded stores. Our home fills up with relatives who seem never to leave, our stomachs fill up with too much food and drink, and under the stress of it all, our happiness and good cheer seem ready to crumble.

But then it’s all over. Thanks to the miracle of holiday amnesia, we manage to forget the bad, remember only the good, and find ourselves the next year gearing up for another holiday cycle. And so it goes, year after year, until one day we suddenly realize that our lives and our well-entrenched holiday habits no longer quite fit. Our children have grown up and left home. Perhaps we’ve gone through a divorce or moved to a new job and town far away from family and friends. Instead of being part of the gathering of the clan, we’re alone with the cat; instead of the dining room table being set for 20, the kitchen table is set for two, or one.

For some, the change can be overwhelming; for others, it simply leaves them feeling unexpectedly rudderless in the sea of holiday activity. In either case, they are dealing with life changes and the underlying sense of loss they bring — loss not only of people and places, but also of habits and routines that were part of the season for so long.

Taking stock of the old
If you’re in this situation, cheer up. While feelings of gloom are perfectly normal, they can keep you from missing a wonderful opportunity to recreate the old traditions and create some new ones. Where do you start? By first deciding what you want to keep.

Think back over all those past holidays — the Thanksgivings, Christmases, Kwanzas, Hanukkahs, New Years. Out of all that went on, all that you did, what did you like the best, what had the greatest meaning for you? Maybe you loved entertaining lots of people at your home, or maybe what you really looked forward to was the chance for more intimate get-togethers with family and friends. Perhaps you enjoyed buying special presents for those you cared about, or welcomed the emotional grounding you felt from religious services or the spiritual messages of the season. Go back through your memories and pick out those things that were most important to you over the years.

Now, be really honest. What didn’t you like? Maybe it was the crowds of people in your home, or all the “shoulds” in your head that told you who you had to invite or buy presents for, or the hectic pace of all those parties, or all the cooking, or the inevitable stuffing yourself for weeks at a time. Why not give yourself permission to give up these less enjoyable activities? Think about rebuilding your holiday with only those things that are important to you.

I know what you’re thinking. Sure, you’re more than willing to skip your neighbor’s holiday fondue fiesta or bypass the annual anguish of trying to find the right present for your hard-to-please Aunt Tess. But losing time with your children or that traditional family supper at midnight on Christmas Eve isn’t so easy to deal with. And you’re right. But is there a way to continue the tradition in a new way?

If it’s the crowds and entertaining that you enjoy, who can you reach out to and invite — neighbors, coworkers, folks from your church or civic group who you’d like to get to know better? Even if some of them turn down your invitation, there are probably many who, just like you, would enjoy having company for dinner or who would love a midnight supper on Christmas Eve. Will it feel the same as family? No, probably not; new people are going to create a totally new experience. But you may be surprised, not only by how well it turns out, but also by how many new friendships you’ve started.

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