Good for the Soul…Holidays—musings on tradition and change

I noticed as a child that holidays had various practices in different cultures. At age 10, I lived In England for six months. I was surprised the British did not celebrate Halloween. Fortunately, our parents recruited neighbors to host trick-or-treat, so we still enjoyed our candy! In high school, my Italian girlfriend told me they had lasagna for Christmas, unlike our traditional roast beef. When I moved from New York to North Carolina, I enjoyed outdoor picnics at Easter due to the warm weather. Up north, we ate a formal meal inside. I recall icing Swedish Spice cookies every Christmas with my mother. I learned recently that my cousin prepares them without icing and adds pepper for an authentic, savory cookie according to her Swedish grandmother’s recipe. My mom changed the recipe for her sweet tooth! I failed to duplicate my mom’s recipe, so my similar tradition is bourbon molasses cookies. Also delicious!

Surely, holiday traditions provide familiar comfort. But traditions, like people, change regularly. Many transitions arise from life-cycle changes like marriage, having children, or empty nest. Young people leave home and start new customs. Once grandchildren arrive, young families stay home Christmas morning. Couples with two sets of traditions compromise and blend them. I recall my older sister’s dilemma after her oldest son married, negotiating holiday meal schedules. But they worked it out. Some families have another meal before or after holidays. More women work fulltime, with less time to cook elaborate meals. Some attend holiday buffets or order premade restaurant food. Still delicious! Many people are vegan or gluten-free. Some families prepare two sets of dishes, others adapt family recipes. People age and tire of making complex holiday meals; we certainly have. Recently, my stepson introduced a new Thanksgiving option—smoked turkey, which became our new favorite tradition. And he helps prepare it! One Christmas, for a change of pace, we stayed overnight with my husband’s niece in Charleston and enjoyed a delicious meal, the refreshing energy of their two young daughters, and a fantastic local light display. Perhaps we can cherish traditions without grasping too tightly. Flexibility still brings great joy! Spiritual issues at holidays also benefit from compromise. Couples often have different religious upbringing. For example, Catholic and Episcopalian churches usually celebrate midnight mass on Christmas Eve. But most Protestant churches have early evening services. Some families celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas out of respect for both religions. Growing up, we opened gifts on Christmas. But we learned from our Jewish friends they received gifts for eight days during Hannukah!

Of course, social connection makes holidays special. Perhaps we see certain family members only at holidays because they live far away. But sometimes we cannot be with family at holidays because travel is difficult. I recall one Christmas when my stepson was working in Antarctica. Our only celebration was a surprisingly clear phone call to McMurdo Station! When I first moved to North Carolina from New York, we drove north every Christmas to see family. That stopped after a three-foot snowfall one Christmas Eve! Subsequently, we only visited in the summer. Recently, friends suggested celebrating the Italian Christmas tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes since we would not be with family. Other separations occur through divorce or death. After my parents’ divorce, my mother was generous to invite friends for holiday meals. I fondly recall my older sister’s friend from India. Blended families are challenging if both spouses want the children for a holiday. I know families where ex-spouses attend holiday gatherings to make it easier on the children. When special people pass away, holidays are difficult. Advance discussions can help. Should we do something different? Skip the holiday completely? Leave an honorary empty chair or offer a special toast? The pandemic was another obstacle since many families could not travel. People opened holiday gifts via Zoom. Or met with masks and social distance. So difficult, but most of us survived and greatly appreciated celebrating in person again. I recall being stuck at college for Thanksgiving my first year. A fellow student organized Thanksgiving dinner in a private room for 40 students in the same boat, a heartwarming event for an 18-year-old far from home. My single friend Karen, whose family lives out of town, often hosts holiday meals for other singles. There is truth to the saying “Friends are family we choose for ourselves.” In fact, in any situation, we can be proactive and create a meaningful holiday.

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