But we always do that at Christmas!!
Whatever 'that' is, whether it’s wearing silly hats at the table, visiting your grandmother, eating your body weight in chocolate, poking yourself in the eye – if you should suggest that perhaps this year we do it differently, you will probably be met with shock and denial. Faces that would be more appropriate to the suggestion of amputating a limb will be displayed.
Why? Well, traditions are important. Humans are creatures of habit so once we’ve done something we like, we tend to carry on doing it. When it comes to special occasions and holidays, which have extra significance, traditions are even more important. They help form the structure of our family and link us to our past, which shapes who we are today and what we might become in the future. They reinforce values like faith, family unity and generosity – all important especially at Christmas. And of course Christmas is all about the traditions.
For some people Christmas is still a religious festival, surprising as that may seem in this commercial age. Going to church may be the centrepiece of your holiday, and rightly so if that’s important to you. Other people might question or even mock you for it, but you’re still going to go. But if your family's tradition is going to church but you're no longer a subscriber to the religious aspect of the season, you get conflict and distress.
Once we did it, then it was a habit, now it's become a tradition
When it comes to our family traditions they’re a vital part of our sense of belonging. ‘Our’ Christmas always features this thing, so having that thing reinforces being part of ‘our’ family. Particularly if you don’t spend much time with your family the rest of the year, Christmas traditions are a great way to reconnect with those people who form such a significant part of your history. But when you start bringing in new families with their own traditions – for example when you form a new long-term relationship – traditions can clash and that can cause enormous problems. Do you open your presents before lunch or after? Do you do a Christmas Eve gift? Turkey or duck for Christmas dinner? What about stockings? We didn't do stockings in our house when I was little, but one year I decided to hang one anyway. My poor mother must have gone into meltdown when she saw it hanging there all folorn and empty and had nothing much to go into it. But she was awesome and pulled it off.
Because traditions happen at important times and in specific situations, the emotional connections made at those times can be very strong. Where they’re happy emotions that’s great. But when they aren’t, it can be far worse than if it was a non-tradition moment. So if the tradition in your family was that Grandad always got drunk and made rude comments during the Queens’ Speech, watching the Queen’s Speech can be fraught with anxiety. You won’t necessarily know why; you just know that you start getting uncomfortable at about 2.45pm even though Grandad died six years ago.
Tradition also offers an excellent opportunity for reflection. What are your traditions? Do they serve you or have they become a burden or obligation over the years? Why do you have them? Are they about recalling memories of someone you’ve lost, reconnecting with happier times, boosting your self-esteem, or showing off? Are you proud of the reason for the tradition? Does observing it make you happy or does it cause anxiety or distress?
As I’ve already said, traditions tend to be associated with strong emotions so if you suggest changing or stopping one, it’s likely people will get very upset. You may therefore decide that it’s much easier to carry on with them. Only the other day one of my clients told me that she always goes to her mum’s for Christmas lunch, even though she and her husband would much rather spend the day at home. But she doesn’t want to upset her, and they have a great relationship so she’s prepared to sacrifice her preference for the sake of her mother’s tradition. The important thing is that she's made an intelligent decision about what she's going to do instead of just automatically doing what they always do for no other reason than they always do it, even though it doesn't make anyone happy any more.
Brother, here we go again
If you really don’t like the thought of observing Christmas traditions this year, remember that they have a very strong emotional aspect. Rejecting a tradition can feel as though you’re rejecting everything that’s associated with it – family, your history, love, even the person who introduced it. So perhaps pick an aspect of the tradition that you do like, and propose a change that incorporates it. For example, if you love being out of doors but your family tradition is about sitting together around the fire, suggest that since it’s so lovely that everyone’s together, why don’t you all go for a family walk in the park? (Perhaps pick a Christmas when it isn't pissing down to suggest this particular new tradition).
If this is your first Christmas in a new family unit, I suggest you discuss traditions in advance of the big day to avoid arguments. Don’t assume everyone will have the same traditions as you. I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous to suggest that anyone could even consider having Christmas dinner at any time other than 1pm, but shock news – there are people who actually eat it in the evening! You don’t want to find out that your new partner is one of them as you sit down to eat. And of course if you're visiting family and your new partner is vegan, Hindi or has a strong objection to sprouts (and who doesn't), make sure you remember to mention these pertinent facts to your hosts well in advance.
It’s possible to enjoy Christmas without the traditional new pyjamas or ceremonial box of Maltesers. It’s even possible to enjoy it having dinner at 6pm, like you do every other day of the year. Take the opportunity to form new traditions to go with your new family, that can pay homage to what’s important to all of you but still celebrate the new chapter in your life.
All traditions start somewhere. If you don’t like the ones you have, start a new one that helps you be happy and #stayhealthy.
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Caeredwen is a physical therapist, coach and counsellor based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If this blog has touched you and you would like to contact her in confidence, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.