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Shaping Your Family Traditions for Holidays in a Unique Year

This is a holiday season like no other in our lifetimes.

Maybe you’ve heard government recommendations to avoid holiday gatherings. Maybe the people you’d normally visit have told you they’re just not comfortable getting together this year.

Maybe you endured loneliness at Easter and summer and Thanksgiving by looking forward to a big Christmas with all your loving family…but now that the coronavirus is even more pervasive than before, you’re staying home.

This doesn’t have to be a big disappointment–you can take it as an opportunity to try something a little different! You might even discover a new tradition that you’ll share with your loved ones when you gather next year!

I’ve had a lot of experience making holidays special at home without guests. That’s happened a number of times throughout my life because I’ve never lived really near any relatives not in my own household. I’ve never been in the kind of family that has Sunday dinner at Grandma’s or just drops by my house anytime.

painting eggs

My immediate family often has traveled to spend major holidays with relatives, or they’ve come to visit us. But sometimes, nobody has enough vacation days from work to make the trip.

Sometimes, the travel expenses are too much to take on multiple times in one year. 

Sometimes, a doctor has told someone in the family not to have visitors because even the ordinary winter illnesses could be too risky to their weakened health.

RELATED: Boost immunity with diet and lifestyle.

So, even in a non-pandemic year, celebrating a holiday at home with just your immediate family may be necessary. Take my tradition-adapting tips not just for this winter but for all those other situations that may change your plans, long after the pandemic is history!

Intentional Family Traditions in Difficult Times

The first step in controlling your disappointment is to count your blessings.

Begin your holiday planning with gratitude for what you have, instead of focusing on what you’re missing.

  • Do you have a warm, comfortable home in which to celebrate? Maybe it’s not the place you’d most like to be right now, but give thanks for your safety and comfort.
  • Do you have enough to eat? Maybe you can’t make everything just the way your grandma would, or you couldn’t get exactly the ingredients you wanted, or you needed to accept a box of free food that isn’t quite what you would have chosen–but you won’t go hungry, so try to make a “treat” out of everything you eat!
  • Are you and everyone in your household in good health? Recall any time you’ve been sick on a holiday–it was difficult to cook or decorate or enjoy anything, right? In a year when more people than usual are feeling lousy, be grateful if you’re not one of them!
  • Are all your family members still alive? If so, remember the quarter-million American families who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 and the many more who lost people to other causes this year. Be grateful for each set of eyes you look into, even if it’s via a screen.
  • Is there anyone to hug? Pining for the people who aren’t with you can undermine your appreciation of the people who are. You’re probably kind of tired of your immediate family by now, but hey, they’ve been by your side all these months.

After looking on the bright side of your current situation, give thanks for the big gatherings of the past and the prospect of big gatherings in the future!

Honestly, what’s been hard for me is not the experience of celebrating a holiday at home alone–that’s happened before, so I know it will be okay–it’s the gradual realization that I will go through the entire calendar year of 2020 without seeing in-person any member of my family who doesn’t live with me!

That never happened to me before! (So if you’ve been able to see your relatives more than I have, remind yourself of how lucky you are.)

This also is the first time in my life that I’ve spent an entire calendar year in one state. My daughter and I went to Girl Scout camp in February, about two hours away, and slept in a lodge full of bunk beds full of strangers, which now seems like an incredibly risky adventure! Since the pandemic began, we haven’t ventured any farther from home than the nearest state park. It’s okay; we like it here!

But as we look back yearningly on 2019, when we went to Disney World and Omaha and Philadelphia and Chicago…we remember to be grateful for the privilege of travel that we’ve had most of our lives and will have again soon. This year, we can enjoy our photos and memories!

Christmas tree

Speaking of memories, when you talk with older relatives, ask them about holiday memories from other hard times. During the Great Depression, or when someone was deployed in a war, or when Granddad died two days before Christmas, how did they cope? You might pick up some helpful strategies!

People have gotten through tough times before, and they always found some way to have fun.

Is There an Upside to Avoiding Gatherings?

My extended family is pretty harmonious. It’s very unusual for us to have a holiday gathering marred by a big conflict. But many families aren’t so lucky.

In a normal autumn, I see a lot of discussion about how to handle the difficult relatives who insist on coming over for Christmas but will probably get drunk, knock over the tree, and call your kids ugly…how to get through a holiday meal without anyone mentioning the election in which your in-laws voted for the wrong candidate for reasons so terrible you don’t want to hear them again…how to survive a weekend with grandparents who don’t believe your child’s food allergies are real.

This year, we all have a good excuse to stay home, recover from last year’s arguments, and build up strength and strategies for the future! I keep thinking about this observation I posted on Facebook in 2016:

The guy in front of me in the grocery store was buying a pack of turkey lunch-meat, a single-portion frozen mashed potatoes, a box of instant stuffing, a can of corn, a can of cranberry sauce, and a pumpkin-spice instant pudding. He looked VERY happy. My guess is that he finally told off those relatives he was sick of seeing every Thanksgiving!

Every year since then, I’ve hoped that he’s still savoring his independence but has learned how to cook! It seemed that he had decided what he needed to take care of himself and was pleased and proud to be doing it.

Even if your family generally stays calm and gets along, maybe you’d like to have a low-waste Christmas while they’re tied to trashy traditions.

Maybe your kids would love to cook, but Aunt Sue rules the kitchen and controls the menu. Maybe you’ve been respecting religious diversity in your family, but you’d like to have more prayers and Bible readings in your holiday celebration. Maybe you tolerate that televised event your relatives adore, but you’d rather have the TV off.

pie crust and cranberry sauce

Separation from our extended families may help us figure out what we truly need from the holidays. When we get together again, we can share what we’ve learned. We might even uncover an Abilene Paradox, a tradition we’ve continued just because everyone thought someone else liked it!

When You Can’t Be With the Ones You Love…

Love the ones you’re with! This may seem obvious, but the day-to-day routine of getting through work and school and cooking and cleaning with those regular people who are around all the time can dull your perception of each family member’s unique abilities and needs.

That goes for yourself, too! Being alone on a holiday is an opportunity to discern what’s meaningful to you and what makes a celebration feel special for you. So treat yourself just as gently and thoughtfully as your child, spouse, or parent as you plan your holiday.

If you’re living with housemates who aren’t related to you, sharing the traditions of your families and talking about what’s important to you can bring you closer. I know several people living with housemates of different religions, who have learned a lot from observing each other’s holidays.

Creating New Family Traditions to Make Holidays Special

Connect with yourself and your household members by interviewing each one about what the holiday means to them: 

  • Which activities are important? Is there a certain sequence that really feels right? Listen for things like, “We each look in our stockings when we wake up, and then we eat breakfast before we open gifts under the tree.”
  • What foods are important? It’s likely that some of the dishes your family traditionally serves are crucial to the experience of that holiday, while others are in the category, “I’ll eat it if it’s there, but I wouldn’t miss it.”
  • What about the things that are normally done by a person you won’t be seeing this year?
    • You might use mail, no-contact dropoff, or video chat. The cousins who always give everyone a pair of socks on Thanksgiving mailed us a “Socksgiving” package this year! Maybe you’ll drive to a friend or relative’s home to drop off a pie and pick up a casserole, sharing your homemade specialties. The uncle who always reads the holiday story aloud might do it online while you all tune in.
    • Someone new can step up! Maybe someone in your household always wanted to light the candles, stuff the stockings, or carve the roast beast—but didn’t want to push a venerable relative out of that role. Now is the time to give it a try! Plan ahead in case you need to request a family recipe or look up a tutorial.
  • Is there something you’ve always wanted to try that hasn’t fitted into the usual custom? I never would have guessed that both my kids would want to do a Halloween Hunt for candy in plastic Easter eggs hidden around our house—or that they wouldn’t care about wearing Halloween costumes while hunting—but they loved it!
  • What decorations and/or music are important to set the holiday mood? Something as simple as a paper link chain or table centerpiece can make the place more festive! Playing absent relatives’ favorite songs or music from your childhood can trigger happy memories.

A small-group celebration is a great opportunity for “everybody has a part” ceremonies because they won’t last long enough to get boring! Everyone can take a turn to say what they’re grateful for, to light a candle and say a prayer, to read a poem of their choice, etc.

My family has enjoyed taking turns unwrapping gifts because the fun lasts longer and we all get to see every gift and appreciate the reaction to it.

After collecting each person’s opinions and suggestions, weave them together into a plan for the holiday. Write up an approximate schedule for the celebrations and for cooking and other preparations. You don’t have to plan every minute, but plan enough to avoid any “I thought you had defrosted it!” frustrations!

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Holiday Food Sets the Mood

Of course, we’re focused on food here at Kitchen Stewardship®! But almost everyone agrees that almost every holiday requires something special to eat—either specific food or a sense of having a feast that’s bigger and better than an everyday meal. I loved seeing Facebook posts of the small-scale feasts my friends made for Thanksgiving 2020!

Adjust the menu to what people want most, what you’re feasibly able to make (or buy), and creating reasonable quantities so you’ll have leftovers in the amount you want.

When I interviewed my family about what to eat on Thanksgiving, 15-year-old Nick suggested a rotisserie chicken instead of a turkey–a good size for 4 people, pre-cooked so that we wouldn’t have to worry about getting it cooked all the way through. Southern Living’s instructions for reheating a whole chicken worked perfectly!

Thanksgiving menu plan

Nick also offered to make mashed potatoes from instant potato flakes. I feel that mashed potatoes aren’t worth the effort of making them from whole raw potatoes, so I was happy to let him take that time-saving option while I spent most of my time and effort on homemade stuffing and simple vegetable dishes: roasted Brussels sprouts and yam bake just like my kids’ grandmother makes!

We all agreed that serving appetizers instead of lunch is a good idea before a late-afternoon feast. That’s the custom at my partner Daniel’s extended family’s Thanksgiving gathering, but I hadn’t thought of it other times we had Thanksgiving at home. It was a lot more pleasant being slightly full of spinach dip than getting dizzyingly ravenous during the hectic final phase of cooking!

We couldn’t replicate the buffet of desserts at our usual gathering of 20-25 people, so we decided on one homemade and one purchased dessert. My partner Daniel made pumpkin pie, and I bought a fancy cake from a local bakery.

Your family’s holiday meal will come together a little differently, depending on your tastes and cooking skills. It won’t be exactly the same as your big family feast, but it could be just as satisfying!

table set for Christmas

Food Exchanges Share the Joy–and the Work!

If you have family or friends nearby, consider swapping food for the holiday. Each household makes their specialties and sets aside portions to share. This might be a way of putting together an elaborate feast without having to make all the dishes yourself!

Dropping off food also is a good way to make sure a loved one who is feeling weak, overwhelmed with work, or just not a good cook, will still get a great holiday meal! Just make sure to let them know what to expect and when, so they’ll be prepared to bring it in and heat or store it appropriately.

You could do a no-contact exchange, leaving a dish on someone’s porch and picking up the dish they made for you. Or, if you both feel it’s safe, you could take the opportunity for a brief outdoor visit.

It’s not the same as preparing and eating a meal together. But sharing the food you made with love is a way of connecting with people when you can’t be together.

How We’ve Created New Family Traditions

The first Christmas my partner Daniel and I spent together, my parents and brother came to visit us, and we adapted my family’s traditions to our home.

Because Daniel was raised Jewish (but with Santa Claus as a vague explanation for gifts on December 25), I sort of assumed we’d show him how to celebrate Christmas properly, you know?

The one new tradition we started that year was our homemade Christmas tree, which we still have–this will be its 25th year! My parents brought some of my favorite ornaments from their stash, including some I painted as a child.

homemade "green" Christmas tree

The following December, Daniel and I had to work every day except Christmas. Nobody was coming to visit, and our two housemates were going away to spend Christmas with their families; it would be just the two of us. I felt sad and lonely, and I started thinking about how much my extended family had dominated the previous Christmas: “Look, my mom made you a stocking in the same style as the ones we’ve all had for decades!”

On impulse, I grabbed two little beanbag space aliens we happened to have, and arranged them under the Christmas tree with some Looney Pyramids between them in a way that suggested a Nativity scene. When Daniel came in, I gestured to this and said, “Tell me the legend of your people—how did Christmas come to your home world?”

He laughed, but that weird gesture opened up discussion that turned into the “interview about what’s important to you” like I mentioned above. And it led us to two Christmas food traditions that have endured ever since!

One is that our Christmas breakfast is bagels with lox and cream cheese. This connects us to our Jewish heritage (1/4 of my ancestors, as well as all of Daniel’s ancestors, were ethnically Jewish) and it’s just yummy! Lox is an expensive food we don’t buy routinely, so it’s a special holiday treat.

We also decided to try Italian-style cheese-stuffed shells with a green salad as our Christmas dinner because that’s a red, white, and green meal with just two dishes, one of which is easy to store and reheat—unlike the baked chicken with a zillion side dishes that had stressed us out the previous year. Daniel suggested stuffed shells because a friend had just given him a recipe he wanted to try.

Well, Jeremy’s stuffed shells recipe has been our Christmas tradition ever since! Over the next few years my parents and brother, as well as Daniel and I, were shifting toward a less-meat diet and happy to eat a cheese-based holiday meal. We started making the stuffed shells when they host Christmas, as well as when we do. I make the marinara sauce, Daniel makes the cheese filling, and anyone can help stuff them! Our kids have grown up thinking stuffed shells are the normal Christmas dinner!

When our son Nick was in preschool, my parents sent us one of the Nativity sets from my childhood. I’d just read someone’s blog about an Advent tradition of making a soft bed for baby Jesus using acts of kindness.

nativity scene

We set up the scene with all the figures except baby Jesus and the angel–they start out “in Heaven” on a high bookshelf. During Advent, when one of us has done something kind or someone has been kind to us, we write the kind deed on a strip of yellow paper “hay” and place it by the manger. The angel brings Jesus to his bed on Christmas Eve.

nativity scene

Another Advent tradition we picked up around that time is to pray when you find yourself waiting. Advent is the season of waiting. In 2020, we’re waiting for virus numbers to go down, waiting for life to be normal again…so it’s a great time to remind ourselves that Christmas will come, no matter what!

This year, we have two Advent wreathes, because 6-year-old Lydia was so eager to light the first candle right after breakfast on the first Sunday of Advent that she and I just grabbed the 4 best candles we could find, stuck them on a plate, and decorated it with her collection of pretty stones! We don’t have to be fancy and perfect to anticipate the birth of our Savior.

But when we found our “real” Advent wreath, we set up that one, too. It’s nicer but still not so perfect, with its 3-year-old candles and repurposed-plastic garland. Well, that stable in Bethlehem wasn’t perfect either.

advent wreaths

Take a Hike!

Getting out of the crowded house and burning off some calories from the feast is already a holiday tradition for some families. When many public holiday events are canceled, consider making that little walk into a bigger adventure!

My family started a Mother’s Day Step Trek tradition in 2007. Every year, I choose one of Pittsburgh’s public mountainside staircases, and we park our car at the bottom, hike up, enjoy the view, and then it’s all downhill on the way back!

stairs in Pittsburg overlooking the city

This year, we’ve taken a lot of hikes in every season, on city steps or in our local parks or just around the neighborhood. You’ll see things you’d never notice from the car!

hiking in the woods

Another option for a safe outing is to drive around looking at holiday lights, either in a park or in a neighborhood with spectacular decorations. Plan for some hot cider and cookies when you get home!

What We Learned from Holy Week

I’m writing this on the first Sunday of Advent, but I’m drawing heavily on what I learned in the early part of the pandemic.

Normally, the week from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday is a very busy time for our church family, when we spend so much time at church that it’s like our second home!

Normally, our menu for Easter dinner is determined by what’s left over from our church receptions! It was a weird privilege to choose the Easter menu this year–we had baked fish with oranges.

Most years, Holy Week overlaps with Passover, when Daniel’s mother traditionally visited her parents and we used to join them for a seder in their home. Since her parents passed away, Daniel’s mother owns their house and had continued meeting us there for the seder.

Learning that she couldn’t travel and that church was closed for Holy Week was a stunning blow!!! I knew I needed to observe these holidays myself, and I knew Daniel and the kids needed something from them, too.

I formalized my “interview” process to figure out what we all needed most in a time when schools were closed, stores were terrifying and under-stocked, Daniel was frantically sewing our first cloth masks, and I was sick!

It was important not to demand too much of ourselves at this stressful time, but it also was important not to “cancel” the holidays. We worked out little home versions of the Palm Sunday procession and Maundy Thursday meal we’d usually have at church. We read aloud from the Gospels. We prayed for the sick and the dying and the bereaved. On Easter morning, Lydia and I put on our best dresses and spent two hours rejoicing among the tulips in our own front yard.

tulips

I missed church. I ached for the liturgy, the organ music, the Paschal candle shining in the darkness, the stained glass, the people all around me rejoicing with me! But I realized how much I’d been taking that for granted, how I felt entitled to experience it year after year.

I realized that this is the longest Lent of my life, a time of fasting from social contact, with the exact end date unknown. But the coronavirus can’t steal Easter any more than the grinch can steal Christmas–somehow or other, it comes just the same! Each season and each holiday of 2020 has reinforced that for me.

What we really did differently was at Passover.

Daniel told me he’d always been a little puzzled by matzoh, “the bread of affliction” that is central to the seder, being a manufactured product we buy in the supermarket. If we’re eating this unleavened bread in memory of a time when our ancestors had to flee in such a hurry that they couldn’t make regular bread…doesn’t that mean it must be really quick and easy to make?!

matzoh bread and macaroon

So he and Lydia mixed whole-wheat flour, water, and salt and cooked thin patties in a cast-iron skillet. Our homemade matzoh was more like tortillas than like supermarket matzoh. It really helped us relate to the Israelites, fleeing across the desert, eating weird bread that didn’t come in a box!

I also made macaroons from scratch for the first time. It’s easy! Maybe I’ll make the macaroons for next year’s seder.

In the same spirit of getting back to basics, instead of following a seder service, we read aloud Exodus 14:5-30 about the Israelites escaping Egypt when God parted the sea. We had a whole different feeling about 14:14, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

The kids also wanted to hear the list of the plagues that came upon Egypt and dip their fingers in their grape juice to make a dot on the edge of the plate for each plague–“We’re lucky to have only one plague in our time!” And they wanted to chant “An Only Kid” and to hunt for the Afikomen.

The annual cycle of holidays has always helped me see both continuity and change in my own life, my family, and my parish. How is this year different from all other years? Daniel and I began asking each other that rhetorical question (similar to one asked in the seder) as a joke, but all year it’s helped us to see the things we can continue even as other things need to be different.

Note from Katie: To observe Holy Week back in March, we tried to recreate some of what our kids would do in their religious education class at church. We did the “washing of the feet” with hands instead, and commemorated the last supper with unleavened bread (homemade tortillas) and “wine” (grape gelatin!). It was both goofy and solemn, definitely memorable.

Kids observing Holy Week

Every Holiday Includes Thanksgiving!

We can choose to count our blessings and find the fun even in this weird year. Isolation from our relatives, religious congregation, and community gives us the opportunity to focus on experiencing our little family and what’s most meaningful to us.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books have inspired us with the simplicity and thankfulness of small family holiday celebrations on the frontier. A meal that sounds ordinary to us was a feast for them; “Nothing had ever tasted so good.” The kids get mittens, a candy cane, and a new penny for Christmas, and they’re “screaming with joy.” The Ingalls family didn’t see any of their relatives for years at a time after they left Wisconsin!

Or think about Anne Frank or others who celebrated holidays while living in hiding. At least we can cheer the new year without fear of capture! At least we’re allowed to go outside! Things could be worse.

And while 2020 may be the hardest year of our own lifetimes, it isn’t really unprecedented. Look back at holiday celebrations in 1918 during the last big pandemic. Your ancestors survived so that you could be here today! Imagine telling your descendants stories of how brave you were this year!

Happy holidays! Whatever disappointments you face this year, I hope that gratitude for what you have outweighs sulking about what you’re missing, and that next year brings you renewed appreciation for in-person celebrations!

What challenges have shaped your holiday traditions?
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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