Martha Beck Explains Why It’s Okay to Change Up Family Traditions

Holiday traditions have always made my heart beat a little faster—not with excitement, but with stress. Growing up as the seventh of eight children, I spent every December struggling to find gifts and make treats for everyone in the family. Things got easier when I started my own small, nuclear family. But our numbers are growing, and in recent years I’d begun to feel a touch of the old anxiety. Still, I was a bit shocked when someone suggested that we switch up our traditions by assigning each family member to buy a gift for just one other person.

My initial reaction was fear that this would disappoint my children. Then I noticed that while I was doing something else my children have all become grown-ass adults. They love the new stress-less gift idea. Everyone seems more cheerful since we opted for it. So where I used to think of family traditions as inviolable, I’m coming to see that things go better when we’re willing to change things up.

The word “tradition” comes from a Latin root that means both “to deliver or hand down,” and “to surrender or give up.” There’s wisdom in this double message. Especially during this ritual-packed time of year, some of us blindly follow whatever precedents our forebears have set, while others, exhausted and disenchanted, grumble “Bah, humbug” to the whole seasonal celebration. Perhaps a more useful approach is to evaluate our traditions, discerning what works and what doesn’t, handing down everything that seems worth keeping and giving up everything that doesn’t.

I believe the key to this process is watching the whole holiday season from the inside out, rather than the outside in. As we approach any traditional behavior, we can stop, still ourselves, and check inside. Are we doing this out of joy or duty? Is it freighted with relaxation or tension? Does it energize us or exhaust us? It’s not rocket science to see that if a tradition feels awful, repeating it will make the season grimmer, not brighter.

When we notice that a tradition makes us feel weighed down or tense, we can resist the temptation to simply trash the entire thing. We can become even more attentive, feeling for parts of the tradition that really do warm our hearts. We can hand down those treasures while letting go of the rest (for example my family didn’t want to stop gift-giving altogether, we just wanted to lighten the burden).

In your case, it may feel good to order traditional foods already prepared, rather than cooking them yourself. Or you might decorate the inside of the windows, rather than risking your life in subzero temperatures to put them on the outside. Maybe you can compile a playlist of holiday songs you love, banning the ones that affect you like fingernails scratching a blackboard. With a bit of contemplation and communication, you and your loved ones can keep the joy and give up the burden of almost any tradition.

My favorite story about modifying traditions comes from Billings, Montana. In the mid-eighties, white supremacists declared this area part of their “Aryan homeland.” By the early 1990s, the city had seen a wave of hate crimes attacking people of color, homosexuals, and especially Jews. In December of 1993, white supremacists threw a cinder block through the bedroom window of a 5-year-old Jewish boy. The window had been decorated with an image of a menorah, the nine-armed candelabra used in the celebration of Chanukah.

Police advised Jewish families to take down their holiday decorations. Talk about “Bah, humbug!” But a few Billings residents had another idea. Churches of all faiths began encouraging children to draw menorahs, which the adults mimeographed and handed out during services. When the first few non-Jewish families put these on their windows, the hate crimes increased. But instead of backing off, thousands of others joined the new tradition, taping up menorahs right next to their manger scenes or Santas. The Billings Gazette published a full-page image of a menorah for everyone to cut out and paste up. Faced by so many people resolutely united to wage peace, the bullies backed down. The hate crimes stopped.

The citizens of Billings realized that the ultimate usefulness of all tradition is to promote love, unity, and compassionate connection. They “surrendered and gave up” part of their ancient customs, “delivered and handed down” an idea that was even more beautiful. The insularity of separate holiday traditions was surrendered, replaced by the new practice of sharing one another’s symbols of light and peace.

Approaching tradition this way turns holiday ritual into an act of continuing benevolent creation. Try it. During the upcoming days and weeks, before you engage in a traditional custom, mull it over. Notice what you truly love about that custom, and see if you can amp that up. Notice anything that feels repetitive or even onerous, and find a way to change it or even eliminate it. Talk about this process with your loved ones. Modify, tweak, and adapt your family customs to bring everyone the greatest possible satisfaction. Let everyone join in both holding on and letting go.

This isn’t blasphemy. It’s the very essence of reverence and respect. It means that the traditions we honor never become robotic imitations of the past. Instead they can be like glorious wrapping paper, enfolding the gifts of joy and delight, making them even more beautiful. Giving down and giving up can both be acts of love. And love, as we all know down deep, is the beating heart of every tradition worth keeping.

For more information about Martha Beck, go to

This essay was featured in the Dec. 16th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.




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