For many, the holiday season is synonymous with tradition. As children, we come to know, love, and expect the traditions our families repeat year after year. When we enter college, graduate school, and then eventually the working world, we often still join our families to partake in these traditions that have become so ingrained in our lives.
At some point, though, many of us will get married and start our own families—and this changes everything. A new family forms, one with its own distinct identity. We are faced with creating our own legacies, those that are unique to us. And while our families of origin perpetuated traditions that are undoubtedly nostalgically grounding, we need to remember that at some point, they, too, made the decision to step away from their own families to form those traditions—the very ones that became a formative touchstone of our childhood memories.
Nonetheless, as we form our own families and forge unique traditions, we may still feel some attachment to our families of origin and the traditions they put in place. Reconciling the two can feel like a challenge—that is, honoring our families of origin while devising our own traditions as a new, unique family.
Remembering the purpose of traditions
My husband and I are fortunate to live within a few miles of both of our families. Each year, when the holidays roll around, we find ourselves wanting to participate in the special traditions of both families—but we also increasingly want to devise our own special traditions and rituals as a family of three. Lately, I’ve found myself needing to release the guilt I initially felt over choosing to forgo certain family traditions and events, simply because we don’t have time in our schedules to incorporate all of them.
This helped me to realize that traditions are not meant to cause stress or be pesky to-do list items: they are meant to enrich our lives, help us commemorate the season, and bond us more closely with one another. As such, there is no need to cling to them for their own sake. Choosing to forgo a Christmas eve midnight church service with my husband’s family means that we’ll instead have time to sit together with our infant son to reflect on our past year, to enjoy our own home, to exchange gifts, and to carve out time that is uniquely ours. And skipping one of many annual cookie exchange parties gives us time to start our own special ritual of traveling to a local Christmas light show.
Honoring your family of origin while honoring yourself
At the same time, my husband and I have always known that we didn’t want to jettison all of our families’ traditions. Rather, we needed to learn that we could establish our own traditions while still honoring our parents and spending time with them during the holiday season.
For us, this means channeling creativity with scheduling. It means rising extra early on Christmas morning so we have time together before heading out to visit family for the day. It means planning ahead and knowing where to go and when. But it also means a vital mindset shift: knowing that breaking away from certain family events and rituals doesn’t mean disavowing where we’ve come from or disrespecting the memories that defined the holidays for us as children and young adults. We can choose to join our families’ festivities, for instance, later in the afternoon instead of first thing in the morning so that we can create sacred space for us to define our own traditions—which will become an important and time-honored touchstone for our family for years to come.
Weaving a tapestry of traditions
A crucial mindset shift for me was thinking of holiday traditions from both of our families—and our own—as a tapestry: all of them combine harmoniously to make the season meaningful. I’ve learned that the way I think of the season matters. It is not a series of separate chores and obligations (for instance, attend this event with in-laws, decorate the tree with my parents, rush off to this particular service or party), but a beautiful and celebratory tapestry of events that give the season life and make it memorable.
For us, this looks like enjoying Christmas eve dinner (a traditional Italian “feast of the seven fishes”) with my parents, then enjoying a quiet Christmas morning of French toast and coffee as a couple. It means a sweet transition to opening gifts at my in-laws’ home with eight nieces and nephews, grandparents, and siblings, then moving to my parents’ house for a casual Christmas dinner and a viewing of one of our favorite Christmas movies. It is a rhythm, not a compartmentalized series of events, and it makes both my husband and me feel as though we are honoring our identity as our own unique family while soaking up time with our extended families. It also helps us feel that we have control of the way our holidays unfold—that we are choosing to weave this tapestry and that it is a part of what defines our new, growing family: the meals, the people, the sweet progression of events, the flavors, the movies, the lights—all of it makes up tradition. Our tradition. The one that our children will, hopefully, come to love and expect and remember.
This holiday season, we’re choosing both our new family—our new legacy—and the ones that made us. And in intentionally choosing to let go of certain items in favor of a new, sweet continuity of traditions and events and rhythms, we will give ourselves space to say “yes” to all of the things that make the season so memorable.