16 Ideas for Creating New Holiday Tradition After a Death

Someone you love has died and now the holidays will never be the same.  I’m sorry to put this so plainly, but it’s true and you need to acknowledge it.

Too often people stumble into the holidays after a death believing things can stay the same.  Some passively assume everything will work out, while others believe if they try hard enough to be positive and maintain tradition that PEOPLE WILL ENJOY THEMSELVES DANG IT.  I hope these approaches work out for some, but I can promise you they won’t suffice for all.

I hate to be grinch, but even if you manage to rebuild your tradition to the closest approximation possible, there will still be sadness.  Don’t forget the immortal words of the King Elvis Presley…

“And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That’s when those blue memories start calling”

We’ve written posts on how to handle existing holiday tradition after a death and we’ve written about honoring deceased loved ones at the holidays, but we’ve yet to get in depth about creating new tradition after loss.  The creation of new tradition and ritual provides people with the opportunity to find meaningful and lasting ways to remember loved ones. Further, it allows those who have died to play a continuous role in holiday celebrations going forward.

We’re going to provide you with a few ideas for creating new holiday tradition after a death, but we encourage you to really think beyond this list and create traditions that are reflective of who your loved one was and how you want to see their legacy continue.  New traditions can be simple things you decide to do on your own or bigger rituals that you create with your family.  As you think about this, remember traditions are meant to be repeated year after year, so choose something that your family can realistically keep going.  Even better, choose a tradition that can be handed down to future generations.

1.  Food:Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 12.06.31 PM

  • Holiday dish: Choose your loved one’s favorite dish (or recipe) and make sure the dish is present at your celebration year after year.  For example: my family makes “Autie’s beans”.  Why are they “Autie’s beans”? I have no idea, I’m pretty sure they’re just green bean casserole.
  • Favorite dessert:  Instead of choosing a dish, choose their favorite dessert to make every year.
  • Breakfast: If the holiday dinner is crazy, crowded, and hectic, start a tradition of having your loved one’s favorite breakfast foods with just your immediate family.
  • After dinner drinks: If the person who died wasn’t a part of the family celebration, start a tradition of meeting friends and family in the evening to remember the person who died over hot cocoa and eggnog.
  • Cookie recipe: This is my personal favorite, use your loved one’s recipe to make Christmas cookies.  I used my mother’s recipe this year and shared  them over Facebook with my far away family.

2. Music

  • Holiday playlist: Have a go-to list of holiday songs that remind you of your loved one.
  • Sing:  Start a tradition that involves singing your loved one’s favorite holiday songs.  My family always sings Silent Night just before going to bed on Christmas Eve and it always makes me cry.  (Here’s a post about when holiday songs become sad)  You could also try traditions like these…
    • Have a caroling party before the holidays where you invite all your family and friends
    • Have a sing-a-long after holiday dinner

3.  Memory tablecloth:

This is an awesome idea that I saw here.  Every year, lay a special tablecloth and fabric markers or sharpies. Ask holiday guests to write down their favorite holidays memories, especially those that involve family members who are no longer present.

4. Light a candle:

As a family, light a candle in the beginning of the holiday season and allow it to burn throughout.  If you’re not comfortable with a real candle, use a fake candle or a special light up decoration.

5.  Candle ceremony:

On the night before the holiday or on the night of the holiday, gather everyone for a candle ceremony.  Give everyone an unlit candle.  The first person lights the first candle and shares a memory.  They can share a memory of their deceased loved one(s), a memory from past holidays, or a time during the year when they felt their loved one’s presence – you decide (it’s your tradition after all)!  After the first person shares their memory, they light the candle of the next person and that person shares a memory – so on and so forth.  Once the last candle is lit, do something to close out the ceremony (for example: sing a song or say a prayer).


6.  Blessing:

If a blessing is traditionally said at any point during the holiday, add a lyric, quote, verse, poem, or saying that reminds you of your loved one.  Choose something that really reflects your loved one, even if it’s silly or out of context.

7.  Secret Signal:

Create a secret signal for your family members to give one another when something reminds them of the person who has died.  This could be a signal used at any moment, happy or sad, throughout the year.

8.  Give to charity:

Every year chose a charity to give a gift to in your loved ones name.  Keep the same process for choosing the charity each year – maybe you decide over Thanksgiving or you gather on the first Sunday of December, for example.  Allow everyone to offer suggestions and then choose as a family.  If you don’t want to just make a monetary donation, look for shelters doing “adopt a resident” programs or opportunities to buy gifts through an angel tree.

9. Go somewhere where you feel close to your loved one:

Start a tradition of visiting your loved one’s grave or another place where you feel close to them on the holiday.  Choosing a designated time, like first thing in the morning, may make it easier to plan and uphold this tradition.

10.  Moment of silence:

At your holiday celebration, allow people an opportunity to share the name of loved one’s they’ve lost and then have a moment of silence to remember those people.

11. Tell stories:

Every year on my daughter’s birthdays I tell them about the day they were born. Why not start a tradition of telling special holiday stories on the holiday?  Instead of reading the kids ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas when you tuck them into bed, start the tradition of telling them a story from a holiday when their loved one was alive.

12. Add an extra plate:

Always add an extra plate to your dinner table to symbolize your loved one’s presence in everyone’s hearts and minds.

holiday tradition after a death

13. Holiday memory/Gratitude box:

Leave a box, slips of paper, and pens out, and ask those you’re spending the holidays with to write down their favorite holiday memories, memories of loved ones, or gratitudes.  Ask them to put their slips in the box and read them over dessert. If you feel as though your family has had an especially tough year, writing down gratitudes might help people to shift their perspective a little bit.

14. Remembrance ornaments and trees:

Buy a new ornament every year that reminds you of your loved one.  This could be an ornament that you think is pretty, a photo ornament, or an ornament that symbolizes something about your loved one.  If children are affected by the loss, invite them to help you select the ornament or even allow them the opportunity to make the ornament themselves.

  • A tree for your loved one: Consider buying a small tree specifically for these remembrance ornaments.  This will give people an opportunity to look at the ornaments all together, ask questions, and reminisce.  You might even consider having a specific tradition for decorating and lighting this tree.
  • A remembrance tree:  If you will have a lot of people at your celebration, or if you have a lot of visitors throughout the season (or if you work at a grief center or hospice), put up a remembrance tree.  Set up a table with sharpies and ornaments people can write on close to the tree. Allow anyone who passes through to write the name(s) of their deceased loved one(s) on an ornament and invite them to hang their ornament on the tree.

15. Stockings and garlands:

The holidays can be really tough when you’re grieving (oh, you already knew that?).  Set out slips of paper and pens and instruct people to write any of the following of the slips of paper.

  • memories
  • moments when you thought of/missed your loved one
  • words of encouragement to other family members
  • words of appreciation for other family members
  • gratitudes

Have a designated stocking or garland (here are some awesome garland ideas) where people can share their slips.

16. Put regrets to the fire:

Henry Havelock Ellis said, “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.”  In addition to the memories and traditions you keep with you, you may also be holding onto things like regret, guilt, and feelings of resentment.  Start a holiday tradition of lighting a fire, writing down your regrets from the past year, and then throwing your regrets into the fire to symbolize a fresh start.

holiday tradition after a death

What holiday traditions have you created since your loved one’s death?  Share in the comments below.

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March 28, 2017

18 responses on "16 Ideas for Creating New Holiday Tradition After a Death"

  1. My stepson who lived with us just passed away on July 10, 2017. He was one of the Marines that lost his life in the plane crash in Mississippi this year. I made a candle holder using a tall glass candle jar, Modge Podge and a printed copy of his picture. It turned out very good and was easy to do. I plan to put a candle in it on all of the special occasions. This Christmas I will put it on top of a plate that I set at the holiday table in his honor.


  2. Thanks for good ideas… my 39 yr old daughter died 9 months ago from a sudden heart attack which was such a shock since she was a picture of health and had just returned from the gym!!!…..we are living a nightmare and trying to find a way to help her 2 boys 8 and 11 yrs get thru Christmas,,!! Your help is appreciated! 💔

  3. I lost my brother unexpectedly this April 28 2017 It was a very traumatic time in my life. The police and coroner were involved. I was in so much pain and despair. I had to learn to live life without my brother especially due to the sudden loss. I was lost at how to do Christmas this year until I read your ideas. I have decided to have a small tree with pictures on it to honor my brother. Thank you so much for the wonderful idea.

  4. My dad died on Chrisrmas morning 2016 . All i could think about is this is what Christmas will mean for me every year, the memories of his death, , its been a hard year but i do believe we will celebrate Christmas just like my dad would want us to considering this was his favorite holiday and he enjoyed watching the “Christmas Story” play over and over christmas eve and day. We will let it be dads christmas and i think the small christmas tree idea is an excellent way to really include the entire family. My dad was truly a special man who never met a stranger and I feel honored to honor a great man but a better father ! Love you Dad /Pop

  5. My dad passed away November 30th 2016. My sister found him that morning asleep on the stairs ..he didn’t make it to bed. He lived alone and died alone..We both feel guilt for not realising he was so ill and dying and we feel utter loss and devastation…nothing can ever be the same again. On Christmas day we will adopt a new tradition and still set his place at our table and light a candle for our special dad. Thanks to all for sharing these emotions and giving me the idea of how I can still have him with us.x

  6. Caitlin Carey-NestleDecember 17, 2016 at 7:24 pmReply

    I have a large family, 10 aunts and uncles and 9 cousins just on my mom’s side and we all see each other on a regular basis, family dinner every Sunday kind of thing. My grandfather (mother’s father), who is more like my father than my grandfather, passed away early in September. At the calling hours one of my uncles bought all his siblings dog tags with my grandfather’s name, birth date, death date, and ‘my dad my hero’. So for Christmas I bought all of my cousin one that says ‘Grandpa can fix it’ and my aunt engraved his nicknames for us on the back of each of them. I figure even if they don’t want them right now it’s something they will appreciate later in life. The closer we get the harder it gets, but we are a very giving family and we love to give gifts to each other so that’s what we keep looking forward to is giving to each other. My grandmother is understandably still very upset by the whole situation but the more we talk about it the better she seems. I am afraid to bring up any ‘new traditions’ to her even though the things I’ve suggested so far have seemed to ease situations if only a bit (we added an extra setting to out thanksgiving table and while at first she wasn’t into the idea she said it did help even though there was an empty seat having the rest of the table filled with love was comforting).
    We have Christmas brunch, my grandfather liked it that way, everyone was gone by 3 and he could have his nap in peace. It’s very informal and I think I might bring up #13 as something to do before we open gifts.

  7. I have just lost my dad end of July and his birthday is coming up along with thanksgiving. I am not sure I can handle any celebration at this time.

    • Dear Viv, I am so sorry for your loss. There’s no rules for how you mourn. I found it useful at some point to set aside time every day to write down a story I wanted to remember about my loved one, to look at pictures or light a candle on the shelf where I had placed precious mementos. I also made sure I was only around people who would understand on those hard anniversaries – and the first year almost every day was hard. This is a great list of ideas to think about if you are up to it, but there are no rules. May you find comfort.

  8. My wife died of ovarian cancer in November 1998. Our living room was still filled with flowers and plants from her memorial service as Christmas approached; I could not imagine a tree and decorating. A friend came to spend Christmas Eve with me though, and I had an idea. We went out and got a pine branch from the leavings at a Christmas tree lot. I wedged it in a coffee can and she put a strand of white lights on it. I sat down with some craft supplies and the big box of get well and sympathy cards, and made ornaments. Some I embellished; some were layered. I made some with pictures of her, with something she’d written collaged in. I wept over each one, and I hung them on the little tree. My friend held me, made hot cocoa with marshmallows more than once. We told lots of stories, and we were just quiet, remembering our beloved Joan.
    It was near dawn when I finally felt done.Deb tucked me in bed and sat with me until I went to sleep. I still have the ornaments, but have never again put up a tree. I have many years made a seasonal mobile, and I use some of them in it.
    Thank you for this great article. I am married (legally!) again now, and this wife too has cancer, now metastatic after 11 years of remission. I can hardly bear the thought of grieving again. Mostly I keep myself in the moment, treasuring every good day, every dear and ordinary moment.

  9. We lost my son Damon to suicide 16 days ago, the day after his 17th birthday. Needless to say, we are a mess. But holidays are so important for gathering family, I couldn’t just skip it. But how to deal with the things that made him part of the celebration? We will set a place at the table for him. This year, a friend with no where to go will join us also. I can’t not help a friend in sorrow. And since we each have “special” ornaments, and he is not here to hang them, we will take turns hanging them and sharing happy memories of him. And his stocking will still be filled each year. We will just fill it with charity items. This year it’s gifts for cats and dogs that are adopted from a local shelter. And I know that I may add more in the future but that is enough to get us through this year.

    • Brandi,

      My heart goes out to you. It sounds like you’ve put some thought into how you will cope with the holidays and finds ways to honor Damon – which is the best anyone really can do. I hope being surrounded by other people who love your son is a comfort and I wish you the best throughout this week and beyond.


    • i love the idea of charity stocking,my daughter 23 passed this august 2016,she loved helping an giving to other,this is a great idea for her siblings to participate in thank you brandi,sorry for your loss

  10. This will be my secnd holiday season without my husband who passed away in August 2014 after fighting cancer for 18 short months. Last year, our daughter’s idea of creating a new tradition was to have me to go away with her and her husband. I was in no condition to argue or refuse as I as in that numb state so I went. In her defense, she thought this would be a good thing. In reality, it was a disaster. It cost me a lot of money, driving hundreds of miles when we could have and should have taken a train was stressful, and everywhere I went I saw couples, couples, couples. In addition, our wedding annversary is 3 days after Christmas, and my daughter’s husband, saying he felt ill, made me drive all the way home while I cried my eyes out. ( daughter doesn’t drive). It was too soon after my husband passed away, a mere few months, and I had begged her to leave me be. This year, I truly want to be alone, but again she will not take “leave me be” for an answer. She has a baby now, and although I love him, knowing he doesn’t have a grandfather is painful, and on top of that, my daughter is pouring guilt on me about the baby’s first Christmas, etc. I am in no state, emotionally or mentally, to be a warm and fuzzy grandmother that she wants. When we’re together she tenses up when I even mention her father; her husband can be heartless and is annoyed that my husband ” ruined” their life together. (He was diagnosed 10 days after their wedding so theit marriage has been darkly colored by his illness and death and my sorrow.) At Thanksgiving I hen I started to say something at the table about being thankful for my husband I was cut off by him with the subject quickly changed. So, this year I am standing my ground in being alone even though she is stubbornly insisting she’s showing up. I have no intentions of decorating, buying and cooking food or ” celebrating” anything. I will walk n the beach, cuddle with my dg…his beloved dg.. See the new Star Wars mvie…he loved those.. and perhaps do a few of the activities suggested in this article. When I’m ready, maybe someday I’ll feel better, but for now I want to be alone with his spirit and memory, and maybe someday we will do some of these candle lghting and memory rituals together as well. The suggestions are beautiful. Thank you for them.

    • You should never have to feel guilty above grieving. I’m so sorry you had to deal with such an unpleasant Christmas. Your grandson is young enough he won’t even remember. Sometimes you have to protect your own feelings when your grieving. Don’t let anybody put a timeframe on it, grief is the price we pay for loving deeply. We just lost my brother a month ago and many people like to tell you how fo grieve. I would never say something like it will all be okay, because in reality your grief will change but you will never get over it. I hope you’re able to find some peace this Christmas❤️

  11. Nothing at all, so far. It’s not like we’re ever allowed to go calmly into that good night, or however the poem goes. Last year, 10 days before Christmas the stupid SENATE decided to publish their torture report about how the people who had evidence collected against them beFORE they were ever tortured ended up being rats in a government lab experiment even though they’d been arrested and brought into Guantanamo Bay before that ever happened based on real evidence gathered via their credit cards (which they used in their own name to fund the September 11 operation) and phone records, which they probably used their own names to talk to their goons-in-crime to plan the operation. But the news conveniently neglects to TELL people that and everybody sits around feeling sorry for the prisoners who were tortured for FURTHER information after they were brought into GITMO. It says in the 14th Amendment that they have a right to a fair trial even if it takes a while to happen. It didn’t say that would take forEVER.
    I’ve never agreed with torture but I’ve given up trying to sound like an understanding person about the issue. Two nights ago I finally saw that no matter how much I want to I have no ability to feel sorry for the people who killed him or HELPED do it (along with 1000’s of others, including a 2 y.o girl) – not even a small amount of patience on the issue exists within me. I thought I was a decent human being until someone in my family died by intentional violence. Now I just feel angry that everyone can find so much sad sympathy for people who would kill other people and then never feel any remorse for any part of it but the same people never even mention who these “people” had murdered as if it no longer even matters just because something ELSE stupid occurred no thanks to Dick Cheney (who had the gd nerve to say we should STILL be doing it when they asked for his response to the torture report.)
    Then this year, Donald Trump uses what happened to the people on September 11 to mount an idiot defense of “registering” Muslims as that faith so we’ll be able to pick them out and he does THAT a month before the holidays. Now everyone’s sitting around feeling sorry for all of them again and still no mention that people existed on September 11 that are still dead because of SOME of the people who really did believe themselves religious. Osama bin Laden said in one of those stupid tapes he used to send out every month that everything he does is because he’s “deeply religious.” Even if he wasn’t really that way to other people’s way of thinking, he was in his own thoughts. He’s the biggest legend in his own mind I’ve ever heard of besides Hitler.
    How are you supposed to get over all this stuff when all you ever do is get reminded almost every day and not just from the memories in your own mind but from people all over the country feeling terribly terribly sorry for the very ones who did it?
    I think torturing them was stupid but I also believe what they DID was wrong.

  12. For years we only hung our kids stockings on the fireplace. One year, my daughters decided to get stockings for both me and my husband. Our names both started with the letter J so there was a green J stocking and a red J stocking on each end of the fireplace encompassing the kids’ stockings. That first time was the only time we had them up while he was still alive and I simply could not bear to NOT put his up the next year, so I did. We took a version of idea #15 and every year we write a little note to him and put it in his stocking. No one has ever read them and we just put the stocking away as such. It’s a very nice way to continue to have him “here” with us in a subtle kind of way. Without him, we could never have had all the stockings that hang in between us.

    • Joanie,

      Yes! He is still a part of your family. I am so glad you continue to hang his stocking and continue to write him notes throughout the holiday season. Thank you for sharing.


    • I lost my husband and the father of our two children on the 21st of June 2017, 7 weeks today and it is so painful. Our 13 year old (youngest) said he was thinking ahead to Christmas and was feeling sad. I told him I understood and that I was feeling sad too. We said we should do something for daddy and I couldn’t think of anything special enough, but this is definitely special. Thank you for sharing

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