Holiday Traditions – An Unexpected Rumination

Dec 13, 2022 | Aging Successfully

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Holiday LightsIn 2019 a good friend of mine, Nancy Loeffler of Being With Grief, queried me and others about any new holiday traditions that came about as a result of change or loss. I sat down to write my response. I had none, and this all fell out. I still work on this, so it is updated from 2019.

I did not expect this. I guess it’s true, the questions arrive when we are ready for the work before us.  For me, the holidays of late are full of, or (or fraught with?) emotions.

I believe there is so much grief woven into the holidays (whether we know-it-or-not). When the parents who have served in the matriarchal-patriarchal roles are no longer with us it seems that many Adult Children or loved ones are unprepared to assume the role, or even enjoy or carry on and holiday tradition. We may abandon traditions because we tell ourselves that our expectations can never again be fulfilled.

Many people are fixated on the people, the participants as never-changing. The whole family or the gang is always together, isn’t that what tradition is? Things go awry when our expectations become affixed to the participants. Then someone goes and dies or divorces, and with it went the tradition in our eyes or estimation.

Ever heard this one? “After that, it just wasn’t the same”. Or, “it will never be the same again”.

Callously, or maybe logically, it’s not supposed to be, if your “same” depends solely on participants. Think about it. Neither Grandma, I, or you will remain a participant forever.

The same or “great”, or “all-new”, or “best ever” all become options when we introduce new participants into the tradition.


I once had expectations that were out of whack.

I’ve begun to examine and rethink my stance on tradition. It had been my expectations that were out of whack.

I have confused the strong pulls for the tradition by misplacing them in the participants and not the tradition. I wanted Mom back, or Grandma’s house to be the same, or the food or gaiety to be the same, every year.

I doubt many of us achieved that during the pandemic, now did we?

Our misalignment may occur when we confuse the strong pulls for the tradition and we place it on the participants and not the activity, fellowship, or tradition at hand. For example, when Mom and Dad, matriarch-patriarch were no longer with us I and my sister found ourselves somehow off-kilter, debilitated, or in a “what’s the use” -state. The loss (of our participants) seemed to overtake the willingness but cannot overtake the tradition. Misaligned or misplaced expectations were the culprit. 

For many, it is hard to adjust to the change. I hear this often around the holidays. We see it on the tv, and in real life, too. We read of folks who are in a blue funk. They are stuck, or they are DONE. No more. 

Oftentimes I will find myself still feeling compelled to fix this  when I encounter it. I want to enable folks to feel joy, to arrive at “that place”, to have those good feelings and memories. See that? want them to, I want that for them. I, I, I. Kinda selfish. I may be doing it now, in writing all this down. Somehow though, this feels more like rethinking. Yes, that’s better.

We’d do well to enjoy the participants when inside the tradition.  Kids, for instance, learn from their elders to value and enjoy putting up a tree, or some other joint venture that may involve shared activity: faith traditions, holiday cheer, banter, cocoa, seasonal music, whatever. These peripherals are strong ancillaries. Later that bedecked tree represents a shared sense of accomplishment, a symbol of their work together, resulting later in pleasure and honor (“the prettiest tree ever”), and there for our gazing and reflection.

A shared peace may arrive. The tradition then allows us to pause, a chance to conjure up memories from the past. Endorphins or dopamine (for you scientific types) are triggered and released. Powerful stuff.


Let’s bring itThe “tradition” overtakes its “participants”. 

There’s nothing like an analogy and certainly, sports can help us to differentiate between participants and tradition. How you say?

Compare our dilemma to college basketball, let’s say. There is tradition in college sports. People look forward to a season. Around the sport-tradition, they participate in many ways: team, coach, spectator, producers, trainers, site personnel, media, refreshments vendors and so much more. There is honor involved in this tradition. That “part of” -feeling. Pride, maybe strength. We all journey through a season with our favorite teams, reveling in a winning season and sticking by our team still during a tough one. 

We do not, however, stop the basketball tradition when a star player moves on to the next level or graduates, or when a beloved coach retires. Rather, we continue to support and feed the tradition, turning our sights to the shared activity while still valuing its current participants. We celebrate the basketball tradition over years, through time, and even the fact that it is through time. We are glad for the season’s experience. We converse about great games and epic plays of last year or last week. It binds, and it creates kinship. Kinship in tradition.


(Like sports) Holiday traditions carry and celebrate the shared activity, the tradition, not necessarily the participants.

Holiday traditions carry and celebrate the shared activity. It may not be a tree and a circle of loved ones, cocoa, reflection, or peace. However, there is certainly the banding together to play or watch the game, the emotional crescendo as delivered by a game or season. The participants, the fans, are together, and not the same fans year after year. The configurations change, specifically for this tradition.

A friend of mine hosts a cookie exchange during the holidays. Do you think she’s had the exact same people over to enjoy the tradition for 13 years? Unlikely. She can introduce new participants to the tradition. There is joy in that.

And so, we must evaluate. We must ask ourselves these hard and thought-full questions.

Are we (ourselves) placing too much emphasis on the participants over the shared activity-tradition? 

Do we place too much on the “is” or “achieving the was”, to the point of “must”? (Check your expectations).

Is our preservation of “was” taking on a tone of desperation, and abandoning joy? 

Are we holding tradition hostage, and if we cannot achieve it (whatever “it” means to us) then no one else shall either?

If so, who then might be denied a tradition? And who is doing the denying? One has to wonder about the effects a Full Stop may have on the next generation.

I see so many struggle during the holidays and yet I see so many others carrying on with their ever-merriment. It can be bittersweet to see groups of folks not skipping a beat on the activity, incorporating the changes in participants, and seeing them all having a marvelous time! 

It is hard for the hurting to witness the joy which may then cause us to hurt, and maybe to further retreat. It is hard to stand in a self-induced vacuum and see the joy swirling all around us. (Check your expectations again).

A few will find themselves in a web with little way out. What will again make them willing? What will draw on a mustard seed of good times passed, or enable hope of good times again?


I believe we participants (this year, any year) have an obligation.

We as participants have an obligation to include, to invite, to tempt, cajole and even rally others into our “season”. We can invite new participants into our tradition!

“Whatcha doing? Join us, won’t you?” Come and just be with me. (It’s a no-judgment zone). Have some emotional cocoa. Set the stage, open-minded and with an open heart.

Those who may be hurting have a choice here also. And choice is good since this time of year there is enough stuff being shoved into our faces. The hurting can opt or may decide to participate as they wish, or can. 

Perhaps they could only observe what, or how, someone else is tradition-ing, and have a wee bit of emotional (cocoa) exchange. Perhaps they could simply be exposed to a brand-new kind of activity, try something on for size and heart- fit. The hurting can watch, simply be among them, and maybe even join in, if it feels comfortable.

I believe we have an obligation to others during this time of year to set the stage for all. We can be aware of those around us and afford them their right to their feelings and experiences.

We also have an obligation to ourselves to be willing, and open-minded. We can set the table and issue a kind invitation.

Tradition, or no longer, my wish for all is to have the open-hearted part.

I will say Merry Christmas to you, for that is what I observe, and I wish you happiness in all that you observe.


Plenty of folks struggle with the emotions of the holidays. I and the loved ones of my clients past and present navigate the holidays as much as we do healthcare systems it would seem. Let me know if I may be of help. 919.628.4428