Growing up I remember going to two houses for Thanksgiving. First we would go to my dad’s parents and then to my mom’s. Thanksgiving was a busy day full of cousin’s, football or music, and two giant feasts. On one side of our family, my grandparent’s home was small yet packed. The kids would sit at a small table smack dab in the center of a tiny kitchen, adults hovering over us to get our food and then theirs. On the other side of our family, the home was spacious, music blaring while cigarette smoke filled the air. We always ate tiramisu after our turkey.
I can remember bits and pieces of varying energies in each home. Some familial strife at one or both houses, either kept at bay or spoken out loud for all to see. Maybe it was a resentment or maybe it was alcohol. I also remember laughter and warmth! The nuance of childhood. Some years were better than others. Most were happy. As a kid, I enjoyed the food and time spent with cousins. As I aged I didn’t love such a full day. But every year, we did the same thing.
Or take Christmas. My mom would go all out with gifts. We didn’t have much money, but my mom could (and still does) make a dollar stretch. I remember my mom stressing about each of us kids receiving the same amount of gifts. She loved to gift while also worrying about the amount. I had to unlearn that trait and I think my mom has too.
As a child, on Christmas Day we would wake early. My dad always had Christmas hash ready. We’d drink coffee, eat our breakfast hash, then open gifts. Each person would open one gift as everyone else watched. We’d go in a circle opening gifts, taking turns, for hours. A tradition if you will. My brother hated the wait while I supported my mom’s desire, even though I admittedly grew tired. Our little roles, our sibling order placement, pegged in tradition.
Of course I took all that I learned about holiday traditions into my young adult life. I thought the way my OG family celebrated the holidays was the only way. On a personal note, it took me longer to figure out what I wanted for my own life and family apart from what I learned throughout childhood.
Creating New Traditions
Once I had kids I began reconfiguring the traditions I had upheld for decades. For a chunk of my adult life, I followed the mold of what I had learned growing up. Then, anxiety and stress began to teach me to listen to my intuition. Maybe what others expect of me during the holiday season isn’t where my focus should be. Maybe the holiday season objectives should align with the needs and values of me and my immediate household.
As my family grew, I recognized the need to shake traditions. Not to be bound by them!
For a season, I realized evening holiday celebrations were the worst time to celebrate for our young children. My kids were small and tired. They would cry or run around like madmen. So we made changes, like enjoying brunch at my in-law’s followed by the opening of presents. This decision made all the difference. Happy, calm kids, home in time for naps.
After having my third child, my husband and I decided we wanted to celebrate Christmas day with just our little family. We wanted Christmas to be a symbol of rest instead of more going. So now we celebrate the holidays with our extended family before Christmas Day. I guess you could say we started our own tradition. One full of peace instead of more doing, more going.
For a long time Eric and I would buy gifts for every single extended family member. It’s what I learned to do. Gifts felt like a have to rather than a want to. I began to resent buying and buying and buying.
I suggested we draw names instead. It is a delight to focus on one person! Some family members happily agreed while others went along begrudgingly. In the end, everyone agrees it’s been a great change. Less stress, more intent. We’re going ten years strong.
I’ve always admired decked out holiday homes, and in the past I spent too much money on trying to decorate mine. But honestly, the pressure to decorate stresses me out rather than fills me up. So I make sure to continue the tradition my mom handed down to me, which is Christmas tree hunting at a local tree farm. At home, I string the lights while my kids decorate the tree. Candles and blankets and twinkly lights are all we need to feel festive.
Another tradition I’ve kept is taking my kids and their cousin to look at holiday lights in the South of Grand neighborhood. What I’ve added is going downtown and watching the kids run around the decorated trees near Meredith Corporation. This tradition feels lite and carefree, another feeling I appreciate during such a busy season.
This particular year we’ve decided to celebrate my oldest’s birthday on Thanksgiving. We’ve also decided we don’t need the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Homemade chicken noodle soup, mashed potatoes, and whatever sides. The pressure to make the same food, every year, eat a ton, become tired and lethargic is just not it for us. Coming together with family is our goal. Taking an hour to make a side dish then popping over for games and laughter makes sense.
Making these changes takes good and respectful conversations. Springing changes on family or putting off a my way or the highway attitude isn’t the way to go. When I first began learning what it meant to set boundaries, I was a bit arrogant. The fear of placing a boundary felt terrifying, so I needed false bravado to get me there.
With practice and growing empathy, I’ve become much better at boundary setting. I try to remember what my extended family members enjoy and oblige while also knowing when I need to draw a line for mine or my family’s mental health.
The thing is, all of these changes have led to better family relationships, communication, and a more peaceful mindset.
As you go about this holiday season, listen to your body. I know that sentiment is shared often, but there’s a reason. What brings value to your holiday life and what doesn’t? Where does compromise feel right and where does it go to far? Tradition can also be fluid. In fact, in my opinion, it should be.