When our children were little, our oldest daughter asked if the whole family could sleep under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.  After talking about the possible interference with Santa’s delivery, we decided to move the “sleep under” to December 23rd. 

A fun and treasured tradition was born. 

Our family would play games, read Christmas stories, and then fall asleep under the glow of the tree lights.  The family room was full of pillows, blankets, and children. 

This tradition lasted for many years until the children grew into young adults who valued the comfort of their pillow-top mattresses much more than the hard family room floor.  One by one they started to bail (my husband was the first to go) and within hours it was an empty room devoid of pillows, blankets, and children. 

From that experience, we learned to let our family traditions change and grow right along with our family. 

Tradition can be defined as a belief, behavior, or cultural custom passed on from previous generations or simply something a family does repeatedly. 

They can be simple like Saturday visits to the library, first-day-of-school pictures, or homemade pizza and movies on Friday nights. 

Traditions are often passed down through cultural heritage.  The Scottish have a tradition called first footing (or the “first foot” in the house after midnight).  The first foot is the first person to enter the home of a household on New Year's Day and is seen as a bringer of good fortune for the coming year. The first footer traditionally comes bearing gifts such as a coin, bread, salt, a lump of coal, and whisky - gifts representing all the things the new year would hopefully bring, such as prosperity, food, flavor, warmth, and good cheer. 

Traditions bring connection and a sense of belonging. They can celebrate culture, honor past generations, and family values.  Best of all, traditions create positive memories for children. It’s understandable why we hold on so tightly to traditions, it’s because our emotions and memories are tied to them. They give us comfort and a sense of security.  They are predictable—something we can count on. 

Disruptions in traditions come through a variety of life changes like a younger generation wanting to start their own traditions, death, divorce, family moving away, or even changes in dietary choices like moving to vegan, or gluten-free. Change can bring uncomfortable feelings of life being out of your control and unpredictable. 

Regardless of the life event, try to keep the focus on sustaining positive, bonding relationships with family. Changes can be complicated and trying to please everyone can be stressful, but there are strategies that can help you navigate through unfamiliar waters. 

  • Get input from everyone.  People treasure traditions for different reasons.  It can even be part of a person’s identity, so acknowledge they’re important to everyone.  Make decisions together as much as possible.
  • Be flexible.  Instead of pressuring your grown children to keep things the way they have always been and on the schedule, you’ve always had, give them the flexibility they need.
  • Be willing to make concessions. If being there on the actual holiday isn’t possible, make plans to celebrate together at a different time.
  • Plan ahead. The more lead time you give people, the more accepting they will be with change.
  • Connect with the real reason.  Identify the core reason for the tradition.  If the reason is to bond with people you care about in a warm and loving atmosphere, that will help you identify a new tradition that does the same thing.
  • Don’t take something away without adding something in its place.  It’s easier to tweak a tradition rather than stop it altogether.  If sleeping under the Christmas tree doesn’t work anymore, it doesn’t mean the tradition has to go away altogether.  The family can still read stories and play games and maybe even add a new element, like “My Favorite Things” gift exchange where each person brings one of their favorite new products they’ve discovered during the past year.
  • Be child-centered with your traditions especially with divorce-related changes. Divorce brings strong emotions to every member of the family that can be heightened during the holidays.  Remember that children have real fears and loyalty conflicts.  They fear being pulled in two opposite directions and disappointing one or both of their parents.  Children crave predictability and routine.  Be flexible when negotiating schedules and remember the most important focus is to nurture positive relationships with your children so find new traditions that will foster those relationships.  The best gift you can give your child is a peaceful holiday.

The first holiday after someone has passed away can be very difficult. People mourn in different ways, but one way to keep your loved one’s memory alive is to honor the traditions they loved.  If grandma delivered gifts to all the grandchildren wearing an elf costume give the costume and the honor to another family member to carry on the tradition. 

Changing your perspective regarding losing old traditions and starting new ones can help in the transition.  Instead of viewing it as a loss, you can view it as a new start—a blank slate. The truth is that even when change occurs, old memories can still be cherished and talked about.  Change doesn’t erase the past. 

Starting new traditions can be a fun adventure.  Try something new together.  Travel during the holiday. Go to a movie on Christmas day.  Visit friends and neighbors on Christmas day. New traditions will someday be old valued traditions. 

Let family traditions change and grow just like your family does.  My family will continue to change.  For now, sleeping under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve doesn’t work, but someday, when I have grandchildren, we can pull out that tradition, dust it off and start anew.