Why We Need to Let Go of Holiday Traditions


Several years ago, we didn’t spend Thanksgiving with a single one of our five adult children. Did it feel odd? Yes. Was it the best for everyone? We think so.

Our oldest daughter and her husband alternate holidays with his family and our family; that year Thanksgiving was with his family. Our oldest son was living in California and coming home for Thanksgiving just wasn’t in his budget. Our middle daughter, her husband, and our granddaughter were already expected at two different Thanksgiving gatherings on his side of the family. Our second youngest spent the holiday with some friends, and our youngest and his then-fiancée would have been happy to join us, but we decided to give them the freedom of no expectations and the ability to enjoy the day fully with her family. Instead of gathering our immediate family, Mark and I drove a couple hours to spend time with our parents, who we rarely see on holidays.

I love the holidays but I don’t love them more than my family. I love traditions but I don’t love them more than the people I share those traditions with. Too often the biggest “gift” given to family is guilt. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is give our family freedom. That’s why, to some extent, it’s important to let go of traditions in the empty nest season of life.

While traditions are a valuable part of family life, we need to learn to separate the difference between the “what” and the “when.” The “what” are the activities, rituals, and customs we all enjoy. If these are missing, birthdays don’t feel like birthdays or Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas. The “when” is the time we’ll prioritize to gather or participate in the “what.” 

The “what”

The traditions that connect us to our family’s habits give meaning to certain times of the day or the year. Some habits fade naturally and others they get carried on to the next generation. 

Occasionally, however, the “what” needs to be evaluated. In fact, one of the best things you can do as an empty-nester is to do a holiday tradition audit with your family. You might just send a text to family members and ask, “As we’re heading into Christmas, what food is a must-have for you?” You can do the same for holiday activities. When my friend Karen did a holiday audit, she found that half the traditions she stressed over making happen weren’t even important to her family. She simplified her holidays immensely when she asked a few intentional questions. 

The “when”

Once you’ve decided what traditions are most meaningful to your family and still practical to do in this season of life, the “when” of traditions is probably the biggest change that may need to happen. There’s nothing magical about the fourth Thursday in November that makes it Thanksgiving, other than it being considered a national holiday and the fact that most businesses are closed. You can celebrate Thanksgiving whenever it works for your family. 

Sometimes gathering the family is affected by distance and sometimes it’s affected by their other obligations. This is where we can give our adult kids the gift of holiday freedom. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re expected at two family holiday celebrations in one day. Add in a divorce or two and that could increase to three or four celebrations in a day. Not to mention new traditions the new family wants to set themselves. Obligation isn’t fun and running from house to house trying to make everyone happy is hardly an enjoyable activity. 

One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to allow change to happen as your kids get older. Their sphere of relationships grows exponentially when they have other important people in their lives, or if they marry and start a new family. These days I’m using phrases like these more often:

“We understand. It’s not the day that’s important. We’ll find another time that works better!”

“Your heart is most important to us. We don’t want to add any additional pressure by piling on expectations. If you can join us, we’ll be thrilled and if you can’t, we understand.”

“I love you. I love you the same no matter what decision you need to make for your sanity and what’s best for your schedule.”

Want to give your adult kids a beautiful gift this holiday season? Give the gift of freedom. Flexibility. No expectations. Unconditional love. They will be ever so grateful. 

This post was excerpted from Jill’s most recent book Empty Nest Full Life. You can learn more at www.EmptyNestBook.com


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