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Family Change: Don't Cancel the Holidays!

When life gets rearranged, update your holidays rituals so they are a comfort, not a burden. 

Whether holidays are hellish or happy, the rituals that we practice act as lifelines to our past, as well as redefining and reconfirming who we are in the present.

Two days before Easter, Karen Sissel called her mother to say that she and her live-in boyfriend, Joe, were not coming this year. The announcement was met with tears, anger, and many telephone calls all around the family, including several to Karen telling her what a bad daughter she was. Every Easter, Karen's family expected her to spend the entire day at her parents' house. Any mention that she and Joe would like to spend part of the day with Joe's family, or that they would like to celebrate with their friends, was quickly dismissed by Karen's mother, who told her how this would upset her father and make him ill.

Karen's mother would then remind her of how they had accepted Joe and their living together rather than marrying, implying that the couple should be grateful and not rock the boat. Thus embedded in the Easter ritual were many unspoken and anxiety-provoking issues.

On Easter morning, Karen called and apologized. She quickly canceled a dinner they had organized, and, once again, she and Joe spent the day at her parents'.

If this story sounds familiar to you, then some or all of the rituals in your life may have become obligatory--wherein participants celebrate events more out of a feeling of obligation than with any sense of meaning. Both the preparation and the ritual itself are more burden than joy.

Yet in these times of rapid and dramatic change in the family, rituals can still provide us with a crucial sense of personal identity as well as family connection. Despite its changing status, membership within a family group is still the primary way that most people identify themselves, and rituals that both borrow from the past and are reshaped by relationship needs of the present highlight for us an ongoing sense of continuity - as well as change.

As family therapists, we are struck by how different families look in the 1990s than they did 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. Given such change, family members often express to us that they have no road maps for what family life should be like. One woman told us, "My neighbors and I always talk about how we have to invent each step as we go along. When we grew up, our fathers were the only ones who worked outside of the house, and God forbid if you were divorced or a single parent or remarried. Who knew from that? We don't have any models for how to go through this."

Rituals can provide us with such road maps. Whether they involve the way meals are shared or how major events are marked, rituals are a central part of life. They are a lens through which we can see our emotional connections to our parents, siblings, spouse, children, and dear friends. By acting as condensed expressions of family interaction, rituals give us places to explore the meaning of our lives and to rework and rebuild family relationships. They connect us with our past, define our present, and show us a path to our future as we pass on ceremonies, traditions, objects, and ways of being with each other.

Holiday Rituals

Often, our most vivid memories are of holidays. And they may also carry some of the deepest emotional meaning of families. When parts of our ritual life that have worked well are passed on to the next generation, people feel comforted. When holidays are filled with tension or unspoken conflict, the very relationships holidays are supposed to celebrate can become frozen. Why is this? What happens with family meaning-making during holidays?

Families may experience a lot of pressure about how to celebrate their particular rituals at holiday times. In addition, as it is common for generations of families to gather for many of these celebrations, possibilities emerge for both generational connections and differences to be highlighted. There may be expectations of particular ritual observances--such as religious services--that may be meaningful to some family members and not others. Family patterns may become more intense with the increased proximity that takes place. Old, unresolved issues may come to the surface.

Also, when there have been major family changes, issues of membership, loyalty, and reworking family dreams can arise--these may emerge in ritual-making and at the same time can be worked out through the planning and ritual process.

The following examples illustrate both the changing nature of families and the special conflicts such situations may create during holiday times. In addition, they offer suggestions for solving such problems by changing the way the family--and its individual members--can view as well as celebrate a holiday ritual.

Family Change, Family Variations

When Kay and Margaret, her partner of 12 years, first lived together, they celebrated holidays separately at each of their parents' homes, along with other extended-family members. They did not yet feel comfortable sharing with their families that they were a couple, and they did not want to deal with issues like where they would sleep and how others would or would not value what they meant to each other. This pattern of holiday celebrating was very stressful for them.

Kay found it hard to enjoy this time with her family, when she was missing Margaret and resenting that she couldn't invite her along. Margaret worried that Kay was closer to her family than to her, and she also felt that the two of them were really missing out on important opportunities to celebrate their own unit because they did not spend holiday times together. They were always finding themselves in awkward situations, such as opening Christmas presents to each other early and being unable to share with friends and relatives the significance of the new sweater each had been given by her partner.

Over time, they disclosed to their families that they were in a lesbian relationship. Kay's parents accepted them as a couple and showed this by inviting the two of them to their house for family get-togethers. Yet there were still a number of topics that people would not talk to them about, such as having children, buying a house, life insurance, or putting away money for retirement. In subtle ways, people communicated that they did not really expect them to be together for the rest of their lives, or they did not think Margaret and Kay wanted some of the same things that many families want.

In response, they decided to do a number of things. First, they framed a photo taken of them and presented it to Kay's parents for the mantelpiece. They also decided to consciously bring up topics that people did not ask them about or raise. They had been thinking of adopting a child; at the next family gathering, they talked about some of the pros and cons of doing this. Finally, they decided to let Kay's parents know that they needed to celebrate some major holidays at their own home.

As they did this, Margaret consciously tried to find ways to include connections to her own holiday history by recreating things she had enjoyed when she was younger. She also began to send holiday cards to people in her family, even though she did not typically receive any from them. To her surprise, she received a Hanukkah card back from her mother, and later a phone call.

Here are a few questions to stop and reflect on both religious and secular holidays on the outside calendar. Think about your holidays over the last couple of years. What patterns do you see over several different holidays?

o How do you typically celebrate holidays?

o Who do you get together with?

o What works and does not work for you with this pattern?

o Are there any changes that you would like to make in how you mark holidays?

One Holiday Celebrated in Two Houses

When Sherry and her husband, Mark, separated, she found that holiday times were very disorienting. Their holidays had typically been organized around doing things with their two children and other families in the community. Symbolically, this was represented in rituals such as sending out family photos each year for holiday cards. However, since she felt she couldn't use such a picture that year, she wound up sending no cards at all. The house remained undecorated, and planning for holidays became more complex. Basic assumptions about who would be there and who would do what could no longer be made.

Families can find many different ways to work with the changes when there has been separation and divorce. Depending on how recent the change is, the age and number of children, and the amount of conflict around the separation, each family can look to their own network of friends and relatives to help them organize their holidays.

One method might be to find a way to rework the holidays that fits for you. What is most important is that the celebration of holidays does not stay rigid, frozen, and static - unable to reflect family shifts. Holidays should honor the strengths and resources of your current family. They need to take on their own integrity and history, not simply stand juxtaposed against what has happened before in the family. It is also important that the children are kept out of the middle of whatever differences their parents may have with each other.

Try to put a boundary around tensions or ongoing conflicts, so that they do not directly intrude into the holiday time. Children and adults need to have protected time and space to enjoy these special events together.

A Missing Parent--Out of Sight But Not Out of Mind

Other issues arise when there is separation or divorce and little or no contact between the child and one of the parents. The child may be hurt or angry when the parent does not contact him on a holiday. The parent who lives with the child may then be left to deal with the emotional reactions. The child may have fantasies that the holiday would be much better with the missing parent. Or he may blame the parent he is with for the fact that the other isn't there.

Ignoring the emotional intensity around the absence of a missing parent at holidays and hoping it will go away only increases the child's sense of being left alone to try to figure out how to handle their reactions. With a separation or divorce, a key emotional element is the child's sense of loss of control. Children often feel that adults are making major decisions about their life over which they have no say. When a parent is absent, use small ways to help children feel that they have some control.

You might sit down with your child and look at a few pictures of the missing parent and talk about what it would be like to have contact with him. To do this, you will need to set aside your own anger at your former spouse and simply listen to your child's feelings. Help facilitate contact with the relatives of the missing parent if they want to see the child. This can help a child feel less cut off.

If there is no possibility of your children reconnecting with an absent parent at holiday times, it is best to have an honest discussion about this. As the sole parent, you may find that holidays pose a special challenge and can become a time to discover the unique strengths of your single-parent family.

Remarriage and the Joining of Several Families

Remarried families often have to deal with many of the same issues as families where there is separation or divorce. But besides issues of scheduling across households, divided loyalties, and restimulation of previous holiday memories and meanings, there are particular issues for remarried families. There are new extended family members with whom to become connected. There is a prior history of how family holidays should be done. Not only are there ideas from each family-of-origin about what constitutes a "good" holiday, there are living memories that the children carry about how a holiday should be celebrated. Particular foods and activities may be seen by children as essential while seeming strange and uncomfortable for stepparents, and vice-versa.

Fortunately, holidays have a lot of potential to facilitate healing and make new connections. The same elements that give us powerful memories about special days and the way things used to be also make it possible to create vital new meaning.

Incorporation is the name of the game in remarried families. In one family's experience with remarriage, they consciously set out to build networks of contact and create new histories of family holidays. For instance, at their first Thanksgiving together, everyone wrote a card with a message about what he or she appreciated and was thankful for to one another. In another remarried family, people were asked to name a favorite dish that they wanted included, as a way to honor foods from previous families in which they had lived.

At the same time, you need to respect other family configurations in which the children are members. When children make something for the parent that is not there, this can help them feel the parent is included in some small way.

Holiday celebrations will often sharply focus relationship changes that are required when there is divorce and remarriage. Even well-established visiting and custody arrangements are often challenged and may need to be reworked, sometimes with brief professional help. Remember, too, that the relationship changes occurring with remarriage will likely take a number of years to become truly comfortable.

Celebrating When You Are Single or Alone

For people who are not living with others, holiday times can bring up issues because of the expectations in the larger culture that these are times when families and groups of people celebrate together. There may also be familial pressures to return home and go along with whatever extended family members are planning because you do not have a family of your own. Certain holidays may also have meanings attached to them as well. Take Valentine's Day--the message is given that you should have a special sweetheart who will remember you on that day.

Yet precisely because they are not as intricately involved with a group of people that they live with, singles often have the possibility of more options and other choices to make around the holidays. Here the issue may be to make sure that some parts of the celebration with their family reflect their current identity.

Single people can also celebrate with others who are single. Other people make it a point to help others on holidays and create a network of people with whom they are connected--feeling that sharing is the true meaning of holidays.

Celebrating and Loss

"Christmas was my father's favorite holiday. Every December he went from being a serious businessman to becoming like a little kid. His excitement captured all of us. How can I celebrate Christmas with him gone?"

With these words, Mary Alice Lawrence expressed a dilemma that we all face at some point in our lives--how can we celebrate a holiday after someone we love has died? Our own sense of loss and grief can become especially poignant when it seems as if everyone around us in the wider community is happily celebrating a holiday.

During the holiday celebration rituals that follow the death of a family member or dear friend, two patterns commonly emerge that can impact subsequent celebration rituals for years, and even generations to come.

Holiday Business As Usual

In their struggle to figure out how to celebrate when everyone is mourning, many families establish an unspoken "rule" that there will be no conversation about their loss, especially during a holiday. They valiantly attempt to celebrate as if the loss had not occurred, and try to have what one family called "holiday business as usual."

In Andrea Simpson's family, such a pattern developed following the death of her 11-year-old sister. "When Easter came, my parents made the same sort of celebration we always had, and none of us spoke about Marcia. I couldn't say anything about that because it would upset my parents. No one said anything. We just ate in silence, pretending everything was still the same. After that, all our holidays went dead."

In subsequent years, tension would rise in the family before every major holiday and no one understood why. Like many families, the Simpsons' desire to protect one another from the pain of Marcia's death left each family member isolated and lonely, especially during holiday rituals. Since there was a prohibition on talking about Marcia, including sharing stories about her and her place in the family's rituals during her life, the family was cut off from a key source of comfort and connection, and from the possibility of experiencing any new joy with one another.

If holiday celebration rituals in your family feel filled with tension, and your family has developed a rigid style in which everything must remain the same at holiday times for no apparent reasons, it may be that a death or other major trauma that cannot be spoken of has profoundly impacted your celebrations. It's possible that such a loss occurred many years or even decades ago. You may want to go back in time and talk with members of your family to find out when holidays were different.

Twenty-two years after her sister's death, Andrea decided that the time had come to change her family's celebration pattern. With sensitivity and care, she organized a family meeting well before Easter. She began the meeting by thanking her parents for their wish to protect the family from the pain of Marcia's death, and then she spoke about her own memories of holidays when Marcia was alive. She brought out photographs and gave her mother a framed copy of Marcia's favorite Easter dinner recipe. The family grieved openly together for the first time in more than 20 years. Several weeks later, their Easter celebration was lively and meaningful.

"Let's Cancel Holidays"

Other families respond to death or trauma by stopping their holiday celebration rituals entirely. Getting together with family members may feel so overwhelming and painful that a family may simply decide, as one family told us, "to just cancel Christmas."

When Patrick Dinson's brother committed suicide in July, his family initially responded by coming together to comfort one another. When October came, however, grown siblings began calling with various reasons why they would not be coming for Thanksgiving this year. Patrick's mother decided to "just sit Thanksgiving out this year."

This was the first time that they did not gather for the holiday. "It felt too painful-- how could we celebrate?" Patrick said. "Then the day of Thanksgiving came. The parade was on TV, the football games my brother had loved were everywhere; the holiday was all around me. It actually ended up being worse without my family. It felt to me like we lost my brother and each other. I think we'd have done better to try being together."

Since our celebration rituals are embedded in the culture at large and are going on all around us, the Dinsons' decision to opt out had a paradoxical effect, as Patrick realized. The family ended up doubly troubled, each alone with their grief, bereft of the support and love that was available in their annual gathering, while sharply aware that celebration was going on everywhere.

Following this attempt to "cancel Thanksgiving," Patrick initiated a conference call with all of his siblings and their mother. He described his experience on Thanksgiving and asked if they would consider gathering for New Year's, which they agreed to do. When they got together, each one spoke openly about their dead brother and lifted a rapidly developing taboo. They spoke about the next year and how it would be different without him, but all agreed that it was vital that they be together.

We have talked to other families who never get back together to celebrate holidays after the death of a family member. If your own family has elaborated a minimized ritual pattern around major holidays and you are not sure why, you may find that a death, even a generation or more ago, affected all subsequent celebration rituals. Just as you can intervene when the holiday pattern has become rigid and stereotypical after a death, so you can alter a minimized and avoidance celebration pattern.

When the Ritual Maker Dies

The loss of your family's "ritual maker," the person who has made sure that holiday celebrations happened, poses special problems. Often this person, usually a mother or grandmother, has been a central voice for family cohesion. In the confusion following such a death, family celebrations may disintegrate, enlarging your sense of loss.

In the Connegan family, an intense but underground struggle ensued following the death of Grandmother Connegan, who had been the ritual maker. Her two grown daughters each declared that Christmas Eve dinner would be at her house. Aunts, uncles, and cousins called one another, expressing their bewilderment at the competition they felt between the sisters. The holiday gathering of the entire extended family fell apart, as some people took sides and others decided not to participate at all.

In this family, previously unspoken relational issues of jealousy between the two sisters came to the fore following the death of the ritual maker. Struggles over where power would now be located in the extended family overwhelmed the previous meaning of holidays.

If your family has relied upon one person to create celebration rituals, and this person has died, it is extremely important to talk openly about the meanings of becoming the new ritual maker. Several questions are useful to consider in your negotiations:

o Does one person want to take on this position?

o What does that mean for family relationships?

o Are there struggles over this position? Are such struggles really metaphors for where power and influence are moving in the family?

o How can shifts be made in ways that both honor what has come before and acknowledge changing family relationships?

While it can sometimes be difficult to discuss questions regarding family ritual making, holding such a conversation about future holiday rituals can enable you to sort out many complex relationship issues.

Recovering From a Loss: Healing and Celebrating

One of the most intricate and important aspects of rituals is their ability to hold and express contradictions for us. Since many of us are not aware of this potential in rituals, we commonly respond to celebrations as if they cannot also hold our grief and loss. In fact, any given holiday ritual can enable both healing and celebration. The starting place is an open acknowledgment that this year's holidays will be different because they are impacted by death. Such a statement to your family and friends immediately prevents the pattern of "holiday business as usual." As you talk about how the celebration will be different, hard, painful, and/or sad, you may want to begin to build in a specific way to honor or memorialize the person you have lost, while still gathering for the holiday. Doing this begins to orient you toward ongoing fife and prevents the pattern of "let's cancel the holiday."

Recovering from any loss and reengaging with life is developmental, taking place over time. Your holiday celebrations can provide a measure of such change. If you find that your holiday celebrations have become static and unchanging following a significant loss, it is likely that your own healing process and that of your family is not proceeding.

Try setting aside an agreed-upon amount of time on the evening before or the morning of the holiday. Ask that family members gather with the expressed purpose of sharing stories about previous holiday celebrations when your loved one was alive, emphasizing this person's place in your celebration rituals. When you do this, you will find yourself honoring this person's memory, while simultaneously acknowledging that this year's holiday is going to be different, as will subsequent years'.

Some families have gathered with meaningful symbols that speak about their loss in ways that words cannot. A simple ceremony in which such symbols are passed from one person to another can facilitate healing. A given symbol, such as candlesticks belonging to a grandmother who has died, may find its way to a holiday table as an enduring memory in the midst of ongoing life. Other families look through photographs or at videos taken on prior holidays. As you do this, you will likely find yourselves laughing one moment and crying the next. Moments of healing will find a place in your holiday celebrations.

Excerpted from Rituals for Our Times (HarperCollins; 1992), by Evan Imber-Black, Ph.D., and Janine Roberts, Ed.D. Copyright (C) 1992 by Evan Imber-Black and Janine Roberts.