Sunday, December 1, 2013

On Starting New Traditions

One of my most pivotal memories when looking back at my transition between 'kid' and 'adult' is the moment when I realized what a hassle the holidays are to the grownups. That year a little of the magic disappeared in the logistics of the season, and every year afterward my eyes opened a little more to the planning and work that had to go in to the traditions that so defined my expectations of our holidays (not that the magic has been completely lost, I just have a completely new appreciation for it).

There were never any clearly defined bullet points for my holidays that had to be hit in order for them to feel 'right,' but there have always been inalienable qualities that carried through the years.

Mom humming in the kitchen, making large meals with meat and vegetarian entrees.

Vintage holiday cartoons (think Charlie Brown, The Grinch, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer).

Candle light.

The excitement of being the giver of a gift well thought out, sentimental, or handmade.

Handmade decorations.

Lots and lots of dishes, with dad helping out.

As time went by, the Logistics (yes, with a capital 'L') of the holidays grow more complicated; family moved away, the distance traveled became more difficult to navigate, families blended, traditions competed, and schedules conspired against 'The Usual.'

For me, Logistics started stealing away the intimacy of my holidays. It wasn't long after having kids that we started wondering: What parts of the bouncing here and there for our holidays would become 'tradition' for our kiddos... what would they look back on fondly? What moments would define their 'usual'? Would we find a rhythm that covered all our bases and left room for them to develop their own holiday must-haves? Or would Logistics end up eating up the magic and revealing the hassle prematurely?

Thankfully, our family was also feeling this strain, so the gradual shift to a new rhythm was willingly made by all. For several years now we've been following a slightly more relaxed, significantly more spread out holiday tradition that spans multiple nights and accommodates the most important traditions from multiple families... with a little compromise from everyone. We tweak it every year, but we're getting to the point where the hard stuff is smoothing out and the logistics mainly focus on who's making the pumpkin pie and how late we're going to let the kids stay up.

For those struggling with this very same logistical blending of strong traditions, I'd offer this humble advice:

  1. Respect- and define- everyone's expectations. Some of them may not be realistic or respectful of other's expectations, but expectations are where everyone must begin- after all, you're proposing to redefine what will be expected during this already stressful and high-strung season.
  2. Filter out the most sacred, beloved, or popular parts of existing traditions, and work from there. I'm willing to bet that most family holiday traditions revolve around a meal, perhaps a religious observance, and a gift exchange. Maybe you're trying to bring together two separate meals, two separate services, and two separate gift exchanges. So which of those three is the most important for each side coming together? Does one family absolutely have to have their holiday feast at noon on Christmas Day, while on the other side the priority is the midnight service on Christmas Eve? Has it been a tradition from day one for one side to all be under one roof on Christmas morning, no matter what, and the other side would be just as happy exchanging gifts in the afternoon or the night before? You get the idea.
  3. Be open-minded and willing to think outside the box. Maybe it's not possible to seamlessly blend two families' Christmases into one day, or get everyone under one roof, or give every eager family host or hostess a chance at a big family meal at their table, but what if you expanded your celebration over multiple days? Moved celebratory locations every year? Do dinner potluck-style, in a nice restaurant, or skip it all together en lieu of that other activity everyone has been wanting to do (carol, view holiday lights, go see the Nutcracker ballet)? Maybe everyone has been wishing for something different, but going along with the status quo because they've assumed everyone else wants it that way!
  4. Be willing to tweak things along the way. As I said earlier, even though we've come a long way from where we started, there are still things about each part of our holiday extravaganza that could be better, and we're always talking about it, tweaking it, and changing a little something every year. That may be what we do from now on, always striving to give ourselves more time to enjoy the moment and leave less time to be consumed by Logistics. The important thing is flexibility. Don't let your holidays become so rigid that they absolutely have to be a certain way or everyone feels let down.
  5. Don't forget: there's always the option of starting something completely different. Although we seemingly came to a harmonious mingling of expectations, traditions, and schedules within our blended family, we still found room for the beginning of a new tradition- a tradition all our own, in our home, that can exist independent of any other family tradition. With the creation of a little something new, we rounded out the events that truly feel like a marathon and capped them off with something intimate, calm, and- hopefully- something that will be treasured by our children, come what may.

This process didn't happen overnight for us, and there were hurt feelings and guarded traditions and time spent unfairly here or there (see how we've evolved over the years: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012), but every year we try to make it a little bit better for everyone. We're getting there, but it all started with communication, flexibility, and patience, and of course the willingness for all involved to contribute to the traditions that will eventually turn in to treasured memories for our kiddos and, in the process, ourselves.

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