Changing Holiday Traditions; Keeping Holiday Values

Holidays and Special Days / Holidays and Special Days : Litsa

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Holidays and special days occupy such a unique space in our minds and memories. I don't remember what I did last Wednesday, but I remember the feelings of Thanksgiving three decades ago. I remember who was there, where we were, sights and smells, feelings of comfort, family and love. Holiday traditions of the past stick with us.

Whether we are looking back or foward to holidays in the future, we often go straight to the details. We remember the who, when, AND where of holidays. We think back to the homes we were in, the people around our holiday tables, and the things we shared. When we look to holidays coming up, the plans we make focus on the same - who we will gather with, where we will go, what we will do.

It makes sense that we find comfort in these details, rituals, and traditions. Traditions and rituals bring us connection to the past. They give us a sense of predictability. Traditions situate us in our families and our histories. They give us a sense of belonging and stability.

After a loss, traditions big and small sometimes have to change. Part of coping with the holidays as we grieve is planning for the traditions we will keep, those we will change, and those we will leave behind.

A Refocus on the "Why"

In those moments when all we can see is how much things have changed, of the traditions that we can't carry forward, it can be hard to see anything else. We often think that, if the holidays can't be the way they always were, they can't be meaningful.

Let's get one thing straight: No matter what happens, the holidays are always going be hard and bittersweet. Losing traditions will never be easy, even when we adapt. This year is making that more apparent than ever. Separated from family, many of us can't go to the places we would have gone. The who, where, and how have disappeared and we are left trying to figure out what that means for our holidays. This is where the "why" becomes crucial. When we ask 'why' and look at our holiday values, we can shift from things that have to change to things that we can retain.


Values underpin countless areas of our lives, giving us a sense of meaning and purpose. Sometimes we are very conscious of our values. Other times we get so caught up in what we're doing that we forget why. Taking a step back to connect with our values can shift this focus. It can remind us of the meaning and purpose behind that traditions and rituals that mean so much, but that have to shift.

Values can serve as a compass. When the path we were on disappears, our values can serve as a north star. The specific path still might not be clear. We might take some twists and turns. But by keeping connection with our values, we can still move in a direction that feels consistent with the meaning and purpose in our lives.

Holiday Values

The thing about values is that they are different for each of us. The values that guide your holidays are unique to you and your family. The process is simple enough - sit down, either alone or with the family with whom you would normally be spending the holiday, and start listing the values that are an important part of your holidays.

Next, get creative. Start listing ways, big and small, that you can connect with those values. Keep in mind that it may look totally different than years past! There are no rules and the holiday may take a very different shape. But with values at the core, the what, where, when, and how become far less familiar. The values are the continuity. They can begin to provide a sense of meaning and belonging, even as we shift our traditions.

Not quite getting this whole values thing? Though values are different for everyone, some common holiday values are:

  • family
  • generosity
  • giving
  • faith
  • spirituality
  • remembrance
  • home
  • reconnection
  • food
  • tradition
  • legacy
  • comfort
  • friendship
  • service/volunteerism

Value Review

Once you have made your list, begin a list associated with each value. On each list, write down things that connect with that value that you will do for the holiday. All ideas are fair game, no matter how far outside the box they are. Some may be traditions that you can continue. At this point, don't edit or filter any ideas out.

We have a holiday traditions and holiday values worksheet you can download and print to help you with this exercise.

holiday tradition holiday values worksheet

Once you have at least an idea or two for each, you can go through and make decisions, narrowing it down if you have too many ideas, and expanding on ideas. Some of these may be personal, individual rituals and traditions. Some of them may be family traditions and rituals, to be decided as a family.

Take advantage of 2020 as a year where we have all learned to be more flexible, for things to look different. Check out our creative ideas for a virtual holiday and/or read our ideas for new holiday traditions after a loss. Be open to whatever works for you.

Keep a Wide Open Mind

If it's a taco bar for Christmas because that was your loved one's favorite meal... then do it! Maybe movies and board games are what bring comfort... then movies and board games it is! If in-person volunteer service was always part of your holidays in the past but the places you volunteered aren't allowing in person service, it can be easy to think "Oh well, I can just wait until next year." But if that value was important, get creative. Find online volunteer possibilities, or find a way to informally serve and support people you know.

Just remember, there is no one way, there is no right way. Though at the holidays we often focus on family traditions, personal rituals in grief can be just as meaningful. If you keep you values at the center, no matter what, where, when, and how you spend your holidays, you will have that "why" at the center.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

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8 Comments on "Changing Holiday Traditions; Keeping Holiday Values"

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  1. Judy  November 25, 2021 at 6:57 am Reply

    This is my first holiday without my husband He passed in Jan of this year l have been offered a couple invites but l preferred to be by myself. I really don’t know what l will do but l am very depressed and lonely l have my little poodle Rosey to keep me company It is very hard . we had 60yrs together he was the love of my life l ask god to take me so l can be with This is no kind of life without him l am 81yrs old what do l have left

  2. Debi DiGirolamo  November 19, 2021 at 3:57 am Reply

    My daughter was killed & left in the middle of the street like an animal by a drunk driver and a boyfriend who hit her and left her there. She was my only child and was loved so very much I just can’t come to terms with her loss I am so sad every day and cry constantly everywhere I look around in the town where I live I , I Constantly have such bad triggers and give me PTSD
    I just want to go to sleep and wake up with my daughter, but I have a very loving husband who needs me and I’m trying to move forward for him but I wake up every day depressed and don’t even want to get dressed or even socialize with my friends anymore, The holidays are horrific for me and I can’t celebrate them anymore. I have lost my smile and my personality and want to get them back but I don’t know how to💔😢🙏🏻

  3. mouse  April 12, 2021 at 1:09 pm Reply

    My husband passed in October 2020. He was my only immediate family member. This Passover/Easter no one included me in their holiday. None of my 30+ cousins for whom I cooked Seder for over 20 years, not my husband’s family who I hosted for Easter for many years, not my friends whom I called to see if I could spend some time with them that day.
    This aloneness took me by surprise. The totality of exclusion baffles me. These are all people who keep telling me they love me, and I wonder if that is true, then why don’t they seem to have any room for me on a holiday when I am so acutely feeling my loss?
    I feel so disappointed by this, I don’t know how to move on with these relationships after this sharp exclusion. I feel betrayed by these people now and can’t see the way to move on with them and pretend it was ok.
    One thing tht has become clear is that I need to start fresh and find new people, and maybe some single new friends.

  4. Adrina  February 25, 2021 at 9:06 pm Reply

    The 15th of next month my goddaughter would’ve turned 15 years of age. We lost her 3 years ago to cancer. We are Mexican so a 15th birthday is a big deal and celebrated with a quinceañera. I am trying to think of how my family and I can make that day special for my sister. Some ideas would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance

  5. Lyn  December 18, 2020 at 1:41 pm Reply

    Why don’t you take some of the food to a local shelter? Start a new tradition.

  6. Jamie  December 14, 2020 at 8:11 pm Reply

    What do you do if one of your major values us family and now you don’t have one? Somehow I gave wound up with enough food to host a reunion and Christmas shirts for everyone – except they’re all dead but me. Even the cats think I’m nuts. But I always did all the baking, since middle school, and it feels important not to stop. Christmas was always such a big deal – but the cats really don’t care.

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