The identity of a family is wrapped up in its traditions: the daily routines and the annual rituals. As a parent educator, I talk a lot about the power of routines – the ways we move through each day that help us feel like the world is safe and predictable and manageable even in the midst of chaos and change. Rituals are also important – whether it’s how we do the tooth fairy in our family, what we do on the Fourth of July, or how we spend our winter holidays. Rituals honor our cultural heritage. They show our children what we value by what we pay attention to. They make our children feel special and loved. They help to define who we are as a family.
2020 has messed with all our routines, and with all our rituals. We may have found new daily routines that are working for us. But rituals… so many of which revolve around gathering in-person with the people we love and gathering with our communities… may seem out of reach. It’s natural to have a lot of grief over all the things we can’t have this year. (Here are tips for managing the grief.) But we can also work to figure out ways to adapt our traditions to this year’s limitations. We can create new rituals. And we can use this as a year to focus on resilience.
There are lots of ways we can build resilience in children, but one important one is to tell our children stories of the family’s history that are not just about the family’s successes, but about the ups AND the downs… “we had plenty of hard times, but we made it through together.” It creates a story for the child that “our people” are resilient. (Learn about Marshall Duke’s research on family stories and resilience.) This year is a great year to find a way to incorporate these narratives into your holiday celebrations. I’ll share something I’ve done here, and encourage you to reflect on how you might celebrate resilience through the holidays this year.
Honoring Your Family’s History
At my church, one Sunday in every December, we ask members to share a photo of their family’s holiday traditions, and we gather them into a slide show. Watching those slideshows always brings smiles, and warm cozy feelings. But this year, when I went to find a photo from a previous holiday, it made me very sad. At first, seeing all those photos of large family gatherings just made me grieve all the things that I couldn’t have this year.
Then going into Thanksgiving, I realized that I needed to reclaim those memories, and re-define their meaning for this year. For our family’s Thanksgiving over Zoom, I went through 30 years of photos, and for each year, I found one photo of a family meal or holiday gathering. The first slide read: “Our Family, Gathering Together for the Holidays… The location changes, the guest list changes, loved ones pass away, and new loved ones join us, and through it all, the family goes on.”
We watched it together on Zoom, talking and sharing memories. We talked about the loved ones in the photos that have passed away and shared stories about them. We puzzled over a stranger in one of the photos… who was it? Maybe the nephew’s “holidate” for that year?? We remembered the year my partner and I were divorced, before we got back together again. (We’ve now been back together for 20 years!) We smiled as the babies appeared – including a baby who is now 27 and all those who came after him. We welcomed the new family-in-law members who have joined us over the years. I included a picture from this year, with three of us at one table, and the laptop showing everyone else on Skype. The pandemic reality seems all-encompassing now but it’s helpful to think that someday, 2020 will be just one picture of many, and we’ll chuckle as we remember “the year we all stayed home.” In our holiday pictures, we clearly saw that although the family changes and evolves every year, the love and connection stays constant.
If you look only at this year, it seems so disconnected from all that came before. But it’s not. It’s just the current chapter in a long history of a family. A history that includes good times and bad, that has been through challenges before and still is strong. Taking time to acknowledge that was helpful. It led me to think more broadly of the stories we could tell with this year’s celebrations.
Honoring Your Family’s Traditions in a New Way
Remembering What Connects Us
A Jewish friend of mine said: “Maybe to bridge the separation we are all feeling this year, think as you light candles over Chanukah of the connection you have to Jews all over the planet who are lighting candles with you. There is synergy this year as remembering a holiday that celebrates our perseverance and faith that things will get better.” Your faith traditions can help to link you to the history of your people, and also to others around the world who are walking through this challenging year with you.
Every year, my church ends our Christmas Eve service by holding candles as we sing Silent Night, and passing a flame from candle to candle till all are lit. This year, on Zoom, we’ll share a slide show of all of us holding candles, and we’ll all light our own candles at home as we sing along. Our community still unites even as we are separate.
Gather Around the Virtual Table
Many families have long been gathering on Zoom (or Skype or Messenger or Teams…) for family dinners and celebrations. (If you don’t know how to use Zoom, I have a full guide to Zoom which can take you from beginning to expert.) My own family’s tradition of a family dinner every Sunday for those of us who live in Washington has now evolved into weekly dinner calls including family in Nebraska, New Jersey, Wyoming, and England. This Thanksgiving was the first year EVER where my husband and I saw ALL of our siblings and ALL of our parents on Thanksgiving. Zoom gatherings are not the same as in-person, but they have their own blessings. (If you need ideas for fun interactive things to do on a telechat, check out this post.)
At a holiday gathering on Zoom consider doing a Year in Review. Share the highs and lows of your year, and celebrate the roses you’ve found amongst the thorns of 2020. That celebrates our strength, resilience, and adaptability.
Deck the Halls… or the Yard
Some people are saying “why bother decorating – no one else will see the decorations.” If you always find decorating exhausting, then 2020 is a great excuse to skip it. But if any part of decorating gives you joy, go for it! Do whatever small portion of it has meaning, or go way over the top beyond what you’ve done before. Take pictures and share them on social media! Or decorate the OUTSIDE of your house so neighbors get to enjoy. That outdoor décor can also be helpful if your family gatherings will be outside in the back yard this year.
As a preschool teacher whose classes haven’t met in person in months, I have an overabundance of bubble solution in my life… and I have a bubble machine! So on Christmas Eve, we plan to send bubbles streaming from our deck to anyone passing by. It’s just a small way to connect with a community of neighbors that we value.
How Can We Keep From Singing
Music is important to our family… particularly singing. It’s something we do together as a family. If you miss singing out loud:
- can you just crank up the tunes out home and sing along?
- can you sing “with others” online? On a Zoom call, one person sings aloud (learn how to make music work on Zoom) and everyone else is on mute, but sings along at home and can see the others singing- it’s more joyful than you might think!
- could you go for a Christmas Caroling walk through your neighborhood, belting out the tunes? (Just be sure not to sing when anyone else is within 25 feet or so, because singing does carry a higher risk of transmitting any virus we might have.)
Enjoying singing is claiming your right to find JOY even in these challenging times.
The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol?
Theater is a big part of our family culture. If your typical holiday season includes viewing live performances and the arts are important to your family, try a “dinner and a show” night at home. Get dressed up, pick up a fancy meal takeout, sit at the table and eat a celebratory meal. Then go sit in your living room with the lights off as if you were in a theater, and watch many of the holiday shows that are available for streaming online via your local arts organizations, Broadway on Demand and Broadway HD. (We did this last night and our son pretended to be our “usher” – he escorted us to our seats, asked if we needed anything to be comfortable and reminded us to silence our cell phones before the show started. We clapped at the end of each number.) After the show, remember to donate to an arts organization that has fed your family’s soul in the past.
Giving To Others
Many experts recommend thinking about gratitude and celebrating all the things your family DOES have this year, and then consider spreading your “wealth” – whatever form that takes – to others. Donating money, or time, or sharing beauty through art, or sharing kindness with others, or donating to food banks and gift drives could all be ways to acknowledge that your family has enough blessings to share.
Letting Go of What Doesn’t Bring Joy
This article from Mental Health America has a good point: “Don’t Romanticize Your Typical Holiday Plans. Remember that while your holiday season may normally be full of excitement and joy, it can also be a time of high stress. Long days of travel, endless to-do lists, and dinners with that one family member you don’t get along with are all part of the holidays too…” This year may be a great chance to free yourself from the stale habits and burdensome obligations, and re-focus on what your true priorities are and what things would actually make your holidays happy.
Talking with Children about New Traditions
If you’re parenting young children this year you may feel like you have to put on a smiling face all the time. I think it’s fair to share with our children when we’re feeling sad – “This year, I miss the fact that we can’t do _____ like we usually do.” For older children, honor that this may make them sad too. (Young children may have no memory of what you “normally” do.) And then we can say (to ourselves and to them) – “But I know our family has many many years we’ll be able to do that exact tradition. The part of that tradition that is important is that it honors ______ because that is something that is important to our family. Here’s how we’re going to honor that this year.”
I would love to hear ideas for how you are adapting your holiday traditions for your family and how this could tell a story of how “our family is resilient and comes through hard times even stronger than before.” Click on “Leave a Reply” at the top of this post to share your ideas.
Muddling Through Somehow
The lyrics of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas say:
“Next year all our troubles will be out of sight… Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more. Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow…”
As we admit that we’re muddling through this year, we can also embrace that we are learning how to be resilient, how to adapt, and how to find the light in the darkness.