How to Blend Holiday Traditions

No matter your family’s dynamic, you can create meaningful holiday experiences by blending existing traditions or creating new ones. Here, psychologists and child development experts share their tips for making it happen.

By Nicole Harris

Around the world, traditions serve as the backbone of the holiday season. Take a minute to reminisce about the Thanksgivings, Christmases, or Hanukkahs of years past. There’s a good chance your favorite memories are ritualistic practices completed every year, whether it’s decorating the house, trimming the tree, lighting the menorah, or eating Grandma’s famous stuffing.

“Traditions are a grounding force in a very unpredictable world—even more so in the last few years,” says Laura S. Olivos, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist at The Olive Tree Center for Child & Family Psychology, LLC, in Miami Beach. Traditions instill joy, unity, and connection among members of a family, and they also bring a sense of validation every holiday season. 

Yet as powerful as traditions can be, they don’t always withstand the test of time. This can happen for various reasons. Maybe you’re moving away from the religion of your childhood, or perhaps your new stepfamily has a different set of beliefs. Drastic life events—like births, deaths, marriages, and separations—can also shape the trajectory of your holiday traditions. After a divorce, for example, children might celebrate Christmas with their parents separately, which throws a wrench into established routines.

During times of change, it can be tempting to throw all tradition out the window. After all, do you really need to break out Aunt Joan’s pumpkin pie recipe for the ninth Thanksgiving in a row? But experts advise against doing so. That’s because traditions have a multitude of benefits for people, especially young children, and they can provide a sense of familial stability during tumultuous times.

So what’s the best way to deal when life forces a change to your family’s seasonal traditions? Creating new ones! This can be done by blending existing rituals or brainstorming different ideas altogether. We spoke with psychologists and child development experts about the best ways to blend holiday traditions, no matter your family’s situation.

Traditions help kids see in a concrete way the power of family history and cultural history.

 Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D.

Why Are Holiday Traditions Important for Kids? 

Traditions are repeated rituals that build shared memories, says Nicole Sodoma, family law attorney at Sodoma Law and author of Please Don’t Say You’re Sorry. Children benefit from all types of traditions—not just the ones that have been passed down for generations. Whether your family is blending existing traditions this year, or creating new ones altogether, here are some of the advantages. 

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Holiday traditions form lasting memories. You likely don’t remember exactly what Santa gifted you each year. Instead, you’re probably nostalgic about Christmas traditions: putting out milk and cookies, fighting off sleep to listen for sleigh bells on the roof, and waking up to presents under the decorated tree. “While many young children lack the understanding of the religious or cultural meaning behind a holiday, they can come to expect what happens on that holiday,” says Lauren Starnes, Ed.D, a child development expert and chief academic officer for The Goddard School. She adds this “creates powerful emotional experiences and memories for the child that are reinforced each year as the traditions continue.” 

Traditions promote family bonding. Whether you bake an annual batch of pumpkin cookies or watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles every Thanksgiving, your family bonds over shared experiences. Traditions “help kids see in a concrete way the power of family history and cultural history,” explains psychologist Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., author of The Tantrum Survival Guide.

Traditions create meaning during the holidays. Traditions give people something to look forward to each year, and they instill meaning to the holiday season. “They help children feel like they’re part of a greater whole, which has been linked to resilience,” explains Dr. Hershberg. What’s more, seasonal rituals reinforce what really matters during the holidays: love, kindness, and gratitude. 

Traditions provide reassurance during difficult times. Life can be tough. And whether your family is dealing with divorce, illness, or anything in between, traditions can be a grounding force for little ones. “Those memories carry us through painful times we have to endure the rest of the year,” says Dr. Olivos.

Traditions blend the old with the new. Sometimes change can be a good thing, and traditions help children fuse parts of their lives together. For instance, they help kids identity with different religions like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, as well as family structures like their birth family and stepfamily.

Tips for Creating Holiday Traditions

No matter what’s happening in your life, you can’t ignore that traditions have merit. “As long as traditions bring someone a sense of peace, comfort, connection, and validation, I think they’re valuable,” says Dr. Olivos. Learn how to seamlessly create new holiday traditions—or blend existing traditions—with these expert tips.

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Involve each family member.

Here’s a surefire way to create excitement for new traditions: Let everyone’s voice be heard. “Have a family meeting with a positive and collaborative tone,” suggests Dr. Olivos. Perhaps the conversation can start with just the grown-ups—which values do they want to emphasize during the holiday season?

After the adults come to an agreement, you can involve the younger generation, suggests Dr. Hershberg. Ask each family member about the traditions they’d love to keep, and brainstorm ideas for new rituals. “Often, children have well-established ideas based upon books, TV shows, or learnings from other families,” says Dr. Starnes. “A child may say that they would like to rake leaves into a giant pile and jump in them as the turkey is baking in the oven on Thanksgiving. When traditions come from the idea of a child, this not only empowers the child to see their role and importance within the family, but also allows the family to see what’s interesting and novel through the eyes of the child.”

Get rid of traditions that no longer bring happiness. 

Depending on your family’s situation, some traditions might spark feelings of grief and loss. It’s important to acknowledge bad memories associated with traditions and alter them accordingly.  For example, if making hot chocolate reminds your child of a dad who moved out, then maybe you can start serving warm apple cider instead. “The key is validating and listening to how something feels,” says Dr. Olivos. Not every tradition comes from a happy place, and it’s normal to have mixed feelings about it. 

Explain your motives to younger kids.

Young children can struggle to understand why traditions must change. Try explaining the situation in an age-appropriate way. Dr. Starnes gives a sample script when speaking to children: “We always build gingerbread houses on December 24 as our way of celebrating Christmas Eve. Now that we’re a blended family, we’re going to start baking cookies as well! It’s a family tradition that Mr. Lou and his family always do. We’ll show him how we build gingerbread houses and he’ll show us how his family bakes cookies. We’re so lucky to have different ways to celebrate the holidays!” 

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Find a unifying thread.

Are you creating new traditions after a divorce or separation? Eliminate confusion—and create a sense of normalcy—by finding a unifying thread, suggests Dr. Olivos. For example, separated parents might come together for the first night of Hanukkah, or if getting together creates too much tension, one parent can hop on FaceTime. Or maybe your child lights the menorah in each house separately, so they’re still experiencing the event with each parent. 

Do whatever works for your family.

Blending traditions can be overwhelming, and some families don’t know where to begin. As a starting point, pull from the traditions that existed before, if they’re still logistically possible given the new circumstances, suggests Sodoma. Here’s an example: If one parent celebrates Christmas and the other celebrates Hanukkah, maybe you put geld in a Christmas Advent calendar or light the menorah along with your Christmas tree. And don’t be afraid to get creative! Remember, at the end of the day, you’re trying to make each family member feel happy and represented.

The Bottom Line

No matter your family dynamic, traditions can create a sense of unity, bonding, and familiarity. Blending existing traditions—or creating new ones altogether—can help your family enjoy the holiday season, as long as you make room for trial and error. “Blending family traditions is an incredible gift, but it will take some work to make progress,” says Dr. Hershberg. Down the road, your family will be rewarded with cherished holiday memories that can be carried down through the generations!

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