This Year, Family Holiday Traditions Are Getting a Refresh

As seasonal tunes blast from speakers in living rooms everywhere, a culture shift is in the air. Families faced significant changes in the last few years—births, deaths, marriages, divorce—and they've impacted how we celebrate and honor holiday traditions.

A family has a video chat during their holiday dinner.

Sergio Marcos / Stocksy

Before the pandemic, Melissa Gugni and her family would travel out of state to spend the holidays with loved ones. Gugni, a professional organizer based in San Francisco, says when COVID spread in 2020 and it came time to celebrate the holidays, she realized she would need a new plan.

"When I was thinking about the one intangible thing that a then-6-year-old would really like, the first thing that came to mind was freedom,” says Gugni. With no siblings or classmates due to remote learning, she says the first pandemic year was especially hard on her son. “So we started a Christmas 'Yes Day!'" she says. "The rules were there were no rules. For the whole day, he could wear what he wanted, eat what he wanted, and stay up as late as he wanted." Gugni says his first year was all about eating candy in lieu of his parents' prime rib dinner, and staying up till midnight.

"Last year, he doubled down on the late night and stayed up until 3 a.m.," adds Gugni. "That one gave him bragging rights at school for sure."

Changing up holiday traditions is something many of us have experienced these past few years. Maybe you gave up hosting your annual Christmas dinner with all your cousins, or you pivoted to having a Zoom gathering for Hanukkah. I know my own family’s annual tradition of getting a photo with Santa got pushed aside for a while, opting for "calls" from Santa instead. 

Maybe something more significant shifted in your household: you got divorced, lost a loved one, or simply found that the things that once mattered to you around the holidays have ceased to have any real importance. Whatever the case, it's possible your old way of celebrating the holidays just doesn't quite work the same way anymore. Who's to say we can’t start up some new holiday traditions instead?

Why Holiday Traditions Are Important

Creating holiday traditions, whether it be putting up decorations, exchanging gifts, or going on a family hike, can be a fun way to break up the monotony of everyday life.

"Holiday traditions are beneficial to children and families because it allows them the opportunity to honor those family members that they can't see for whatever reason, be that the pandemic or if they've passed on," says Heiddi Zalamar, a licensed mental health counselor and mother living in the Bronx. One way Zalamar does this is by foregoing turkey during November holidays and cooking up pernil (slow-roasted pork) instead, as this was her mother’s tradition.

 Traditions can help anchor us, comfort us, and allow us to know what to expect and to prepare ourselves,” adds Saba Harouni Lurie, licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Take Root Therapy

The Impact of COVID on Holiday Traditions

One need only recall what the holidays looked like for their family the past two years to figure out that the pandemic had an impact on the usual traditions.

"Holidays are times when families reconnect and catch up on events throughout the year and separation due to the pandemic really interrupted this," says Zalamar. 

Despite the reluctance for many to gather in person, however, Harouni Lurie says some simply got more creative in the ways in which they connected with family and loved ones a la virtual gatherings.

However, she reminds us that COVID also caused many to lose loved ones. “Instead of offering comfort and closeness, the holidays may also be a time of grief for some,” says Harouni Lurie. 

Considering the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental and emotional wellbeing, Harouni Lurie adds that, when children feel safe with their families, sharing holiday traditions can help them feel closer, which in turn can help their mental health.

Families are Turning to New Traditions

Zalamar says creating new traditions allows children and caregivers alike to feel some semblance of control, which the pandemic took away in great measure.

“It also allows children to grow their creativity and feel proud of themselves,” says Zalamar. “And because of the nature of caregiving, seeing children's joy can uplift caregivers as well.”

Similarly, Harouni Lurie says creating our own traditions also allows us to “devote energy towards prioritizing our own well-being and values, an act of self-care.”

Scarlet Paolicchi, a Nashville-based mom and parenting blogger at Family Focus Blog, is starting a new holiday tradition to share and record more meaningful conversations between the grandparents and grandkids in the family.

“I recently lost a family member and it does serve as a wake-up call to utilize our time well and capture our memories, especially as we're still battling a global pandemic,” says Paolicchi. “I plan to use the Remento app for this, because it both provides meaningful questions to help create connection and it also serves as a way to actually record these special moments and have them to cherish.”

Paolicchi says she’s never tried using an app like this, but liked the way it provides templates and meaningful questions to help guide the conversations. “If all goes well, it's something I'd love to incorporate more regularly throughout future holidays,” she says.

Megan Widmer, owner of Hard Times Collective, a vintage and second-hand retail shop based in Louisville, KY, says she’s hoping to move her family into a practice of only giving pre-loved gifts during the holidays.

"[Before the pandemic], we would create our own Amazon wishlists, share them with each other, and buy each other brand new, pre-picked out things," says Widmer. While she recognizes it was easier, she also noticed how no one considered the economic or environmental impact of their purchases.

"I raised the idea of preloved gift giving last year. This was a brainchild idea of the secondhand and thrifting that I was already doing at the time for my side hustle [Lillian Rose Designs and Vintage)]," says Widmer. "I thought some of these items that I am finding secondhand would make great gifts…and thought, 'why is my family not doing that?'"

While she says there’s been some resistance to the new tradition, she feels that it’s worthwhile and can be easily done with a bit of planning and budgeting.

"A good way to ease into this trend is to shop preloved for one item on each person's list, and then, gift the other items brand new," she says. "As you get more comfortable with shopping secondhand, this will come more naturally and get easier over time." Widmer recommends sites like ThreadUp, WornNotWasted, Ebay, and Goodwill for starters.

How To Start a New Tradition

Starting a new tradition should be an enjoyable experience that takes into consideration the needs of the whole family.

"I would encourage parents and caregivers to consider their values, the purpose of their old traditions, and what they want to cultivate in their families," says Harouni Lurie. "Gift-giving, for example, has been a long-held tradition in many families over the holidays. But given the current financial stressors that many families are experiencing and the increased understanding of the need for sustainable practices...a tradition of gifting an experience for the whole family together could be a new tradition." 

No matter what your family’s holiday traditions have been up to this point, it’s never too late to start a new one. 

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