All families have traditions and rituals. In my family of origin, Easter was a huge deal. We all put on our Sunday best, and after attending Mass, we had a feast like it was Thanksgiving. When I grew older, I was surprised to learn that other Roman Catholic families did not put such an emphasis on Easter.
Tradition may create precious, shared meaning, or it may impose oppressive, mindless conformity. We are comforted by the way things have always been done… as if our traditions are beyond the reach of time.
Yet the pandemic caused us to challenge many of these traditions, date nights, concerts, crowds. Many of us have had to change things that we once thought were entirely unmovable.
Now we will navigate the holidays and COVID. We will re-examine a season that is laden with family traditions.
Is the current pandemic causing you to reconsider your family’s holiday traditions?
Perhaps your traditional travel, dining plans, or holiday parties have been canceled or compromised. As we make our holiday plans this year, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rewrite our family traditions. We have a chance to decide what stays (that sugar cookie recipe) and what goes…
It’s been a remarkably hard year. Many couples are struggling. We recommend that you and your partner approach this conversation sensitively. This is an opportunity to carefully discuss what the holidays and COVID might mean for you and your family.
A year ago, one of my clients told me a story that sums this up best.
On the morning of Thanksgiving her son came down with a very unpleasant stomach bug and so plans to travel were canceled and the whole family stayed home.
Despite being miserably sick, her four-year-old son said to his father;
“I’m glad I ‘throwed up”… now we don’t have to wear fancy clothes!?”
The moment was so honest, and it changed how she looked at the “picture perfect” holiday outfits that she used to spend weeks obsessing over.
This is a momentous year to memorialize some of the traditions that we won’t be able to experience in person. It might even be worth investing in a journal or creating a photo storybook to mark down what you have learned.
I would especially recommend this practice to couples who are newlywed. Several years ago, I helped a couple navigate a tough discussion around family visits.
The wife had come from a family that was extended but not particularly close. Her Christmas tradition as a child was to see everyone all in one day on Christmas, they would open presents, eat quickly and head to the next house. Most of her Christmas memories were made in the car! Her husband had a much more leisurely tradition, sometimes not even leaving his house on Christmas day.
To her, seeing everyone meant that you weren’t leaving anyone out or inadvertently choosing “favorites” on Christmas day. To him, it was rude to make such abrupt and quick stops throughout the day. Spending an extended day with one family group was more meaningful.
The couple could talk through these different memories and experiences then they decided what their new traditions should be going forward. I have no doubt that they will bring this same compassionate deliberation into their conversation this year as they navigate the holidays and covid.
Instead of focusing this conversation on what we are losing remember to focus on this opportunity to evaluate. More than one couple with a young family has told me that initially, the “lockdown” was a huge loss and certainly a little boring.
But they also discovered just how busy their lives had been! When things open back up they can now carefully assess these activities and add them back into their lives with more intention.
We have that opportunity now with the holidays and covid. Were their traditions that had gone a little stale, repetitive, or empty? This is a perfect time to shake it up or cut it from the list!
We have done so many things for the “first time” this past year and now we will experience the holidays in a pandemic. It’s ok to just try something and see how it goes.
Put on your Halloween costumes and go for a drive to look at Christmas lights–why not!? A little bit of silliness might be just what you need to break up the monotony. You might just start a brand new tradition!
One of the couples that I worked with was looking to “break the cycle” after each growing up in a very challenging family of origin. Their homes were not happy places during the holidays due to family stress and mental health struggles. I encouraged them to reach out to friends and community members with traditions that they admired.
They spoke with people that had more ease around the holidays and started to build new traditions in their young family. Sometimes we need a little bit of inspiration and some role-models to create new holiday memories.
A couple that did an intensive with me spent a lot of their time volunteering with local community organizations and gave generously to charity. We had a follow-up session during which I discovered that community service was not part of their holiday tradition. It was a surprising oversight!
Since giving was an important shared meaning for them they decided to forgo buying the traditional gifts for each other and instead adopted a local family in need. They spent the weeks leading up to Christmas shopping together for an anonymous family in their community.
For many couples, the holidays are typically fraught with anxiety. Holidays and celebrations are labor-intensive; we Americans value bestowing meaningful gifts and providing lavish, abundant meals. The holidays and COVID will be an added layer of complexity this year.
COVID invites us to rethink what we ordinarily do. COVID gives us pause to reflect as to why some of our family traditions should change. It’s perhaps most difficult to revise family traditions during a holiday or celebration.
So think ahead. Talk about your family traditions and values. How are you upholding traditions amidst the holidays and COVID? What would you like to do differently?
Many of the traditions we hold so dearly are ones we were born into. When things change, you can see this as an opportunity to be creative and set new holiday traditions that are meaningful for you and your family. One of my favorite conversations in the Starbucks drive-thru with my mom was, ‘what do we want to do this year?’ Ask yourself the same question. See this a positive time for new creation, rather than a time to regret what you’ve lost. M. McCoy
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.
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