Holiday traditions are part of what makes a season special. They bring a sense of community and connection. A sense of predictability and stability.
For those who are facing changes to their traditions this year, these traditions may add a layer of grief and sadness when we aren’t able to celebrate the way we used to.
Have you ever noticed how many traditions and social activities are centered around food? If you are facing a new medical diagnosis that requires you to change what you eat, it’s likely been hard work to make that change. Facing old traditions may make the change feel harder.
For families who lost a relative who used to host the family holiday gatherings, the entire extended family may now be faced with decisions about how to stay connected.
Perhaps you have come to the end of the year realizing that dreams you held for your future don’t look the way they once did.
Here are some thoughts about approaching the season:
1. Hold grief in one hand and hope in the other
It’s okay to be sad during a time that others are celebrating. Give yourself permission to mourn your losses. You may feel pressure to “just be happy” or to “move on,” but often people only say that because they are unsure of how to comfort you. Those words come from their sense of discomfort, not anything that's wrong about you.
If you feel like it, you can tell those close to you what you would find helpful, such as a quieter and more reflective gathering this year. And for those who just don’t get it? It’s okay to save your energy and reconnect with them some other time. You have permission to soothe your hurting soul.
As you mourn, you also can bring the memory of the past into how you observe your holiday as a way to honor the good parts you want to keep. As the saying goes, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. You can honor the hurts and moments of pain even while experiencing peace, gratefulness, or joy. A picture has many colors that exist at the same time, sometimes even mixing into each other. In this season of reflection, we have the opportunity to truly examine the ways that our past has influenced us and take the good parts with us into the new year.
2. Hold traditions with a loose grip
Tradition is important. It’s a way of connecting to our past and creating a shared culture with those around us.
Tradition is also not set in stone. It’s okay to rewrite your story and update traditions to include the recent past as well as older memories.
Perhaps every year you all traveled to grandma’s house and enjoyed conversation while connecting over her world famous hot chocolate. If grandma is now unable to host large gatherings and cook a big meal, maybe this year you let the grocery store do your cooking and you all use a special mug from grandma’s house to enjoy some instant hot chocolate while you sit around together. The shared memory is still alive in your family history as you all honor the many years of cozy conversation held as you sipped from those mugs.
Or perhaps dietary issues have caused people to need to avoid the hot chocolate. Those mugs can still play a role in family gatherings. Perhaps each family member takes a moment to write a favorite memory or inside joke on a piece of paper and rolls it up to place in the mug. At dinner, each person can take a turn passing the mug around and reading a memory. It might even be a fun game to guess who wrote the story!
Mixing the past with the present is a way of making sure that your family traditions stay current and incorporate your family history as it continues to unfold.
3. Know when it’s time to let something go
Often we get into habits when it comes to the holidays. We do something because that’s how we’ve always done it. We can get caught up in the busyness of making sure we do the traditions just right.
When we are forced to make changes, that can be a good time to stop and ask why we did something in the first place. And better yet, ask if that’s really something that we choose to keep as part of our family culture.
There’s a story about cutting the ends off the ham that illustrates this so well.
A newly married couple were in their kitchen preparing a ham for their holiday dinner. The wife cut off about one inch from either end of the ham, and her husband asked why she did that since she was wasting part of the ham. She said she wasn’t really sure but that was how her mom taught her to prepare ham. She decided it probably had something to do with the ends drying out faster and not being good to eat.
Later, the wife called her mom to find out why she cut the ends of the ham off. Her mom said “because that was the way my mom prepared ham.”
So the woman called her grandma and asked why she cut the ends off the ham. Her grandma told her, “so the ham could fit in the baking pan that your great-grandma gave me at our wedding.”
Often traditions start out helpful, but at some point there may be a good reason to update them.
Let your soul rest
Lastly, I’ll share a post that has been going around social media recently. It includes a beautiful depiction of our souls in wintertime by illustrator Jessica Boehman and a blog post by Brigit Anna McNeill.
McNeill writes of this time of year as an invitation to be drawn into our own hearts, down "into our bodies, into sleep, darkness, and the depths of our own inner caves."
Instead, she says "modern culture teaches avoidance at a max at this time; alcohol, lights, shopping, overworking, over spending, bad food, and consumerism. And yet the natural tug to go inward, as nearly all creatures are doing, is strong, and people are left feeling as if there is something wrong with them -- that winter is cruel and leaves them feeling abandoned and afraid."
It's true that the shorter days and colder temperatures cause many to experience depression. The descent into the dark cocoon can be disturbing to some who she writes fear "the unmet emotions and past events that they have stored in the dark caves inside themselves." Yet it's not a journey to face demons but rather a time to sit quietly and reflect, reacquaint ourselves with our own soul. "Just like when you sleep, your brain organizes the events of the day and lets the unnecessary fall away, this is a time to make sense of the year's events and our place in all of it.
"[It's] a time of rest and deep reflection, a time to wipe the slate clean as it were and clear out the old so you can walk into spring feeling ready to grow and skip without a dusty mountain on your back and chains around your ankles tied to the caves in your soul... A period of reconnecting."
She urges us to reclaim this season's "kindness, love, rebirth, peace, and unburdening" instead of seeing it as a time of "dread, fear, depression, and avoidance." She ends her post with a final appreciation of the soul's hibernation: "Winter takes away the distractions, the noise, and presents us with the perfect time to rest and withdraw into a womb-like love, bringing fire and light to our hearth."
Maybe this year your season is marked by a need to withdraw into yourself. Enter into the womb of your soul with compassion for yourself, knowing this is a natural invitation to the kindness that lives within us. A great miracle takes place inside cocoons, leading to rebirth and new life.