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Method For: Managing Traditions

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I am a sucker for traditions. I loved my family’s holiday traditions growing up, struggled in the years I spent Christmas away from home and was thrilled to start my own family traditions once our kids entered the scene. My plan was to keep many of the traditions I loved best from my childhood and layer on new ones as well. So our family started out with a lot of traditions in the mix and for years it was an exercise in frustration and futility keeping them all going. Over time I began to recognize when a tradition was no longer worth the effort to keep up and also when something needed tweaking to make it palatable for my tribe. Another learning was if you skip a year it doesn’t mean you’ve killed your tradition. These were hard-learned lessons in the early days, because to me a tradition felt like a commitment and it followed that if you stopped honoring a tradition you were effectively breaking a promise. Now I know that it’s okay if we say goodbye to traditions that are no longer serving us, especially if keeping them up takes away from the joy of the season.

Below I’ve chronicled some of the traditions that were edited over the years and some that we still honor today. It’s a fun walk down memory lane and a reminder that you don’t have to keep all the traditions going to have a season that is Merry and Bright!

pictures with santa

This pic is the last picture of my kids with Santa, you’ll notice the youngest is a baby. – this was circa 2004. For me the picture with Santa felt like way more effort than it was worth. Waiting in line made for cranky kids, getting a good picture was a complete crap shoot and finding a time that worked in our December schedule was a huge challenge. Brooks is 4 in this picture so that makes 4 years that I made it happen before I gave up. At the time I thought of it as a big fail, what would I say when my kids grew up and asked why there weren’t Santa pics for each year? Wasn’t I omitting a key element of Christmas Magic? Wouldn’t I be judged? Guess what? They have never asked. Not once. Santa was alive and well in our house for many years without a visit from my kids. So the Santa Pic was a good edit, it wasn’t working for us and letting it go allowed time and mental energy for other holiday traditions. BTW I applaud all for whom this tradition made the cut – I’m a fan of any tradition that involves the same picture over time. Which brings me to the second tradition I had to let go of that was way harder for me…

holiday photo shoot

OMG how cute are those kids? For years I got them all dressed up in holiday finery and we tramped out to the backyard for the Christmas Card Photo Shoot. They happily put on the Santa hats I ordered with their names and had a grand time posing for pictures. I have so many fantastic pictures from those years that I made a gallery from Mixtiles that I bring out each year so we can all enjoy them. It was such fun to pick out the girls’ dresses, see the three of them frolic in the yard and capture all of their funny faces for posterity. It was a winner of a tradition. Until it wasn’t. It all fell apart once Brooks became a teenager and the girls started to have opinions about what they wore, which included strong negative feelings about dresses. If you have teenagers you can relate but if your kids are small don’t be surprised when their sweet smiles turn to surly frowns and holiday spirit is nowhere to be found. I tried to force a shoot for a couple of years and was left frustrated and without a good picture so I gave it up. From that point on our Christmas cards usually featured a photo from vacation, which is fine. Just not as cute as the Santa hats. Sometimes kids grow out of things and you just have to let it go and move on. This example helped illuminate a reliable criteria for tradition retention: keep it until it isn’t fun anymore!

ST Lucia Day

St. Lucia Day is December 13th and practiced most widely in Scandinavia, which is part of my cultural heritage. St. Lucia’s Day is a Christian Feast Day viewed as a prescursor of Christmastide and a festival of light. I had a book that my grandmother gave me called ‘Elin’s America’ in which a 17th century Swedish family has recently emigrated to America. In the story Elin’s family celebrates St. Lucia Day and Elin, as the oldest daughter, gets up before sunrise and bakes rolls which she then serves to her parents and brothers while wearing a white robe, crown of greenery and red sash and singing. After many many years of reading this book I thought what a great cultural tradition to introduce to my kids!

So it turns out that 21st century kids don’t know how to bake rolls (or Pillsbury Cinnamon Buns) on their own so this tradition required me to be the one to get up and bake the buns, then get the girls into their white robes, light the candle for my youngest to carry and scurry back to my bed to be ‘served.’ December 13th often fell on a weekday which layered on extra pressure to make it happen and then get everyone ready for school and work! Super fun! This particular tradition lasted 4 years and I can’t believe we made it happen that many times to be honest.

The above picture was taken on St. Lucia Day in Sweden a couple of years ago. Those girls are not baking or serving but they are wearing the white robes, crowns and red sashes – don’t they look great? The picture below is of my two cuties as they attempted to serve us breakfast in bed on a weekday. It only lasted a few years and the pictures aren’t great but this tradition goes into my Tradition Hall of Fame for which I give myself an A for Effort.

the keepers

I had some traditions that fell out during the busiest years and reappeared later – like cookie baking, which exploded for me during the pandemic. There are others we tried once that never stuck (gingerbread house.) And there are the ideas that never made it to execution like decorating multiple trees (so I could have one tree that was themed!) But amidst all of the starts and stops there are a few great Powell Family traditions that have stood the test of time:

  • Fondue Party of Christmas Eve (born from my Kremers family tradition and expanded to include our friends and their families)

  • Adding Ornaments from Vacation Destinations (squirreled away when we return from a trip and re-revealed when we decorate the tree)

  • Electing A Santa Clause each year to dole out the gifts one-by-one as we open them together.

Most of the keepers are small things that don’t require a ton of effort (exception being the fondue party but it is the centerpiece of our season and is SO worth it!) to make the season bright. Another data point to add to the growing pile of evidence that small things can have an outsized impact whether you are talking about traditions, habits or acts of kindness.

If keeping traditions going year after year stresses you out remember that the ebb and flow of holiday traditions is a tradition in itself! Keep the ones that are working and let the others go. In the end your family will remember that you did things together and had fun doing them – the memories are the best part of having traditions.

I hope you are making time to enjoy the season this year by editing anything that isn’t working for you or your people. Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwaanza and Merry Christmas to all!

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