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Breaking Holiday Traditions

Give up “same old, same old” traditions to minimize exhaustion and frustration.

Traditions are customs and practices that get handed down, often unquestioned, from one generation to the next. Maintaining holiday traditions often feels demanding and tiresome, especially to those responsible for holiday dinners.

In this guest post, Karen Rancourt, Ph.D., author of Ask Dr. Gramma Karen—Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues and columnist for, offers smart suggestions for handling—and changing—holiday dinner traditions that no longer work for you.

As Karen points out, it is surprising how family members willingly accept, adapt, and even embrace new approaches that replace frustrating, upsetting, or exhausting traditions. Below is what Karen discovered to lower your holiday dinner stress.


Stress Shouldn’t Be a Holiday Tradition

by Karen Rancourt, Ph.D.

As an advice columnist focusing on intergenerational family issues, I can always predict an uptick in questions about how to reduce stress, especially around family dinners, during the holidays. Through the years and with the help of my readers sharing their suggestions, I have compiled a list of five ways the keepers of holiday dinner traditions can take pressure off themselves.

Ignore I Don’t Eat This!

In this day and age, the guests sitting around any holiday dinner typically come with a wide variety of dietary preferences, restrictions and labels: vegetarians, vegans, celiacs, lactose-intolerant, and those with specific food allergies. Rather than trying to accommodate everyone’s dietary needs, let everyone know what is on your main menu. Guests can then decide if they want to bring additional dishes to be shared or special dishes for themselves.

Some hosts put a card in front of each dish listing the ingredients; they also ask those contributing a dish to do the same to keep others informed. It’s a smart way to avoid a possible trip to the emergency room for someone who may have food allergies.

My House, My Rules—No Electronic Devices

It is both rude and annoying when family members work their keyboards at holiday dinners, but there is often a reluctance to do anything about it. One of my braver readers said she informed her family that the holiday dinner in her home was to be digital-free: no “i-Anythings” would be allowed. She also asked her grandchildren to bring board games and other non-digital activities to do together. When asked if she was worried about her family being upset with her decree, she said, “My family may not like it, but they can all send me an e-mail or text after the holidays to complain. My house, my rules.”

Busy Kids are Calmer Kids

Children running helter-skelter during a family gathering raise the noise level and add to the confusion. One enterprising grandmother with four grandchildren under the age of ten said that she solved this problem by setting up a table for them stocked with light cardboard cut into place-mat size, crayons, magic markers, and stickers. Instead of running around, the grandchildren worked on making place mats for everyone. Apparently the kids enjoyed it; they asked to do it again at the next holiday dinner.

Give Up the Guilt about Elder Parents in Assisted Living

Having older family members who live in assisted facilities attend holiday dinners, especially if they are physically and/or mentally limited, can be difficult for both the older and younger members of a family. Many grown children wanting to bring a parent from assisted living to their home face the challenges of transporting them, only to arrive and find the elderly family members are ready to leave a family gathering after being there a short time.

The daughter of a mother in assisted living explains changes she has made to address just this situation: “This year on the day of our holiday dinner, I will visit with my mother early in the morning and my sister will visit her later in the day. The staff where she lives assures me that my new plan is better because my mother always returns from a big family gathering agitated and confused. I feel guilty about this, but I realize having her with the whole family is more about my needs than hers.”

Family Holiday Dinner Without the Dinner

Another grandmother abandoned her family’s traditional holiday dinner. She felt she was caught in a scheduling nightmare of grandchildren’s naps, football games, and various other activities. She just didn’t want to host anymore.

She explains: “This year my husband and I are going to a restaurant around noon for our holiday dinner and anyone can join us who wants to. Then, I am having an ‘open house’ through the early evening. Family can come and go according to their other commitments. I will provide snacks, fixings for sandwiches, and desserts. My family understands why I am doing this and they are willing to give it a try. I already feel so relieved!”

Ah, relief! Yes, doing things differently can bring a sense of calm to those who oversee holiday dinners as well as create new traditions that better reflect family members’ evolving and changing needs. Food for thought!

Also of interest: 8 Preemptive “Strikes” for Peaceful Family Holidays

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