5 Tips: Surviving Tradition for the Children's Sake

Holidays and Special Days / Holidays and Special Days : Eleanor Haley

After a family member dies, it's common for adults to feel they have to engage in holiday ritual and tradition for the sake of the children. In many ways, keeping up with family tradition provides children with comfort and reassurance that things will be okay despite the death of a family member. And, unlike many adults, children are pretty susceptible to holiday excitement, joy, and wonder despite their grief.

It can be difficult for grieving adults to keep a smile on their face when traditions, activities, and events are fraught with sad reminders. I remember the Christmas after my mother's death being filled with should we's, how can we's, and do we have to's. I am normally a big holiday person; the movies, music, parties, tradition, and general merriment... It's my thing. However, after my mother died, feeling excitement about Bing Crosby and pine trees seemed darn near impossible.

This year, I'm having a Christmas season reminiscent of the year my mother died. In fact, it may even be worse. Grown-up life stressors have made the holidays seem more like an inconvenience than a pleasure. If I had a nickel for every time 'Friggen' Christmas' has been uttered over the past few weeks, I'd probably have 50 cents. If it weren't for the kids, I'm sure my husband and I would have taken the holidays off altogether, but having children means never taking anything off ever again.

I feel ashamed of my Scrooginistic attitude when I see how excited my kids are about Christmas. Now I know there are worse things than the threat of a child having an unenthusiastic Christmas, but when I look in their little eyes I'm hard-pressed to think of what. Dutifully, my husband and I have worked hard to keep their Christmas merry and bright and I'm pretty sure it's been working.

On Friday, I was feeling particularly guilty and I made the mistake decision to suggest we make my mother's holiday cookies over the weekend. My heart was saying yes, but my head was saying ARE YOU CRAZY!? THAT'S LIKE A FOUR-PART PROCESS: buying supplies, making the dough, baking, and decorating them? No, thank you. Lifetime movie marathon? Yes, please.

When I woke up Sunday morning, I thought maybe the girls would just forget... but my little Ginny, she remembers everything she's ever promised (future suitors beware). So, the first thing out of her mouth that morning was WHEN? IS IT NOW? NOW? NOW? Baking my mother's cookies was the last thing I wanted to do, but unless I wanted to disappoint my children AT CHRISTMAS, I had no choice but to get it together.

How did I manage? Welp, I'll tell you via five suggestions for getting through holiday traditions for the children's sake:

1. Choose a Day and Time When You Are Least Likely to Be Rushed, Busy, or Stressed.

If possible, don't cram your activity into a tight schedule of gift buying and holiday parties. This will only add to the stress of the event and cause you to feel less equipped to stay positive, handle negative emotions, and to have patience with the children. Anticipate the activity may take a lot of emotional energy... so set aside enough time to pace yourself and to decompress afterward.

I knew our cookie baking endeavor would take hours between buying supplies, making the dough, baking the cookies, and decorating them. This is why I chose a day when we had absolutely nothing else going on. We were able to take things slow, take breaks between phases of the activity, and to thoroughly clean up afterward.

2. Try and Stay Positive. 

My husband and I've been joking a lot about using the FISH! philosophy to get through some of the harder parts of the holiday. We joke because the FISH! philosophy is cheesy, motivational, work-retreat, hocus-pocus. I'm too cool for school, so I have no choice but to practice it sarcastically lest I ruin my rep... but in reality, the "philosophy" has its merits. Within the past 3 weeks, I'd say we've invoked its fourth tenet, Choose Your Attitude, on quite a few occasions.

Think about it: You've already decided to suck it up and engage in this day/activity/event for the greater good, so make it worth everyone's while by actively choosing a positive attitude. Accept that you may experience some tough feelings and emotions, but also be open to moments of happiness. If you find yourself slipping into negativity, stop and take a break, excuse yourself, have a good drink cry, and refocus.

3. Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.

In order to get through your day, I suggest brushing off more low-level stressors. Relax, go with the flow, and don't allow yourself to get mired in negativity if things don't go exactly as planned. Your stress will become your child's stress, and this will spoil the fun for everyone.

Are you the type of person who micromanages and fixates during times of high stress and anxiety? Then you'll have to be all the more deliberate about letting things go. Strategize about the types of things that help you to relax and do them ahead of time or build them into the day/activity.

making my mother's christmas cookies
making my mother's christmas cookies: an absolute mess!

Normally this level of mess and disaster would stress me out...

But knowing the activity was going to be a messy and time-consuming ordeal, I strategized by making a latte, turning on some music, and reassuring myself there will be plenty of time to clean my children and my kitchen afterward.

4. Let the Kids Have Fun.

A surefire way to make yourself smile is to watch your kids having fun. While it may be hard to feel the wonder and excitement of the holidays yourself, there is no better reminder than seeing it through your children's eyes.

making my mother's christmas cookies: children having fun
making my mother's christmas cookies

Let them make a mess, let them bend the rules, let them laugh, let them stay up late, let them be creative, and let them enjoy themselves. Be hands-on and engage with them, talk to them, maybe tell them why this tradition has been special for you and your loved ones. You're keeping the tradition going for them, so really make it for them.

5. Remember the Tradition/Activity Is Special Even If It's Not Perfect or 'the Same.'

Upholding tradition after someone dies or during times of high stress is hard because we often want things to be "the same" or perfect. But by virtue of the fact that someone important is missing, things cannot be the same. Try to be present and focus on enjoying the moments rather than the end result.

making my mother's christmas cookies

Seriously, I mean if these aren't the most imperfect Christmas cookies to have ever happened, I don't know what are.

Good luck!

For more about tradition, check out the following articles:

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