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Holiday Shakeup

Traditionally, an article on holiday traditions would open with a traditional sentence, something along the lines, “My favorite holiday traditions are (fill in the blank).” But as Bob Dylan so eloquently mumbled many years ago, “The times they are a-changin.” Traditions will necessarily change with them.

Indeed, change is inevitable. But for traditionalists everywhere, change can be especially troubling – downright depressing – this time of year. The holidays, after all, are steeped in tradition. We sing about them in time-honored Christmas carols. We see them played out for us in sappy supermarket commercials. We do our best to uphold them no matter the stress and strain it puts on ourselves, our families and our budgets.

Our family is struggling with these kinds of changes right now. With a daughter in high school and two boys in college their time is stretched thin. Tagging along with mom and dad for a traditional Sunday evening stroll to look at the neighborhood Christmas lights or helping decorate the tree is probably not going to happen. Additionally, both the boys have part-time jobs and steady girlfriends, which means they won’t be with us as much as we would like. It’s what happens when kids grow up.

And that is okay. While it can be hard on parents at first, we have to understand that this is the natural thing for our kids to do. It’s why we raised them – to set out on their own as responsible adults, forge their own path, and make their own way. We’re looking forward to having everyone together over the holidays. At the same time, we are already anticipating that they are going to want to spend more time with their significant others or close friends. It’s up to us to play it smart, not be too heavy handed with the traditions and be thankful for the time we have with them.

We’ve raised our kids with a few cherished holiday traditions — the first one happens right after Thanksgiving while we decorate the house. Mom and dad pop in the Bing Crosby Christmas CD (groans commence). There’s Christmas Eve at church; a trip to Walt Disney World to enjoy the holiday decorations and shows; my wife’s tradition of buying the kids matching pajamas (a tradition I suspect our 21-year-old is ready to retire); and the traditional trip to the ER after dad slips on the ladder while hanging Christmas lights. Okay, I’m kidding about that last one. But my point is our traditions are not our parent’s traditions nor will they be our kids’. The best we can hope for is that they look back fondly while establishing their own.

Traditions are important. They help give families an identity. They help hold us together, providing a sense of security and belonging. It’s kind of like the wink and nudge of an inside joke that makes you feel special. The feeling can stay with you for years. Just because your kids are getting older, don’t assume they’ve outgrown your family’s traditions. As much as they might protest, our kids still expect to get those matching PJs on Christmas Eve. They still want to watch The Bishop’s Wife, A Christmas Story, and A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV. They still want scrambled eggs and homemade caramel sticky buns on Christmas morning. But know that they might not last forever. Your family will change – perhaps dramatically -and your traditions may need to change with it.

As parents face empty nests, divorce and stepchildren the challenges to keep holiday traditions alive can be daunting. Terri Clark, author of the book Tying the Family Knot – Meeting the Challenges of a Blended Family, advises that you don’t push too hard. “Holidays leave a bittersweet taste for everyone in the family. We love the festivities, food and fun that accompany the holidays, but visitation, separations and changes in the way we have always done our celebrating dampen them. Sometimes old traditions can be carried over into the new blended family, but sometimes it is better to let them go.”

As I write this I’m breaking in a new pair of dress shoes – my first in many years. My old ones were so comfortable I didn’t want to give them up. I had them resoled – twice. But it was time. And I know the pain won’t last and I’ll end up loving these just as much. Traditions are the same way. They’re like an old, comfortable pair of shoes. You know them and love them. They make you feel good, and it’s hard to bring yourself to accepting new ones. If the structure of your family is changing, instead of seeing it as a negative, look at it as a way to establish new traditions. “Weighing the importance of our old way of doing things against having a solid family can actually result in creating new traditions,” Clark says.

Communication will be the key. Compromise will be the watchword. Talk about what the holidays have traditionally meant for you and listen to what your spouse has to say. Psychotherapist Tina Tessina advises, “Be willing to try some experiments. Try it the way the other parent wants to see if it works. Try letting the children decide (within reason). If they like paternal grandma’s cooking, ask her to teach you some of her favorite recipes. This will help you form a new bond. Sharing informal, productive activities is very bonding, as is allowing others to mentor you.”

Above all, remember to be flexible. Things probably won’t go exactly as planned over the holidays. Take a deep breath and let it go. But don’t let go of the memories. As an old Irish holiday toast puts it, “May you never forget what is worth remembering or remember what is best forgotten.” And as Bob Dylan went on to write, “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly agin. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand for the times they are a-changin.”

All the best from our family to yours for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Dan Shaffer co-anchors ABC Action News in the morning and at noon.

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