By Kate Pocock
Things happen: Grandparents move, parents divorce, and favorite aunts who make scrumptious Christmas turkey or stacks of glistening Chanukah latkes pass on. Or, perhaps it’s just that you want to simplify the holidays and take a sunny vacation instead of cooking and decorating.
Do changes mean that the usual cheer and warmth of the holidays will disappear? Not at all. Traditions are important because they give us—parents and teens alike—a sense of stability and connection.
That doesn’t mean, however, that traditions can’t change. “One should not be overly burdened by traditions,” says Dr. Brian Carr, President of Behavioral Health Associates in Lubbock, Texas. “Traditions have a start, and traditions have an end. There’s a time to retire grandma’s ambrosia bowl or not to freeze your tootsies off in Santa Land.”
It may seem obvious when it’s time to retire a kiddie tradition like Santa Land, but other traditions can slowly drift away from relevance. Does anyone really like tromping through the snow with a saw to cut down a real evergreen? Maybe, but maybe not. It pays to ask.
Rachel Jones, minimalist guru and author of Simplify the Holidays, suggests that everyone—kids and parents—complete the sentence, “It just wouldn’t feel like Christmas or Chanukah or Thanksgiving or Kwanzaa without…” If you’re looking to simplify, consider limiting it to your top five must-haves.
The result will be unique to each family: Jones’ three teens agreed they would really miss their annual homemade gingerbread house that they design, craft, and decorate. “One year my mixer broke, so I bought a packaged kit,” laughs Jones. But the kids complained, ‘Mom, this is not the same!’” So, they brought back the homemade gingerbread house, which in any given year might take the shape of a hobbit house or a decorated dwelling à la Hansel and Gretel.
Carr agrees that it’s important to do the holidays as they suit your particular family. Often, on Christmas Day, Carr’s large blended family travels to the ski hills, where they can take advantage of lower resort rates. “There’s almost nobody on the mountain,” he says. “It’s important to make it your holiday, not someone else’s holiday.”
Similarly, food traditions needn’t be traditional. “We don’t eat turkey,” says Dr. James Wellborn, a clinical psychologist in Tennessee and author of Raising Teens in the 21st Century. At their house, Christmas dinner is spaghetti and meatballs, “It’s a delicious recipe that now has the weight of tradition,” he says. “We all look forward to it.”
New Holiday Experiences Make Lasting Holiday Memories
Even when a new holiday experience falters, that mishap can become part of family lore. When Elyn Smith was 13, her family drove three days to celebrate Christmas in Florida and arrived to find that their hotel was, unexpectedly and hilariously, located on the roof of a sketchy restaurant. Nevertheless, the good memories of swimming in the hotel pool on Christmas day and Santa arriving in sunny Florida still bring laughter at family gatherings.
Allowing yourself—and your teens—to participate in making new holiday traditions reinforces the value of family rituals, but also lets your family be itself. “If I could tell people one thing it would be not to ask, ‘What should we be doing?’ but rather, ‘What can we do to make this night stand out?’” says Susan Lieberman, author of New Traditions, Redefining Celebrations for Today’s Family. “It doesn’t matter what you do; it only matters that you do something to make the family feel special.”
Kate Pocock is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada. Read more of her work—including for National Geographic, Fodors, and others—at familytravelink.com.