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Expert Source: Carleton Kendrick, EdM, LCSW, is a family therapist, consultant, speaker, media commentator on family issues, and is a coauthor of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s: Hanging In, Holding On and Letting Go of Your Teen.

Family rituals are sacred things, particularly around the holidays. Traditions count, whether they involve religious observances, special meals, big outings, or must-have treats, like Aunt Meena’s French silk pie.

Still, life and times change, and sometimes traditions have to change with them. What happens when Aunt Meena passes away? Or a divorce splits holiday plans down the middle? Or a generation of traditional eaters must suddenly include paleo and vegan diehards who want to bring some new holiday favorites to the table?

Whenever change meets tradition, there can be confusion, hurt feelings, and a sense of loss. Family therapist Carleton Kendrick offers suggestions for creating new or renewed rituals with minimal stress.

Barriers to Overcome

  • The temptation to exert your will. Most alterations to family rituals come from an individual or a small group within the family that lobbies for change, says Kendrick. You may feel passionate about the need for something new. You may be tempted to declare unilaterally that things must change or you won’t take part. “But any change needs to be made with empathy and consideration for everyone involved,” says Kendrick.
  • Resistance to change. The suggestion to alter family rituals is rarely met with unanimous agreement, Kendrick emphasizes, especially since you never know who might be inordinately attached to the annual polar-bear swim or candle-lighting ceremony. “Attachment has nothing to do with how often someone has experienced a tradition,” he points out. “A 6-year-old can also be every bit as invested in a ritual as an elder.”
  • Fear based on assumption. You may be disinclined to suggest a change because you assume it will hurt somebody or make someone mad. You might worry, for example, that Cousin Errol will never come to the Hanukkah gathering if he’s no longer in charge of the dreidel-spinning. But he might be tired of his role and happy to let someone else take over. You can’t really know for sure unless you’re willing to explore.
  • Confusing detail with essence. It’s easy for people to assume that the way they’ve always done something is meaningful in itself, so any change will make the ritual “wrong.” The “why” can sometimes get lost in the “what.” Yet there are multiple ways to embody the same values — and changing some aspects of a long-held ritual, especially those that have become routine, might even deepen the ritual’s meaning and relevance.

Strategies for Success

  • Get input from everyone. “The key thing in changing a family tradition is to acknowledge that it is important to many,” Kendrick says. “All decisions about change need to be made in concert with others as much as possible.”
  • Make time to talk. Sit down with family members a few weeks before traditions are observed and talk about which parts are still meaningful. Use these discussions as guidelines for thoughtful proposals.
  • Plan ahead. “Changes should always be discussed well before the ceremonial get-together,” Kendrick says. The more lead time you have, the more rational people are likely to be, since they won’t be emotionally triggered by the sights and sounds of approaching holidays.
  • Connect with the core meaning. When you’re conscious of the deeper reasons you observe a tradition in the first place, notes Kendrick, changing it is much easier. “In my experience,” he says, “the core value behind most family traditions has to do with bringing people together in an environment that is safe and comforting.”
  • Think of the change in positive terms. While the adjustments you make may be in response to unavoidable alterations in your lives, Kendrick recommends viewing necessary changes as more than mere reactions. Instead, see them as a way to continue honoring central principles. Remind people that the real purpose of evolving a ritual is to support a deeply held value, such as family love and inclusion, social justice, or faith.
  • When subtracting, add. “It’s much easier on everyone to add, tweak, or modify a tradition than it is to eliminate it altogether,” Kendrick says. “So if you are letting go of something, consider adding another element that everybody agrees would be meaningful and enjoyable.”
  • Include the opponent. If there’s a family member who’s particularly resistant to letting go, ask her if she would like to take on a role in the new tradition, says Kendrick. For example, if you no longer go to the cathedral to hear choral music, ask music-loving Aunt Joan to bring music to play for the family at home.
  • Be “child-centric” with divorce-related changes. When divorce brings major alterations, says Kendrick, “the key is to offer children as much assurance as possible that some things won’t change.” Be consistent where you can, but know that simply reproducing old traditions in two separate homes may just be a painful reminder of the fracture. Kendrick recommends asking kids for ideas about new elements to add to old traditions and creating novel rituals with their input.
  • During the first holiday after someone has died, maintain his or her traditions. When someone central to a family tradition passes away, the sadness people feel can lead to avoiding all reference to him or her, including that person’s traditional role. Kendrick recommends inviting the people who were closest to the deceased loved one to step up and take over the role if they feel ready, or create a new one. Perhaps Cousin Lorraine has been ready to carve the roast for years, and now she can honor her deceased mother when she does so.

More Resources

  • The Book of New Family Traditions by Meg Cox
    A treasure trove of ideas for values-based traditions. These include ways to connect with all family members at holidays, handy when circumstances require split celebrations.
  • 50 Holiday Traditions
    This list of things to do with the family at Christmas puts forward a number of tried-and-true holiday traditions that might still be new to your family. A good place to search for replacement rituals.
  • Changing the Family Traditions
    This New York Times blog post suggests ways to alter family traditions to accommodate aging relatives.

This article has been updated. It originally appeared as “Reinventing Traditions” in the December 2014 issue of Experience Life.

Illustration by: Richard Faust

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