Creating new traditions


I created a new tradition of wearing a lei every day I was in Hawaii on a recent visit.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

16 Responses to “Creating new traditions”

  1. Sherry porter

    Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ in our hearts. He is the reason for the season. He is Emmanuel, God with us no matter where we are. Whether we decorate or not, cook or not, share presents or not, I think we need to remember to put Jesus first.

    • Toby

      Amen! He continues to direct our steps, which is how we ended up where we are. I hope he speaks clearly to you as well I’m the coming year!

  2. Bonnie T.

    Thanks for this. I’m bookmarking it to read again. This will be a tough year-end for me, too.

  3. Debbi Lund-Gonzales

    Great ideas & thoughts! I love the holiday seasons, but mine have had to change since I remarried . It was hard the first year,but I’m starting to embrace the new ways. Change is hard though. Last year was the first without my daughter with me on Christmas & it was hard. This year she is married & starting her own traditions. I think the biggest thing I will always need to not chancge, is spending the time with family.

    • Toby

      We do all we can to make that continue, but sometimes I’m sure it will be…what it will be!

  4. Nancy Schreib

    My life is currently in a large change. I will be filling for divorce and I realized that this may be our last holiday together. It is time. I went through depression and met some wonderful people in my support group. I am ready for the changes. There will be no tree this year. It is already in storage. I look forward to embracing where God leads me. The tears are over. It is a new journey and a new day.

  5. Celine

    I will be re-reading this as the end of this year looks to be a terrible one for me. A realistic and grateful look at the good things and people in my life and letting those good feelings wash over the more problematic (but deeply loved) people in my life may be what I need to let happen.

    • Toby

      I’m sorry you’re having a tough year. Ours has been challenging as well. Blessings to you!

  6. Elaine

    Several years ago we started a new tradition. There are only the 3 of us, husband, daughter and me. No relatives close enough to travel to. Lots of friends around us, but all with families to celebrate Christmas with. So, we started celebrating 12th Night, a traditional dinner in many parts of Britain. Complete with Beef Wellington, Yorkshire Pudding, etc. We invite about 12 people to join us and they bring the side dishes. Everyone has a good time. It is the night we open presents with our Godchildren and family. Our friends who have become regular attendees tell me they enjoy it. We seldom have it on the 12th Night of Christmas, January 5th, because we own a retail shop. So we schedule it for the Sunday closest. Looking forward to our special celebration on January 7th this year!

  7. Donne Long

    I just ordered your new book from Amazon but didn’t get special offer of other books??

    • Toby

      Hi there! The link is in the book itself! Navigate to the back of the book and it will be a special download to click on, Donne!

  8. Carolyn Diliberto

    Aloha! So glad to have the opportunity to be in touch again. My connection was lost (?) and I loved your sharing your new adventures on the Russian River,
    Mahalo, Carolyn in Hana