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 think if they try hard enough to be positive and maintain old traditions 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. The truth is, even if you manage to rebuild your tradition to the closest approximation possible, there will still be sadness. The “King” Elvis Presley said it best:
“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 traditions after a death, and we’ve written about honoring deceased loved ones at the holidays. Still, we’ve yet to get in-depth about creating new traditions after a loss.
The creation of new traditions and rituals provides you 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 traditions after a death. We encourage you to 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 more elaborate 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, create traditions that can be handed down to future generations.
16 Ideas for Creating New Holiday Tradition After a Death
- 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 “Autie’s Beans” are just plain ole 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 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 or 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 on Facebook with my far-away family.
- 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 out a special tablecloth and fabric markers or sharpies. Ask holiday guests to write down their favorite holiday memories, especially those that involve family members who are no longer present.
4. Light a Candle:
As a family, light a candle at 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… and so on and so forth. Once the last candle is lit, do something to close out the ceremony (such as sing a song or say a prayer).
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 one’s 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 ones 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.
13. Holiday Memory/Gratitude Box:
Leave a box, slips of paper, and pens out, and ask friends and family 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. You can also try:
- Having 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.
- Create 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:
Set out slips of paper and pens and instruct people to write any of the following of the slips of paper:
- moments that made you think of/miss your loved one
- words of encouragement to other family members
- words of appreciation for other family members
Or 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.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.