When you’re living away from home, and especially if you’ve started a new family, setting up your own holiday traditions can be a special challenge. If you’re married, you want to honor customs from both of your birth families but come up with something special for your the family you now share. If you’re single, you want to adapt your family’s customs to fit your new lifestyle and community.
By keeping a careful balance between old and new, you and the people you care about can make new holiday traditions that are all your own.
- Sit down and make a list of all your family’s holiday traditions. Think about big things like decorating Christmas trees or watching fireworks for the Fourth of July— but don’t forget about the little things like the special decoration you make when you were six that always serves as the Thanksgiving centerpiece.
- Cross off any traditions your family kept that you didn’t enjoy when you were still living at home. Again, don’t forget to include informal “traditions” like the fight over dishwashing at Easter or the way you were the only one sober on New Year’s Eve.
- If you’re married, compare your list to your partner’s. What traditions do you already have in common? Which are different? When traditions are different, do either of you have stronger feelings about a particular tradition? Does one of your family’s value a particular holiday over the others?
- You’ve probably come up with a few new traditions of your own with your friends or partner. Add these newer traditions to your list as well.
- You may have developed more nuanced or different values from your parents. How can you modify the traditions you grew up with to reflect your new principles?
- Think about other families you know and admire. What holiday traditions do they share that you would like to add to your own celebrations? Add these ideas to your list.
- Brainstorm about any new traditions you’ve found that fit into the way you want to celebrate holidays. Or even entirely new occasions to add to your family’s calendar.
- Think about what traditions you keep just because T.V. and films tell us a certain way things must be done. Some “traditions,” like spending huge amounts of money or keeping yourself busy every evening during December, may be traditions you don’t want to borrow.
Putting It All Together
Finding the right holiday traditions for you and your family is a process that lasts many, many years. Some ideas may work perfectly, while others may fall by the wayside. The trick is to keep track, year-by-year, of what your favorite new traditions are. Over time, your traditions will become habits that you and your family can look forward to.
How to Build Shared Traditions: Our Family’s Story
Our holiday traditions are built from a hodge-podge of customs for our families, our friends, and new ideas we encountered after we left home.
Thanksgiving is one of the most important holidays Adam shares with his family. My mother hasn’t cooked Thanksgiving dinner since the year my grandmother died, so Thanksgiving was never an important holiday to me. In our new family, we observe Adam’s family Thanksgiving traditions such as having a special Thanksgiving “stick” (an usually-shaped tree branch) and leaves as part of the centerpiece. When we can, we share the holiday with his family, either at our house or theirs, and serve the same meal Adam has enjoyed annually for as long as he can remember. Adam’s family also holds modest celebrations for Hanukkah and Passover that we have made our own.
As a child, I always looked forward to Christmas Eve. We always got to open one present—special Christmas pajamas my mother had chosen for us. When we were very small, we even got to wear those pajamas to Christmas Eve services. Now Adam and I share that tradition with each other and with Thomas.
Even though we have few Jewish friends or family nearby, we wanted to keep Adam’s family’s tradition of celebrating Hanukkah. We started throwing an annual Hanukkah white elephant gift party where we thoughtfully light a menorah, read the story of Hanukkah from the Book of Macabees, and exchange silly presents with our friends.
Our holidays would also be incomplete without “Friendsgiving,” a tradition started by a pair of friends during college. We wanted to spend time together with our friends around the holidays, but usually spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with our families. “Friendsgiving” is an early-December pot luck supper for our circle of friends to share.
From Other Cultures
The two years before Adam and I married, I lived in England. The Scottish head of my college held an annual Burn’s Night dinner to celebrate the famous writer of “Auld Lang Syne” and other Scots poems. So we know how an annual dinner in late January with vegetarian haggis, scotch, and traditional toasts to the lassies and retort by the laddies.
I also enjoyed other English holiday customs. We added foods like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and favors like Christmas crackers to our Epiphany celebration on January 6.
Adapting Traditions to Your Principles
Adam and I also had to change some of our family traditions to fit the way we try to live our lives. For example, Adam grew up with beautiful and elaborate holiday giftwrapping. (His mother still has Amazon gifts shipped to her home so she can wrap them and pay to re-ship them to us.) The beautiful gifts make me feel loved and special, but I hate throwing away all the paper. Adam and I decided we would have to sacrifice a special part of his family’s holiday traditions to stick to our principles–we wrap with reusable gift bags instead.
For my part, I grew up with parents who went to great lengths to make the “Santa Claus experience” special for us—we received notes from Santa, found reindeer carrot-tops on the roof, and even got Polar Express-style sleigh bells when we started to doubt Santa. At the time, each little token was wonderfully exciting. But when I realized how was really leaving gifts for us under the tree, my faith in my parents (how could they lie to me? and in God (maybe adults lie to kids about him, too!) was severely shaken. As a result, Adam and I have decided to be conservative about the way we share Santa with Thomas.
Traditions are an important way to establish unity within a family and community. Take the time to find a blend of old, new, and borrowed traditions for your family to share.
How do you blend holiday traditions in your family?