The Surprising Gift of Seeing Family at Holidays

Want to stay younger? Continue the traditions from your childhood.

Posted Nov 21, 2019

Family traditions enhance memory and meaning
Source: Pixabay

Maintaining holiday traditions is more powerful for our mental health than we may realize. Even if we feel resistant to seeing family over the holidays and can recall, with great distress, the feeling of morphing into our annoyed adolescent self the last time we visited family (and observing others repeating their annoying adolescent behaviors), the gift of "time-traveling" via repeated experiences from our childhood provides incalculable comfort as it helps integrate the continuity of our lives.

Put another way, traditions make us feel younger. They provide an anchor and a sense of meaning to our lives. They increase our ability to remember as we automatically reflect on prior experiences, including the expanding schemas of our development (like not being able to touch the stove when a turkey was cooking to later being taught how to cook the turkey).

Continuing with the turkey theme (because Thanksgiving in America is just around the corner as I write this), I remember trying to rebel against Thanksgiving traditions one year when I was in great emotional pain after a divorce and not having my daughter with me for the first time because she was with her father. A friend visited me from out of town, and my great rebellious act was to have sushi instead of a turkey dinner.

My friend was on board for the sushi rebellion, yet the plan backfired. We called every restaurant around and could not find any sushi restaurants that were open. Even the sushi at the grocery store wasn’t available. After lots of searching, we discovered one fancy seafood restaurant was open and were able to get a reservation. It turned out they only served a traditional turkey dinner that night.

Looking back on that experience, I imagine the familiarity of being served a traditional Thanksgiving meal was a hidden blessing and probably unconsciously comforted me when I most needed it. (It’s an odd thing how we tend to pull away from people and things when we most need them.) Of course, my friend was an even bigger comfort—and we laughed about not being able to escape the turkey.

Sometimes we are forced to endure a tradition, and the benefits are hidden from our conscious. Other times, we are grieving the loss of loved ones, and traditions provide the opportunity to keep them alive.

This year, I will make my great-grandmother’s corn pudding. I will also relive conversations with my mother (who passed a number of years ago) about how to make stuffing and Great-Grandma’s two different recipes for it and the one that was Grandpa’s favorite. I will remember all my loved ones who passed and all those who are far away. I will remember my childhood (and my daughter’s) as I cook familiar meals that generations before me created.

The fondness of these memories shines so brightly that I find they burn away the traumas from my past and cultivate infinite seeds of love and gratitude for the good moments. And since cognitive research reveals that this time-traveling gift of maintaining routines and traditions takes us back to our younger selves, perhaps my skin and body will get a little anti-aging boost alongside my brain.

Thank you for reading my articles and sharing your thoughts and experiences when you do. Wherever you are, and however you celebrate traditions in your family, may the practice of continuity provide healing and joy in your lives.