Holiday Traditions in Transition

When I was fourteen, my brother was living away from home as Christmas approached. My mother decided that the Mexican tin Christmas tree would suffice that year. You can imagine how I felt after a whole lifetime of large and wonderful Christmas trees.

On the day before Christmas my brother arrived home as a surprise. What a surprise he got to discover that without him there was no sense of Christmas in the house. He said, ‘Stephanie, get in the car!’ and off we went down to the Christmas tree lot, found the last scraggly tree and brought it home, filling the house with the aroma and joy of the season. My hero!

My mother was not a Scrooge by any means. She had made our Christmases into fantasy wonderlands throughout our childhood, but she was clearly ready to move on. I wasn’t. My brother wasn’t. My father didn’t care either way as long as there was harmony in the household. The tradition was not allowed to die, even when the hub of that tradition wanted to let it go. Why?

Traditions are a contract between a group of people, in this case a family. For any change to happen we need to come to some agreement about what works best for everyone involved. This is a conversation that needs to happen well in advance, before the wheels of holiday habits begin to roll to their inevitable end.

Feeling the need to change some of your traditions? 

While it may be too late to change traditions this season, here is what we can do right now. Using our developing skills of awareness and compassion, we can notice what works and has meaning for us in our traditions. We can notice what aspects of the holidays we dread. Where is there just too much? Where is there not enough?  We can write down our observations as note to self, and have a discussion with family and/or friends as to how to modify these traditions to suit the needs of all. We can plan the conversation for, say, next September.

In our discussion in class, we shared some of the transitions we had made and some we would like to make. The main transition for women our age is letting go of being the hub of the holidays, letting our children, many of whom are parents now, take on the role of making the holidays as they want them to be. They need to establish traditions that are sustainable for them and their children.

When our children were young, we moved into a house and inherited from the previous owners a toy train set up to go under the Christmas tree. How fun, we thought! But that first Christmas we were constantly dealing with whiny complaints that the train had stopped and numerous times a day we had to carefully sweep the track clean of fallen needles from the tree. The next Christmas the train did not appear under the tree. It was an unsustainable tradition. Our youngest son has little children now, and what to my wondering eyes should appear under their tree but a whole Disney tram set up circling around the tree! Our ten-month old granddaughter is now seen by all as godzilla, crashing and trashing the tram. Hopefully it will survive this season so she can enjoy it the next!

We may think that making a transition is a difficult conversation to have. But what was clear from our discussion was that if one person wants change, others are also ready to change, to step in and take on more of a role. Had my mother had a conversation with us rather than simply absenting herself from the whole scene, we would have been happy to create Christmas! It wouldn’t have made as good a story to tell now, but it would have been more skillful.

The biggest gift we can bring to any gathering during the holiday season is the simple sense of being present and compassionate. We can model being compassionate with ourselves by being honest about our limits. When we do this for ourselves, we are teaching our children to take care of themselves as well.

Staying present in the moment seems impossible when gatherings need to be planned and prepared for. Our whole thinking gets focused on a single point in time somewhere in the future.

What’s the dharma way?
First we can remember that this is not a challenge that Buddhist monks have to face, though there must be some monks and nuns who are in charge of planning celebrations such as Vesak, usually in May, that celebrates the Buddha. Just as we do, they probably get caught up in the desire to make everything right. Perhaps they rotate responsibilities and they want to make sure they do the job at least as well as if not better than their predecessor. Out of generosity, they want everyone to have a positive experience.

And, just like us, when they recognize that driven quality of seeking perfection, they bring themselves back to the moment anchored in physical sensation, and send metta to themselves — May I be well — and to any others who are foremost in their thoughts, especially to those who seem to be working at odds, creating obstructions.

What other skills do they bring to it that we can use as well?
First, they know that they are not solely responsible. They can delegate, share the workload. We can do this too. To do so we need to be sure that the others feel this is something worth doing. If it is just our agenda, something we are trying to promote, but others are just along for the ride, then we can’t expect them to engage fully. For any gathering, there has to be a shared sense of value.

We can’t give other people our sense of values, but we can listen to theirs and see where there is agreement. This is important information for the creation of a celebration that has meaning for all. Perhaps the other parts that have meaning for us can be shared with like-minded friends, or as a personal thing we do for ourselves. As grandparents, for example, if our children don’t like to sing, we can still share it with our grandchildren. Passing along traditions often goes from grandparent to grandchild. Parents have so much on their plates already.

Second, the monks and nuns never put any activity above the importance of meditative practice. In this way they are supported and guided by the dharma. They don’t set it aside as inconvenient. They fit any seasonal activity in their pre-existing practice calendar. Even if we are not able to make it to class, we can have a dedicated practice. Even if we are ill, we can take our rest in the dharma.

Visiting Buddhist monks at Spirit Rock tell the gathered sangha that as householders our path is much more challenging than theirs. We practice meditation, study the dharma, have insights, etc. while living in the world of endless distractions. They admire our ability to do so. While we don’t want to get cocky about it, we also can appreciate the truth of this and give ourselves compassion as we go about our daily duties.

We could go on retreat for the whole holiday season and forget about the whole thing. Or we could go traveling and do likewise, while observing the traditions in other cultures, watching how families come together at this time of year, while we sit in a sidewalk cafe and observe the hubbub.

Those are certainly options. Take a moment to see if the thought of such getaways makes you feel longing or horror at the very idea. This gives you useful information to work with, if not for this season then for next year.

If the idea of giving up the holidays all together is abhorrent, yet you find yourself still dreading them, then spend some time really noticing what aspects you are dreading, and which aspects give you joy.

As a young parent, I also remembered that in my childhood, I was so focused on Christmas morning that I was miserable when it was over. The ‘Is that all?’ wasn’t a sadness over the end of presents as much as exhaustion from switching from future-leaning mode into post-Christmas moment mode. So as a young parent I set up a series of smaller traditions that brought the joy of the season and spread out the fun. We had neighborhood caroling, a day of cookie making, an adventure into the country to cut down the tree at the tree farm. The result was that our children seemed less frantic about Christmas itself. It was a very special day, but it wasn’t the be all end all that it had been in my childhood.

But how do we enjoy THIS holiday, beyond using it as investigative information for next year?
First, we take care of ourselves. In this season of darkness, there is a craving not just for eggnog and social interaction, but for a quiet down time for ourselves. There is something in our nature that wants to hibernate like a bear, wants to burrow in and take more naps. For some this may be seasonal affective disorder, where the lack of sunlight alters their chemical make up and brings on a sense of depression. But the rest of us are also affected by the changing of the seasons in one way or another. All of us can be mindful and find ways to assure that we are balancing our activities for our physical and emotional well being.

Second, we can say no to whatever social event doesn’t excite us. By being present with what arises when we look at our invitations or our calendar, we can gauge what we are doing because we think we should, and what we are doing that nourishes us. Why we think that others benefit when we drag ourselves to events where we don’t want to be, I have no idea. It’s a distorted idea of duty, perhaps? Would you want anyone at your party who didn’t really want to be there? It makes no sense.

If there is a sense of not-enoughness, rather than a sense of being overwhelmed, we might consider adding some personal traditions that have meaning for us individually. We might want to find a way to give to those in need during what can be a very difficult time of year. What local community programs are in place that we could join in order to help make the season bright? 


We might feel the need to spend more time in nature. Rain and snow won’t melt us! Bundle up and get outside!

Whatever we do during this season, we can send a lot of metta as the best gift of all. When we are among friends, family, coworkers or fellow shoppers we can let go of the entanglement, and enjoy the experience of simply being alive to be part of it all. There is something magical about silently being fully present to look, listen and savor this fleeting gift of life in the faces and voices of fellow beings, with all their quirks, and yes even the jerks! It is a pleasure beyond measure.

Whatever your holidays and whatever your traditions, I wish you every joy of the season.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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