Breaking With Tradition: How to Navigate the Delicate Subject of Changing Family Holiday Rituals
By Lori Wright, Media Relations
December 5, 2007
For years, everyone has gone to grandma’s house on Christmas Eve but
now, suddenly, your sister announces she and her children are staying home
-- if the family wants to celebrate the holidays together, they need to do
it on another day.
Breaking with holiday tradition can be a sensitive topic for many families,
according to Sheila McNamee, professor of communication at UNH. But families
can effectively navigate this touchy topic to ensure everyone is happy with
“Holiday traditions reflect important family rituals, often from our
childhoods, which conjure up wonderful memories of a magical holiday feeling,” McNamee
said. “In order to have any success in changing family rituals, we need
to think about what will make other family members comfortable with the change.
What sort of change would be ‘not too different’ but ‘different
enough?’ That is the central question to ask.”
Family traditions change for many reasons: relocation, marriage, and birth
or death in the family. According to McNamee, families should approach changing
holiday traditions as a positive opportunity to make them more meaningful,
rather than a negative situation in which some family members lose out.
She recommends families take a “yes … and” positive approach
to tradition transformation instead of the “not this … but” negative
approach. This allows families to “add on to” family rituals by
suggesting new forms of practice.
“A new custom might excite family members and simultaneously not threaten
them out of their comfort zone. Such an approach introduces just the right
amount of difference,” she said.
Taking the “not this … but” approach usually results in
hurt feelings. For example, a newly married woman might argue, “Why do
we always have to spend Christmas Eve at your family’s home? I’ve
decided that I want to spend it at our own home with our close friends this
“This sort of comment implies that the family event is, at best, not
exciting and at worst, pure drudgery. The byproduct of this approach is inevitable
feelings by family members of exclusion, distance, and even disrespect. Attempting
to change a family holiday tradition in this way only takes one’s own
perspective and desires into account,” McNamee said.
A positive approach to changing holiday traditions also helps families relinquish
tired holiday habits, and decide whether certain traditions are meaningful
anymore. Often families participate in the same holiday rituals simply because
that’s what they’ve always done.
“While holiday memories might be delightful, the tradition of opening
presents at midnight on Christmas Eve might be nothing short of exhausting.
Yet, if this is the way the Smiths have always celebrated the holidays, then
this is the way it must be done,” McNamee said. “Let’s face
it, family holiday rituals get old quickly. There are the ‘good parts’ that
we know we will miss if we do away with them, and there are the ‘bad
parts’ that we long to get rid of!”