Changing holiday traditions as families age

Changing holiday traditions as families age

Dec 21 2023

Its okay if your family doesn't get together for the holidays on their calendar day anymore, and it's okay if you no longer each bring a dish to pass. Previous holiday traditions transform as families and family members age.

It’s also okay to feel saddened by the changes that have come about. Holiday traditions create something to look forward to year-round, not just in winter. But it is hard when “the most wonderful time of the year” has started to look different for family and loved ones.


Know that nostalgia is powerful.

Feelings of nostalgia are triggered by many things; songs, smells, music, life events, pictures, the holiday season and holiday traditions. It itself is a powerful emotion that can trigger other emotions coming forth. As families age, we can be left feeling nostalgic for how our family ‘used’ to do traditions, or for the way things ‘were.’

As we age, we may feel happy as we mentally relive those moments or experience a trigger that brings us ‘back there.’ But, nostalgia can also be sad as we know these good memories, feelings of security and comfort cannot be repeated.

Difficult family dynamics, conflict, stress, and maybe even trauma may also be woven into memories of holidays past. Whether hardships are associated with the holidays or cherished memories, allow grieving moments to feel whatever is really felt without pushing it down. It’s helpful to recognize and name things from the past to aid in processing them.

Positive, negative, or mixed feelings can make the anticipated “joy” of the season feel impossible. If thoughts tend to gravitate more towards past times, try one of the following to encourage positive mental health:

  • Talk about it: If there are specific memories shared with a loved one that is still in contact, chances are they would be delighted to remember it too. Send them a text, give them a call, or send them a letter describing favorite parts of the memory or how they made it great. If a present hasn’t been decided upon for them yet, try printing out an old photograph with a frame.
  • Create nostalgia: Make a point to create nostalgia for the younger generations, even if current times aren’t the same as old. Take a second to ask family members what they enjoy most, then, plan an activity or new tradition that incorporates their interests. Giving back to the younger generations is a way to find joy in the holidays and create nostalgia for younger generations.
  • Remember symbols: Part with, “things will never be the same” thoughts. Instead, think about a symbol from the most cherished holiday memories, perhaps the star on the top of the Christmas tree, muddy boots from walking up a driveway, or the smell of baked goods. Now, thoughtfully place a reminder or symbol of this memory in a place it will be seen often, even year-round. This will allow more regular connection with holiday nostalgia, while keeping in mind that things change.


Each family member gets older.

As the years pass, it is important to remember that the whole family is getting older. Even the young ones. As each family member ages, they have different motivators, varying energy levels, changing abilities, and needs. The loved ones who used to coordinate or host may no longer be able to for many reasons.

Even if holiday traditions don’t change directly from one year to the next, watching them slowly shift over time can be confusing, formulate detachment, and frustration. The shifting can require family members to step into new roles and pick up new responsibilities. It takes time to figure out “who is doing what” with new holiday traditions. But this can be an exciting opportunity to create new holiday memories and traditions for years to come.

For those with aging parents and grandparents it can be especially tough. If older adults in the family have gone into a nursing home or are no longer able to host a family get together, it can be distressing, and isolating. To take care of personal mental health and the mental health of parents/grandparent’s, try:

  • Make an effort to visit outside the holidays
  • Bring prepared meals
  • Bring a token of a memory shared together
  • Get them ‘out of the house’ with simple activities, even taking a drive
  • Make preparations to host the way they used to
  • Identify and implement ways they can still contribute to family gatherings

There are also other ways that holiday traditions may have changed. Let’s look at some ways to cope, protect mental health, and “be the change you want to see”:

  • Change in mobility – Relatives may experience changes with their mobility that impact their ability to attend family gatherings. The absence of even one family member can make it feel like holidays are ‘not the same as they used to be.’ Offering to pick up a relative is a great solution in these situations. It will “give back” to them and each member of the family.
  • Newly married –  New marriage can make room for new traditions. Have a conversation together to discuss what parties and traditions are important to each other. Knowing what matters most, create and communicate a plan for holiday gatherings to family members to create excitement and eliminates stress. It is important to remember that not all holiday events can be attended each year.
  • Off to college/Empty nesters – With an empty nest its quieter. Remind your college student that their home is always open to for them to return to. This may be a good opportunity to create new traditions by seeing other family, getting involved in community holiday events, staying active, or even visiting child(ren) who are now out of the house.
  • Family who has moved away – Whether in state or out of state, this can certainly change the holidays. It may not be in the cards to travel every year for the holidays, but set up a plan with loved ones to see them, whether that means traveling to them every other year, or switching who does the traveling.

What is felt around the holidays is valid, take time to reflect on what is different and how the changes have been felt.

If the struggles and difficult feelings of this time of year cause strife, do not hesitate to check in with a supportive person in or seek guidance from a therapist. Priority Health members may call the number on the back of their member ID for assistance finding mental health or substance use services.  Crisis support is also available 24/7. Options to call or text 988 from any phone or computer to speak with a counselor on the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline are also always a button push away.