Past Traditions, Future Burdens: Managing Holiday Expectations

By Chris Watson

“But it’s tradition.…”During the holidays, the statement echoes in family conversations like a wartime battle cry. For those feeling musical, they may even break into their best Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. Our holiday traditions help us feel an intrinsic connection to where we came from and, hopefully, where our communal family is going.

In our post-child-raising years, the issue is the traditions of our youth. The Norman Rockwell ideal, dramatized in his iconic family dinner painting from the 1943 “Freedom” series, seems out of reach in our more modern setting. Our families are less centralized, children remain longer in extended educational programs forcing shortened time together as they need to get back to their studies, and many of us don’t live in the same city, or even the same state, as our extended family. In addition, holiday time is constantly being encroached upon by jobs that encourage, or even insist on, work to be done during traditional holiday time. Our traditions, so valued in the past, seem to be slipping away.

We don’t have to sacrifice holiday traditions, nor do we have to hang on to them like sacred cows. A balance can be struck between the so-called old world and the new. We can still, even with so much competing for our time and attention, celebrate what used to be while embracing what is to come. The key to holiday traditions is perspective.

Smaller Size, More Value (or Less is Always More)

Many of us associate holiday traditions with scale…and by scale we think big. Large family gatherings, 25 pound turkeys, five pies (all different of course), family card games lasting well past bedtime, three pans of lasagna… or one hundred tamales… or multiple fillings for pierogies. Holiday traditions are described in terms of batches, sessions, and marathons.

All of us recognize the problem with this. When we are spread out, traveling, or have work commitments, these grandiose expectations, coupled with the gravitas of “tradition,” put pressure on us and our families. Unless we are blessed with loads of money and free time, the scale of what we remember will never match the scale of what we can reasonably achieve, on today’s terms.

The potential solution is to rescale, yet still savor. The same foods served on a smaller scale, create less stress, less gluttony and less waste. We can still enjoy the variety, without the strain on our bank account and without leaving the chef(s) quite so stressed. Activities we grew up with, even somewhat abbreviated, can be, in many respects, even more valued. By preserving tradition with an economy of scale, the value of our treasured activities, like all limited editions, increases. Recognize that you aren’t competing with social media in the eyes of the young, because it isn’t a competition. Embrace that low attention spans and social media are a component of activities now and don’t get frustrated. Without anxious pressure or creating an either/or situation, a new generation, once or twice removed, may become interested in what we grew up with and start carrying the banner on their own — still demonstrating a holiday tradition without overwhelming the holiday experience.

While those large family gatherings are fun, everyone packed in around the table, recognize that there is a level of stress involved. Planning out temporary living arrangements for the influx of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents is stressful for everyone. And a large family gathering is expensive. Consider tightening the group down to a few close family members if it can be done without hurting feelings. Even if it can’t, you have to weigh the considerations between offending a distant relative and stressing out your immediate family.


Time is Relative

Back when many of our holiday traditions formed, the economy, and even our culture, was very different. We did not live in households where we worked right up to holidays, schools and sports activities took definitive holiday breaks, and often only one parent worked outside the home. Family holiday time was the norm, recognized by both organizations and employers. There was less competition for our time with family, and holiday traditions.

Time is, of course, at a premium today. Even if we have time off for the holiday, our family members may not, with many jobs requiring work hours on the actual holiday. School and sports schedules often “take advantage” of the holiday break with marathon practice sessions or scheduled competitions.

There are some options for us to still enjoy family traditions with today’s chaotic scheduling, including resetting our holiday time to a different day. Families pick a day determined by work or school activities, which leads to a more relaxed time together. The point is to take an uninterrupted day to enjoy our holiday. Don’t force the holiday in this new busy age, because that creates more stress for everyone. Instead, figure out when the holiday can work within everyone’s schedule— after all, it’s about family togetherness, and when you can make that happen, it beats trying to force it.


Home or Travel for the Holidays

According to AAA, Thanksgiving remains one of the highest travel days of the year. Over 46 million Americans traveled 50 plus miles in 2015 for the holiday weekend. A good percentage of those travelers were parents traveling to the homes of their children. This is a significant change from the way we grew up when, by tradition, many of us “went home,” traveling to the homes of our parents or grandparents.

Now as visitors rather than the hosts, we are less restricted by schedules and agendas. In addition to visiting our families there are great opportunities to explore the community where they live, independent of family, allowing family members to continue with scheduled work or activities, easing the the anxiety caused by the feeling that we are “waiting around” for them.

Seeking out local shops, artisans, antique stores, and restaurants provides something to do and we can discover “must visit” place on these independent adventures. Yes, our primary purpose is to visit with our family but we can, if we are flexible, develop new traditions adjunct to our family holiday time. Additionally, recognize that the host family, even our closest loved ones, can benefit from a little down time and the creating of new traditions based around leaving them be for a few hours, is a gift in itself.

Family traditions can be valued and passed on, but they shouldn’t become a family albatross. With some planning, we can become unburdened by ‘too much’ and ‘too long’ while still honoring and enjoying what we remember fondly as tradition. When it comes to holidays, there has never been a better time in our lives to creatively value the past while embracing a new and flexible future.



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