Creating new traditions is something we can do at any time, but it happens of necessity when something major changes in life: a death, a divorce, a big move, a job change, a new marriage, the birth of a child.
This year, I have gone through five of the six (and not the “happiest” of them, the birth of a child.) I find myself stumbling into the holidays, adrift in uncertainty, anxious about how each new holiday experience will go, nostalgic for the past, and having difficulty finding meaning in the rituals of food and gifts that used to be so satisfying.
Humans are creatures of pattern and habit. We seek an equilibrium that meets our mental, emotional, physical and social needs, and then we try to keep it that way. Evolution has supported this in that habits and rituals save energy (because new learning and experimentation do not have to take place, thus using up valuable brain glucose and other resources) and these things create stable social structure: people know how to behave in an established role, and kill each other less often.
Commentary on evolutionary patterns aside, pattern and ritual are gone for me this year. Reacting to a childhood spent in rentals and tents with little in the way of “stuff,” as an adult I took pleasure in owning a beautiful home and having an abundant table, creating a place where others came to feast.
This year, I don’t have one shred of my beloved holiday traditions to cling to: the Christmas ornaments my kids made twenty years ago in grade school; the stocking my mom sewed for me out of Hawaiian print material in the 1960s; the Blue Willow china I spent half my life collecting are all in storage for an indefinite time.
I now live a Thoreau-esque existence in a one bedroom cabin on the Russian River. I have nothing but what I brought from Maui in two suitcases. Even if I wanted to host a dinner, there’s no room.
I have chosen this life, this journey, this smallness in reaction to the above great big changes that happened to us in 2016. It’s a new season in midlife of minimalism and quiet, focused creativity. I am grateful for it and revel the sweetness of entire days when the only people I interact with in any meaningful way are my dog and my husband and my online social life.
But along come the holidays, whether or not any of us are ready for them.
On the sad side of things, they must be reinvented and experienced in a new way, missing the people who died, got divorced, or were left behind in a move. On the exciting side, we have family members we’ve never shared holidays with before, new friends we can make and enjoy, and experiences we have a chance to invent.
Sitting down and reflecting a few weeks ago on what matters most helped me get clarity: Thanksgiving is just a meal shared with loved ones.
What the meal is, what it’s eaten on, and who those loved ones are at the table, is in flux. That’s okay.
Yesterday, in what remains of a tradition left from our former life, my husband cooked everything and I spent the day writing, as usual. We then took the entire meal to my mother in law’s apartment in her assisted living place. We were met there by our daughter and her boyfriend bringing homemade rolls and apple pie, and my brother-in-law and his friend bringing pumpkin and drinks. We surrounded my mother-in-law with boisterous noise and loving chaos. We blessed the food together, sat down and ate together, laughed and talked and hugged, and afterward, cleaned up easily with disposable dinnerware and went home with tons of leftovers. This may not be a “new tradition,” but it was great for this year and filled me with joy.
If you are facing the challenge of creating new traditions, here are some thoughts that might help:
- It’s okay to be sad and nostalgic. When I gave myself permission to miss the bygone glories of holidays past, had a bit of a cry looking at old photos, I was more ready to embrace my new reality.
- Share your mixed feelings and get support. I posted about not being “in the holiday spirit” without my old roles and traditions on social media and was surprised at the outpourings of others who were also struggling. I felt less alone. (Social media doesn't have to to be your mode; coffee with a friend might be better!)
- Reflect on what brings you the most meaning about your traditions, and seek to re-create that essence. For me, holidays are mostly about being with loved ones and having good experiences with each other. Deep conversation. Lots of hugging. Sitting down and breaking bread. Giving and receiving thoughtful gifts that enhance each other’s life, or if not, token gifts of experiences or money so that each person can have what they most want. Walks and talks in nature. Going into Christmas, I’m doing my best to set up situations that will allow these priorities to occur, always aware that I’m not in control. I can only put out my intentions, filled with love, and believe and receive what comes to be is what’s meant to be.
- Manage your expectations. Be aware that your expectations are happening, with or without your knowledge. Unmet expectations are the single greatest source of unhappiness. Bring your expectations into the light by examining them and adjusting them to the realities of your situation, and focus on the gratitude and joy that exists in every day we get to walk and draw breath.
- Practice gratitude. Throughout these often stressful days going into the New Year, pause to take note of all that is good in your life. Revel in that abundance, even if it’s just that your car is reliable and your footwear waterproof and your bowels in working order. These things may seem a low bar to hold: but for many, they are not.
I wish you the fun and joy of creating new traditions this year and the freshness of examining your traditions and tossing out any that don’t fill you with joy and meet your deepest felt needs.
How do you deal with change in your traditions? Got any tips to share?