Redefining the Holidays

When we use our personal stories to create holiday traditions, the loss of a loved one becomes a part of the true meaning of the season

Holiday time is all about planning. We plan our trips to see loved ones, we plan our wish lists and our shopping lists. There is a plan for how and when to get the tree, or to get the decorations down from the attic and put them in their pre-assigned places. 

The radio stations play the most predictable music of the year, and the color palette of every store, every party and social gathering is basically the same hues. 

But for many of us, the Holidays include the un-expected, and the tragic. Scientific studies have even shown that there is a rise in deaths during Christmas and New Years, though scientists have not been able to explain why.

Since much of the holiday traditions we enjoy tend to operate on a sort of auto-pilot, most of us aren’t prepared for how to reconcile our experience of the holidays with our grieving over the death of a loved one.

We may even feel guilty when trying to enjoy the spirit of the holidays if there has been a death of a family member or close friend during this time of year. 

Even though the experience is common, there is little discussion about how to deal with this loss of equilibrium.

Holiday traditions and rituals all began somewhere, some are very old, and some originated within the timeframe of our own personal memories. No matter where these traditions started, their origins had to do with real people, and those people’s real life stories. 

In many cases, holiday traditions we now find simple and even trite were complex and fraught with human struggle at their inception.

The biblical Christmas story begins with the mother Mary’s fear at her miraculous pregnancy and culminates with the naked, vulnerability of the infant Christ Child.

The Christmas card was invented when a harried, overworked businessman found himself unable to muster the energy to write the customary, expected, personal Christmas letter. Unable to get his act together, he hired someone to create a stock Christmas letter that would suffice for his lack of personally addressed prose, and the idea spread from there. 

As our lives unfold, so do our personal and family histories. Holiday traditions offer us a chance to tell our own stories, our memories of joy, and our history of loss. We can infuse our genuine feelings of sadness into our existing traditions as a way of acknowledging and honoring our grief.

An example of this may be including a meaningful song that reminds of us of our loved one and not feeling bad about playing it alongside the customary Holiday playlist.  

But we can also build new traditions for the holidays, ones that honor our missing loved ones.

We might create a special dish at the holiday table, one that the person who died used to make regularly, or was their favorite to eat. We might take some time one day a week, or daily at meals during the holiday season to light a candle in honor of those who are no longer with us. Or we could take a portion of our holiday spending and give to a charity that in some way honors what our loved one was passionate about in their lifetime. 

These are just a few suggestions to get you thinking about how to incorporate your feelings of  sadness into a time a year that rarely makes space for it. The idea is to be empowered to make the holidays about your family’s story, and use the traditions you practice to honor that story. We also encourage you to make entirely new ones.

Remember that without sorrow, there can be no joy, without loss there can be no appreciation of all that we are given. This is not to diminish the pain and suffering of losing a loved one, but rather to help incorporate those experiences of pain and loss into the true meaning of the holidays. 

The holidays are a time to be deeply human, and to embrace all that makes us so. For us northerners, it is a time when darkness grows to its fullest point of the whole year, before it gives way to the light. This process of darkness to light continues year after year, cycling as birth and death. 

If we allow ourselves to feel sadness at this time of year, we will be tapping into true stories of countless who have gone before us, and through acceptance, we can find our way, time and again, back to joy.

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