Letting Go: When It’s Time to Start a New Family Tradition
For years, Christmas Eve dinner was a ritual in Greg Mahr’s family, with the starting time strictly enforced by his Polish mother. The family could eat when the first star was visible in the sky. But eventually it became more convenient for her to start later, so they looked at the clock instead.
“Traditions change,” says Mahr, a psychiatrist and director of Psychosomatic Medicine at Henry Ford Health System. And people change them.
Rituals are important to a healthy family, but they evolve just as the family does. What used to make sense may no longer be best. At some point in every family, younger generations take over the tasks once held proudly by their parents and grandparents.
In Mahr’s case, his mother gradually started passing on the tradition when she was in her early 80s by allowing others to bring food for the Christmas dinner. Now 88, she’s given the whole thing up to family members who are chefs – a win-win.
But how do you make this go smoothly and without feeling as though you’re giving up a part of yourself? By thinking it through beforehand, accepting your needs and communicating your thoughts clearly, Mahr says.
There’s an advantage and a joy to stability, to making family gatherings and holidays special through time-honored traditions, Mahr says, but “it has to be within the range of what’s actually possible and still meaningful and still nurtures the family.”
Ask yourself if it's time to hand off all or part of your celebrations to someone else. For many, this can feel depressing. But Mahr offers these tips:
- Know yourself. It’s time to change if “instead of looking forward to holiday preparations, you worry about them, they seem like a burden rather than a joy, or cause conflicts rather than family unity,” Mahr says.
- Move gradually. Give up bits and pieces. Make the turkey but let others bring the sides, and ask for help decorating.
- Talk it out. Tell your family members calmly and clearly why things are changing. “Communicate without defensiveness and without blame,” Mahr says.
- Embrace your success. When younger family members want to take over, that means you raised them right. “It’s not that we are failing somehow because we can’t do what we did 20 years ago,” Mahr says. It’s part of the continuity of life.
- Embrace new traditions. If you’ve lost a family member, add a remembrance to them. If a new family member suggests a different take on your tradition, hear them out. After all, at some point in your life, you were the one challenging the old ways.
When good rituals go bad
Traditions can also have a dark side, warns Dr. Mahr. Sometimes they’re used to cover up problems and make the family appear happier than it really is. They can also be the breeding ground for resentment.
Mahr advises being clear about what you expect of yourself and others. “If you make more effort than you want, you’ll never be appreciated enough,” he says. You also can’t expect perfection. Or, as Mahr puts it succinctly, “Control is a fantasy.”