Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Turning the Holidaze into Holidays

Even those of us who love the holidays can, at times, become overwhelmed by what can sometimes seem like it’s frantic pace. It’s at those moments, we feel like we’re in the midst of the Holidaze.

As is true in so many families, family traditions play an important role in my holiday celebrations. Traditions are important. They help us feel like a part of something larger than ourselves. They help remind us of the joy we’ve shared and help us feel closer to the loved ones we’ve lost.

Some traditions are spiritual, such as attending services together as a family. Some are silly, like the tradition my brother Tommy started when he was a teenager and I was very young. One year he proclaimed, I’m sure in large part motivated by his never ending drive to entertain his younger sisters, that we all had to wear EVERY piece of clothing we got for Christmas. That year, so family legend goes, he wore 3 sweaters and 2 scarves to Christmas mass.

Some traditions are labor intensive like baking a gazillion kinds of Christmas cookies and some are simple and sweet, such as ending Christmas Eve with a reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas or in my brothers’ families case, the annual reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas because it has so many opportunities for silly voices.

While traditions are important it’s also important to consciously choose each year which traditions to follow and which to skip. As the circumstances in our families change from year to year, so too should our holiday celebrations. Whether it’s an aging parent, young adolescents who would rather “die” than spend time with their parents, recent divorce or remarriage, toddlers on the loose, hard financial times or a brain injury, from year to year, the make up of each family, it’s family dynamics, and the abilities, likes and dis-likes of it’s members change.

Our families aren’t static nor should our holiday celebrations be.

If, for example, you decide one year that “forcing” your teenage son to attend the church sing-a-long because you always go as a family, will be painful, for both of you, go without him. Giving yourself, and him, permission to skip that tradition this year, doesn’t mean he’ll never attend the church sing-a-long again. It just means he’s not going this year.

If, for example, you’re exhausted from caring for a parent or other loved one, maybe you can skip the gazillion Christmas cookies this year. Think bakery or store bought or, heaven forbid, slice and bake. Trust me, life and the Holiday, will go along just fine without your revered butter cookies, at least this year.

Sending Christmas cards feels like yet another burden this year? Send “Hope you survive the winter” cards in January when life slows down and the weather keeps us inside or how about Valentine’s Day cards instead, telling people how much you love having them in your life.

My brain injury has forced me to pick and choose which holiday traditions are important enough to me to expend some of my very very limited cognitive energy on. I’ve learned to spend time each December thinking about how much I’m capable of doing this year without exhausting myself and then decide which things to say “yes” to and which to say “not this year”. I remind myself that “not this year” doesn’t mean never again; it just means “not this year”.

Sometimes I need help deciding what I am and am not capable of doing, or more precisely, what I’m capable of doing AND enjoying. For the first several years after my injury, I followed some traditions because I USED to like doing them and post-injury, from year to year, I’d forget how exhausting they now were or how much the new me DIDN’T like them at all.

(Partly in the spirit of full disclosure and partly because I’m afraid my family might read this and “rat” me out, while I am certainly getting better and better at living within the energy limits my injured brain imposes on me, I still make lots of mistakes. As my Rehabilitation Doctor often says about me “limit setting isn’t really her gift”.)

I think too many of us uphold traditions year in and year out, just because that’s how we always do it, even though they no longer enhance our celebration or, given the reality our family finds itself in this year, just don’t make sense. These are the traditions that are more stress-filled than joyful.

You may be following some traditions you no longer like (or at least you’d like to skip them this year), because you think they’re important to your parents or your kids or your spouse. I have a shocking idea for you – ask them.

You might be surprised, and relieved, by their answer.

Every year, no matter how cognitively fatigued I am, there are two family traditions I always uphold. I never ever go to sleep on Christmas Eve without reading or listening to 'Twas The Night Before Christmas and on Christmas Day I always wear every piece of clothing I got for Christmas.

Here’s hoping we all have a joyful Holiday Season.


  1. This year, for the very first time, I have the challenge of creating holiday spirit in my OWN apartment, without all the traditional family ornaments and decorations. I don't even have a menorah! I wasn't sure how it would go, and for a while there it looked like I might pass the season without much fanfare. But happily, my roommate asked me one day what I thought of the idea of getting a tree. I was thrilled!

    We went out and got a tree that's about four and a half feet tall, and gragged it home on the bus. We got in into the apartment, managed to get it in the stand we purchased, and picked the perfect spot for it in our living room. Then we weren't quit sure what to do with it.

    The next day we bought lights to string around it and candy canes to hang on it (candy canes were never on my childhood trees, but I thought, hey! why not!). The following day, my roommate made ginger snaps, and we had fun making holiday-themed shapes, poking holes in them, and hanging them as ornaments on the tree. That night, we opted out of a party, stayed home, and made more decorations! We retaught ourselves to make paper snowflakes like we used to when we were kids, took red and green ribbon and hung curly cues on the tree, and la piece de resistance, we made an angel (complete with halo!) and perched her atop our now beautiful tree.

    So far, not a thing I've listed has anything to do with my family holiday traditions, but everytime I look at my tree I am filled with the holiday spirit! It might be the most beautful tree I have ever seen. On a nearby bookshelf, I set up nine votive candles to make my own menorah. I've lit the candles every night since Hanukkah started. I think the fact that I created new traditions this year makes them all the more special to me personally. They mark the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

    Today, I unwrapped the ornament my grandmother gave me earlier this month - on it she wrote my name and the year. She has been giving every person in my family an ornament every year, since forever (right??), always with name and year lovingly inscribed. Today I hung this year's ornament (a Noah's Ark-themed piece) on my tree -- bridging the divide between old and new traditions. And now that the tree looks so great, it's time to wrap some presents and stick them under it!

  2. Leilah, Thanks for sharing that.

    Everything you described is in fact a part of our most revered family tradition - cherish the holiday. You've simply implemented it in new and wonderful ways.

    Loving you long distance, Tina

    PS One of my very favorite Christmas memories of all time was laying in bed the first year I lived on Grand Ave and listening to you read me Twas the Night Before Christmas before I fell asleep. What I didn't know at the time was your Mom was in the other room filling my stocking so that when I woke up alone on Christmas morning for the very first time in my life, I would find that Santa had in fact found me. Even thinking of it now brings waves of warmth and tears of joy. To borrow your words : How wonderful is my family.