More than any other time of year, these next few weeks are all about traditions. Even people who don’t think of themselves as particularly traditional can find themselves grumpy and out of sorts if their usual holiday routines are changed. There are the special foods we like to make and eat, performances we see every year, ornaments we hang on our trees, decorations we always put up, services we never miss, and social occasions we wouldn’t dare forget.
Traditions help connect us to the past — and to the present. They provide a sense of continuity, meaning, and identity. They make us remember, and they allow us to put our stamp on the passage of time. Traditions make an event or a season come alive — but they need to have a purpose, a reason to exist. If a tradition becomes stale and void of meaning, if it no longer works for us and our families, it should be laid to rest so a new tradition can be born.
This tends to happen organically when we move into a new stage in life such as marriage, starting a family, moving to another country, or suffering the loss of a loved one. But dramatic life changes don’t have to be the only reason to alter what we do and how we do it. A little reflection on what is serving (and not serving) what we value most can go a long way. And sometimes changing things up allows us to see more clearly what is truly important.
I came face-to-face with this a few years ago as Christmas drew near. In my household growing up, Christmas dinner was a grand affair. Rarely were there fewer than 20 people around the table, and every dish (most of which were Christmas-only specialties) was made from scratch. The feast of Christmas just wasn’t Christmas without that meal, and I replicated it as best I could when I moved out and couldn’t make it home for the holidays.
My husband, on the other hand, is an only child whose otherwise talented mother didn’t cook. Since neither my husband nor his father wanted to be in the kitchen all day on Christmas, their holiday dinner tradition was dining out, or getting take-out — usually something Asian. The first time I spent Christmas with my husband’s family, I was horrified to learn we would be heading to a local Chinese buffet restaurant for dinner. (Somehow, I married my husband anyway.)
Fast forward to our family today: For the third year in a row, my mother-in-law, now a widow, will be at our house for Christmas. The first year she was here was just a few months after the adoption of our daughters. It didn’t take me long to realize it was not going to work for me to spend all of Christmas day holed up in our kitchen making a giant, traditional dinner that no one else really cared about. It was far more important for us to spend time together and keep the day relaxing. Instead, I made a celebratory brunch, and we went out for Ethiopian food for dinner. (Ethiopia is our daughter’s birth country, and the majority of Ethiopians are Orthodox, which means they celebrate Christmas in January and Ethiopian restaurants are often open on December 25th.)
Although it felt pretty weird — like I was doing something sacrilegious not sitting down to a traditional homemade dinner on Christmas — it was the perfect solution. And it’s been our tradition ever since.
There are still certain foods I’m compelled to bake at Christmas, and I must sip my glass of Bailey’s as I wrap gifts late on Christmas eve, but giving up my traditional Christmas feast to create a different kind of day for my family has been a great lesson: traditions for tradition sake is not always the way to go. What matters most is whether these rituals we have serve and foster our relationships with one another and with God.
Who knows, maybe we’ll change it up again this year and go out for Indian food.
Zoe Romanowskyis lifestyle editor and video content producer for Aleteia.