When there’s a death, divorce or remarriage in the family, the holiday season is laden with change. Deeply imbedded traditions that once defined celebrations may, for some family members, be too painful to pursue or too ill-fitting to entertain. The key to changing traditions in reconfigured families is to formulate ideas, get everyone’s input and then ease into the transition.
“When there’s been a change in the family unit and the holidays are rolling around, one of the first things that pops into kids’ minds is, ‘How is this year going to be different?’” says Priscilla Singleton, LCSW, LMFT, director of the Center for Families in Transition at the Council for Relationships. “There’s comfort in old traditions, so to adopt new ones may elicit anxiety. Before making any changes, parents should consider which traditions are appropriate to keep, think about ones they can create and then talk with their children to get their input.”
Tasha Olfus thought she had done this. From the time her son Jordan could remember, his grandfather had played a significant role in the boy’s life while his own dad Jeff, a military man, was stationed away from home. So when this 8-year-old’s grandfather passed away that fall, his mother anticipated a heartbreaking holiday.
“Up to this point, my dad had been a central figure in Jordan’s holiday celebrations since Jeff was gone for most of them,” says Olfus of her son, now 11. “On Thanksgiving, they would sit in their recliners and watch TV. Around Christmas, Jordan helped my dad decorate his house. And on Christmas day, they would sit on the floor and play for literally hours on end.”
Contemplating her son’s sorrow, Olfus instituted some new traditions that included cutting down their own tree, letting Jordan make decorating decisions and having their first family portrait made. But even with these, the boy felt painfully short changed.
“Mom was still grieving and didn’t want to celebrate, so we told Jordan we wouldn’t be decorating their house that year,” says Olfus. “I assumed he connected the dots and knew we weren’t going there Christmas day. But that morning after opening presents he said, ‘When are we going to Granny’s house?’ And I said, ‘We’re not.’ At that point he started to cry. Looking back, I realize I should have spelled out how the day was going to unfold so there were no surprises.”
“By the time kids reach 7 or 8, parents should make sure they understand what traditions are going to stay the same and what’s going to change,” says David Mandelbaum Ph.D. psychologist specializing in family issues. “If there’s resistance to new ones, ease into it. Say, ‘Let’s try it this year and see how it goes.’ This gives you the option to continue or make alterations in the future.”
Lisa Morgan Shields, mother of two, didn’t get any resistance to holiday traditions after her first husband died three years ago. In fact, it was her daughters Lexii and Katie who initiated the rituals that year.
“Thanksgiving night the girls insisted on putting up the Christmas tree—which we never did that early—but wanted to decorate it just like they had in years’ past,” says Shields of her then 9- and 11-year-olds. “They also took the lead in shopping, something their dad had always done. But the biggest change that year was we visited my brother in Michigan. Everyone loved the idea and thought it would be a fun adventure. But Christmas morning we felt displaced and hurting and needed to grieve.”
“Don’t expect things to run smoothly at the onset of new traditions, particularly if they are radically different,” says Singleton. “Older children especially may be slower to accept change and need time to grieve the loss of the once-intact family.”