November, 2019. Staring at the box of Christmas lights and decorations, I found myself thinking, "No. Just no. I don't want to do this."
We had lost my dad in August of that year, and perhaps it was the grief, most likely it was the grief, but I just wasn't feeling festive. At least, I wasn't feeling like celebrating in the old familiar ways. For time untold we had followed the same holiday traditions, down to the Christmas Eve menu that had remained largely unchanged since the mid 70s.
I made a bold proposal: what if, instead of doing all the usual things this year, what if we had an adventure? Took a family trip to Mexico. Enjoyed holiday tacos on the beach, toes in the sand, warm waves crashing in the distance. It sounded divine. I saw a glimmer of temptation in my brother and sister-in-law's eyes.....but ultimately, the decision was made to keep to the tried and true. We had suffered enough changes this year, let's keep something the same. We could do Christmas in Mexico NEXT year (COVID threw a wrench in that plan, but that is for another post...).
So we did it. The tree. The lights. The stockings. The same holiday meal at mom's, the same Christmas morning breakfast with gifts. And it was fine.
But something in me had shifted.
I found myself questioning all the old traditions, balking at doing what was expected just because it's what we had always done. I saw the stress everyone was putting on themselves (family, clients, myself), to do the holidays JUST SO. It all started to feel a little forced.
One of the gifts of the pandemic was that it called into question so many of our givens - we couldn't do things the way we always had, so we had to be open to the new. I believe that loss of all kinds presents us with an opportunity to step back, to re-examine, to ask 'why,' and 'is this what I really want?'
So, we started making changes. And not just to Christmas. Thanksgiving was on the chopping block too. As were Halloween, and Easter and even summer holidays - often spent with family when we lived on opposite coasts - but no longer as impactful now that we lived in the same town and saw each other often. We started to free ourselves from the expectations that we HAD to do things the ways we always had, without taking into account that our families and our circumstances kept changing.
There are many wonderful reasons to keep traditions alive. The connections to generations past, the sharing of joyful memories. There is something beautiful about children enjoying the same stories and trappings enjoyed by their parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents. In a world where we are increasingly isolated into small, contained, future-oriented units, traditions connect us to the past and to community in ways that can't often be replicated by other means. There are things we look forward to every year. There's a beautiful Truman Capote story, "A Christmas Memory," about a making fruitcakes with an elderly cousin as a child. The words "It's fruitcake weather!" striking joy and anticipation is his little heart. I doubt that memory would have been as charming for him if he felt forced to make a damn fruitcake every year, long after his cousin was gone, just because it was tradition and everyone expected it of him.
Tradition can hold us hostage - tied to practices that don't fit or no longer serve us. When the holidays become about "HAVE to" instead of "WANT to" we've lost the magic of tradition. Stress and obligation take over, and the holidays become overwhelming and somewhat performative. They become something to "get through" rather than enjoy.
When I think about what I most enjoyed and appreciated about our past family traditions, they were about fun, and comfort, and doing things we liked to do: reading, playing games, spending time together lazing around the house, eating good food, watching football and movies. Being with loved ones, making new memories, connecting with others and self, and letting go of the stress that built up throughout the year - that was what I loved the most. I didn't need to carve pumpkins or dye eggs or make gingerbread houses to feel that.
This year, due to unforeseen changes to various friend's plans (darn you, COVID), we were faced with the prospect of Thanksgiving on our own, or joining with family who were celebrating in the old traditional way. (We had planned on enjoying a family Brunch after Thanksgiving to get our togetherness needs met, something we have found works better for our family overall). I asked my kiddo what they thought. I didn't want to deprive them of a holiday experience if that's what they wanted. My heart filled with joy when they shared that Thanksgiving BLTs (with a side of sweet potatoes and marshmallows - because some traditions are too delicious to let go), and a movie marathon in our pjs sounded like the perfect way to spend our day. And, friends, it was glorious.