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Should You Break or Keep Holiday Traditions?

December 15, 2019

One of the things that makes the holidays so difficult for mindful eating is that many of the traditions revolve around food. 

 

Thanksgiving is all about specific foods. People celebrate Hanukkah with latkes and pancakes. Kwanzaa is celebrated with soul food. Christmas often has sugar cookies, candy canes, and much more (here’s a list of Christmas foods with a subjective ranking from best to worst).

 

What’s more, those foods connect us to our past. The memories might not always be happy, but many of them are. And the more difficult our adult lives become, the more we might yearn for those earlier connections.

 

As a result, you might find yourself wanting to eat more cookies this time of year not only because they’re around but because they remind you of simpler and happier times. No wonder it’s hard to eat mindfully!

 

All of this got me thinking, what should you do with those traditions? Should you drop the classic foods your family ate if they tempt you to overeat? Or should you stick with them but perhaps in a new form? How do you handle situations when the tradition disappears due to changes in your family?

 

And those questions can apply to all holiday traditions, not only for the food.

 

The Case for Breaking Traditions

If a holiday tradition isn’t working for you and doesn’t bring you any joy, it’s worth revisiting to see if it makes sense to continue.

 

This is something I’ve been through with Thanksgiving. I haven’t had a traditional, home-cooked Thanksgiving meal with my extended family for 15 years now, and it’s okay. But it also hasn’t stayed the same during that time.

 

It started when my brother, my niece and I decided to start traveling the week of Thanksgiving back in 2005. That was the year we had a friend who was in England for work and she was going to host a big meal for Thanksgiving, and we thought it would be fun to go. That was a traditional Thanksgiving meal but not with my extended family. 

 

We did those trips through 2010, sometimes staying closer to home, like going to Philadelphia and DC, and sometimes far afield, with our last trip to Paris. And we did see one of the funnier Thanksgiving displays in Paris, of all places.

 

Then life changed again when my brother remarried and those trips stopped. By that point, my dad’s family had started going out to a buffet meal for Thanksgiving instead of cooking, but that didn’t appeal to me. So while my brother now goes to his mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving, I’ve been finding new traditions, which include going out to an Indian restaurant with friends when possible.

 

This year I also decided to make myself one traditional food, but with a twist. I had some leftover crystallized ginger from baking, and some mandarin oranges, and I thought those might all combine well with cranberry sauce – and I was right! It was delicious.

 

So – in cases like this, it can work out just fine to break with tradition, as long as it’s something you don’t miss.

 

When Tradition Leaves You Behind

Of course, sometimes you don’t have any choice about ending traditions, and that’s harder. 

 

The biggest reason for this is when something changes in your family structure. Someone gets married, or divorced, or dies. Kids grow up and go off to college. People move or their health changes.

 

The challenge here is that you may try to force something to continue even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I found this out with the sugar cookies.

 

Back in December 2010, I wrote about my tradition of making sugar cookies. It started when I made them with my mom when I was younger, and then we included my niece in 1998 and 1999.

 

After my mom died in 2000, I continued making the cookies with my niece and brother for a few years, and others in the family came in as well. I wanted to hold onto the feeling of comfort and link to those earlier times when my mom was still alive as long as I could.

 

For a while it worked, but then life changed again. 

 

My sister-in-law and her son had no tradition of making sugar cookies, so it didn’t mean anything to them. I tried to keep going, but when my niece separated herself from the family, that was when things got really hard.

 

Instead of a happy occasion, making sugar cookies with the family became sad and stressful, and not very fun. So that tradition stopped.

 

I’ve continued making them on my own for the past few years, but this year I don’t know if I will. I need to decide if it’s something I truly enjoy and want to do on my own, or if it’s something I’m just doing out of inertia.

 

Keeping Some Traditions Alive

Some traditions, though, are worth keeping, even if you end up changing them a bit.

 

For example, I still go to my aunt’s house for Christmas, which includes dinner and presents. It’s a much smaller group than it used to be, with just six of us (although we still have enough food to feed more than that).

 

It’s a nice time to visit and catch up, but I also felt like something was missing. So last year I suggested that maybe we could bring something to read, something that spoke of Christmas or the holidays to us, in whatever form that took.

 

People were up for it, and it was a lovely addition. I hadn’t even known that my dad’s girlfriend kept a book with her favorite quotes in it, so I got to learn something new about her, too. And we’re going to do it again this year – it seems like a nice antidote to the focus on consumerism that often comes out at Christmas.

 

Similarly, my church still does an annual Winter Solstice service, and I know it’s been going on for over 20 years because 20 years ago I was planning to go with my mom, but she was too sick. The service stayed roughly the same for a long time, but in the past five or six years, it’s scaled-down and evolved, changing into something a little different each year.

 

It seems like that’s the best way to keep traditions alive, by finding a way to update them, keep them partly new, while still holding onto the spirit of what you enjoyed.

 

Holiday Traditions Can Be Complicated

Holidays can be tough. For most people, they’re not the fairytale we often see on the Hallmark channel or greeting cards, or even what others choose to show on social media. It can be even harder when you have traditions that no longer work for you or traditions you wish you didn’t have at all. 

 

The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to stick with doing the things you don’t enjoy or don’t fit anymore. See if you can find a way to make the holidays meaningful for you as you are now. That might include making some of those favorite foods and perhaps sharing them with others. Or maybe you’ll do something completely different.

 

If you have any traditions that you enjoy or things that you’d like to try, I’d love to hear about them! And whatever you decide, I hope you can make at least some of this holiday season a happy and meaningful time.

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