Break a Holiday Tradition Without Breaking Your Family

















When certain family traditions no longer work with your current situation, making a switch becomes a necessary, if painful, process. If you’re anticipating a holiday season with customs that have overstayed their welcome, consider these tips for changing things up.

Select a substitute

When an out-of-town trip made having a live tree impractical, the Brakel family found an inventive way to display their Christmas ornaments. Bruce Brakel remembered displays he had seen of light strings anchored to a flagpole in a conical tree shape. He and his daughters decided to create the same shape from ribbons fastened to the living room ceiling and weighted down by bricks covered in wrapping paper. They hung their ornaments along the strands of ribbon.

To choose a tree alternative of your own, visit the MK Pinterest page (, where you’ll find options for saving time, money or space.

When you consider a substitute custom, Brakel suggests thinking hard about which aspects of the old observance can be preserved. If you can’t hang your usual ornaments on the new tree, for example, you can place them in a decorative dish to make a centerpiece. Grant Stenzel, licensed clinical professional counselor, agrees: “Ease into it, instead of being all or nothing.” 

Go radical — this once

A move, a death in the family or multiple challenges piling up can make it harder to keep up traditions. In those instances it may be best to forgo some rituals to remain sane and healthy.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. As Stenzel says, “Traditions are hard to break because we have such emotions tied to them — not just current feelings, but emotions from our childhood.” Those emotions can cause us to overburden ourselves even when circumstances suggest we need to do something else.

If you must drop one or more customs entirely, take it one year at a time. Reassure everyone you can always bring the tradition back next year. Then consider what benefits you will gain by scaling back.

For Catherine McNeil, a mom of three young children, multiple circumstances collided to make the holidays more stressful than normal one year. She chose to drop traditions that were the most time-consuming and least gratifying for her children, including the family picture, Christmas cards and holiday baking.

See page 2 for more suggestions for alternative holiday traditions.


Tag team it

If the person responsible for keeping traditions going is overwhelmed, enlist help. Evaluate which tasks could be shared or handed off. Can you trust an older child to put up decorations? Would your spouse be willing to address holiday cards?

Just remember that if you give control of a tradition to someone else, you also should give up your expectations of what it should look like.

When it comes down to it, we all need traditions. As Brakel notes, “Traditions are important. They provide continuity and family identity.” But Stenzel points out that we need to value the people we share them with even more. And sometimes that means making a change.

Lara Krupicka is a parenting journalist. She’s found the most memorable holidays were also the least traditional. 

New approaches to holiday expectations

Baking: Hold a cookie swap to reduce your holiday baking without lessening the variety of treats you and your loved ones enjoy. Find recipes at metrokidsmag/

Decorations: Fight the urge to keep up with the neighbors’ vast outdoor light displays. Reduce the stress of detangling indoor lights with a prelit artificial tree. Light a pine-scented candle if you miss the fragrance.

Photos and cards: Use your smartphone to snap candid or formal shots of your family if you have no time for a studio portrait. Pick a favorite photo or make a collage, and use social media to share it. No envelopes or stamps needed!


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