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Holiday Traditions: A Source of Stability or Tension?

Do holidays bring to mind special memories of past family celebrations and anticipation of upcoming events, or a dread of the same old rituals?

Traditions can be observed daily or at any other interval. They often help bond a family together by creating a sense of identity, unity and security in an often fast-paced and unpredictable world.

Traditions may strengthen our emotional attachments and create a family heritage which reflects a combination of personal values and experiences, as well as cultural, religious and ethnic influences.

Events can take on a sense of tradition when they require planning and preparation, such as an extravagant meal prepared only on a certain day of the year, or they can be simple, uncomplicated activities such as a bedtime ritual with a child.

The key to a meaningful tradition is the emotional element fostered by the tradition. If a tradition has become a chore, or has lost value for the participants, there is nothing wrong with either discontinuing or changing it.

There are times when traditions must be altered due to the inability of an older adult to continue an established role within a tradition.  This may be the first holiday season without the individual’s presence, or physical /cognitive changes may be prompting a change to usual celebrations.  Individuals who are grieving may have different reactions to various traditions at any given time.  Acute feelings of loss may lead to a need to skip certain traditions temporarily or permanently for some, while others may find comfort in a familiar tradition.

While traditions may involve various aspects of life and culture such as location, cherished objects, favorite foods, and preferred activities, it is important to remember that the people involved are the most valuable part of any tradition.  Families should be sensitive to factors which will influence each member’s participation in traditions. When the people or their roles must change, memories of past celebrations and portions of the “old ways” incorporated into new routines are methods of demonstrating honor and respect for the loved ones who shared in previously established traditions.  When the need for a change can be anticipated, family discussion and evaluation of traditions prior to the event can prevent memories of certain activities from becoming tarnished and can lead to new traditions which are more inclusive of family members’ changing ages, interests and goals.

Preserving the practice of traditions, or preserving memories of old traditions, helps form bonds between families and cultures of the past, present, and future.  Preservation can be achieved through photographs and journal descriptions of various elements of a tradition; such as preparation, food, symbols, and activities.  These tools can also assist families to effectively pass traditions to newer members and future generations. The thoughts and memories of both older and younger generations, associated recipes, and the origin and reason for a tradition are valuable details to include as part of describing a tradition.

The Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” contains a well- known song which credits traditions with helping the main character’s family and community maintain their “balance.”   Established traditions are one method of helping achieve this goal, however, adapting old traditions or developing new traditions to fit changing circumstances may be key to personal and family harmony.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN