I have this vivid memory of every Christmas as a child. I wake up on Christmas morning and all of our presents are under the tree, snow on the ground, crazy ornaments, Bing Crosby on the radio, and a train circling it all. Except, if you ask my parents, we didn’t actually have a train and my father hated Bing Crosby. Plus, it rarely snowed enough to stick to the ground. I believe that I hold on to these false memories because they help my mind hold the feelings I loved best around the holidays.

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Your Holiday Feelings

Do a similar thought exercise. Think about what the winter holiday season was like for you as a child. What do you remember most? Who are the most important people who surrounded you at the time? What did you love? What things don’t you miss? How do you feel as you reflect on your memories?

Whether you have good or bad memories, they and the emotions they evoke are influencing your holiday decisions as a parent. On top of that, the pandemic is also influencing our holiday decisions. Many people will have a difficult holiday season this year because the pandemic has changed their families—often physically, emotionally, and financially. So what do we do about it? How do we still create meaningful holidays within our new reality?

Adding and Subtracting

Traditions fall into three categories: things we love from our childhood, things we dread, and things we started as adults. Some of these traditions don’t make sense for your family now that you have children. Some are no longer possible because of the pandemic. Others are so important that you want to find a way to make them happen every year. Take the time to determine which traditions work best for your family this year. The process of adding and subtracting is meant to remove the stress and disappointment that often comes with the winter holidays.

This is also an opportunity for you to create traditions you’ll truly love. If you live in a new place, explore how people celebrate the holidays around you. You may find things that your children really love that you could not have done as a child. For example, my partner and I love going to zoo lights because neither one of us grew up close to a zoo. Also, now that we have a baby and pets, we’ve simplified our holiday decorations because we would not be able to enjoy them (safely) otherwise.

Processing Grief

The holidays bring a lot of joy, but many of us are going to be reminded of things we’ve lost this year. Grief doesn’t just include family members we’ve lost. It can also include things like resources we don’t have anymore or travel that’s no longer feasible. These things may not be difficult like the death of a loved one, but we still experience them as grief.

It’s important to give ourselves space to grieve. Sometimes we pack the holidays full of things so that we don’t have to think about how hard things are. That doesn’t mean that you should cancel all holiday plans to grieve, but rather consider which things would be most meaningful to your family. There’s often room to grieve and celebrate when we’re intentional with our choices.

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If you don’t know how to create room to listen to your needs, take the time to do a body scan. This will help you figure out what you’re feeling and need this year. If you need distraction (especially in the form of cheesy Christmas movies), go for it! If you need to recreate holiday traditions within your new capacity, examine which elements are most important to you and work from there. The important thing is that you listen to your needs right now.

Managing Holiday Conflicts

People (like other family members) may not like the changes you make in this process. That’s okay! You might be cutting out things that are really important to them—especially if they’re the ones who created the traditions you’re moving away from. They may not understand why other things have become more important to you. It’s okay to remind yourself that your values can be different without it being a value judgment on the other person.

It’s easier to approach these conflicts when you have the confidence that you made the best choices for yourself and your family. When you know your values, you know when you can politely decline a request. You also know when you can say “yes” to a request, even if you have complicated feelings about the matter. If you still need help, reach out to trusted friends or family members to talk through your conflicting emotions. You can also speak to a therapist who can provide support during the holiday season.

Elise Champanhet is a Mental Health Therapist seeing individuals seeking physical, emotional, and mental wellness at Optimum Joy Clinical Counseling in the Greater Chicago Area.

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