Creating New Holiday Traditions

Family sitting at a table for Thanksgiving and waving to a computer screen.

Editor’s Note: Health officials are calling for all of us to reimagine or create new holiday traditions this year to reduce the risk of inadvertently transmitting COVID-19 to loved ones. In fact, the CDC now warns against celebrating Thanksgiving or other holidays with anyone outside of your immediate household, as family gatherings have been one of the major drivers of the most recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

Because families in recovery have had to reimagine their holiday traditions, we asked Kim Bross, the mother of a Caron alumna, to discuss what her family learned about finding new ways to celebrate.

The holidays are approaching, and they will be different for many of us this year. Our experience and lessons learned from my family’s holiday celebrations following my daughter’s treatment at Caron and her ongoing recovery from alcohol use disorder can apply to today’s challenges.

It is possible to create new family traditions when you are not able to celebrate the way you are used to. Here are a few tips our family learned about celebrating holidays while dealing with a life-changing disease:

Put it in perspective

It is normal to pin so much hope and excitement on that one specific celebration. However, one can be sorely disappointed when the actual day does not measure up. Honestly, there is no such thing as a perfect day. It is up to each one of us to make the day what it is. So what if you are not able to meet with family members from across the country? There are still things to celebrate, and if you mourn what you cannot have, you will miss the joy you do have. Relax, and realize that whatever happens is okay.

My family would alternate the hosting of holiday dinners. For example, one year at my parents’ house, next year at ours, and the following year at my brother’s. As each holiday came close, I became crazy “in my head” about plans, creating stress not just for me but for everyone in my life. In recovery, I realize I must let go and enjoy what I have now and have faith in the future. That means accepting the idea that this holiday is just one day and one meal, and there will be another day when the extended family can get together.

Smaller can be better

Our family gatherings turned into big command-performance holidays; no matter whose house hosted, we would hang around the dinner table all day. Initially, when my daughter was in recovery, I was anxious that the day would turn out to be a crazy scene with lots of alcohol flowing. I knew that was not the ideal setting for my daughter or for me. We scaled back, so our celebration included only my husband and me, our children and our grandchildren.

In many ways, smaller is better. We miss seeing all the extended family, but more people tend to create chaos and a clash of personalities. Our smaller celebration is much more intimate, and we get to spend quality time with the grandchildren. This translates to less stress for me, less anxiety for my daughter, and more quality time for everyone else, so we can all relax. Nor do we feel the need to sit at the table all day – we can get moving – which is even healthier! Shortening the all-day affair to a few hours is also advantageous.

Connection is meaningful – even when it’s online

The truth is that the holidays for me are a chance to connect with my children and grandchildren. I have learned that connection does not have to occur only on that day: It can happen any time. My daughter is easy going – she loves family and being around people – but for her to have a day off and stay at home with her family is a gift. She cares more about connection than presence at the Thanksgiving table and feels it is more important to be healthy and safe, as long as the family makes time to connect. Holiday celebrations do not have to happen in-person. Talking on the phone or virtually through Zoom or Facetime can be just as much of an opportunity for celebration and connection.

I have learned about the power of connection during our family’s journey with recovery. Caron taught me that connection is key to our health and happiness. I learned through AlAnon that I need to do my own work on myself, separate and apart from my recovering child. I keep up with my sponsor remotely, through the phone and on Zoom. For me, keeping that connection with my sponsor and other members of my support group makes a significant difference in my positive approach to life – even when the unexpected occurs.

Let go of perfectionism and embrace gratefulness

There is no such thing as a perfect day, and if I want everything to be “perfect” for the holiday, I am bound to be disappointed. Instead, I encourage everyone to embrace gratefulness. Our extended family may not be with us in person, but the goal is that they are all safe and healthy.

In recovery, I have learned to be grateful for the time our family spends together. For example, I have learned to focus and build my relationships with my grandchildren and not worry about other family dynamics. Life is messy. Sometimes, children have tantrums or present behavioral challenges – but I accept that and focus on our quality time together.

Ultimately, I think you learn more about yourself and the world when you must cope with challenges. It is a good time to reflect on yourself and how you are going to grow from these situations.

Create boundaries

One of the reasons our family stopped going to the large holiday gatherings is that I knew there would be alcohol. At our house, we choose not to serve alcohol during family get-togethers. I did not feel I could stop the rest of the family from having alcohol in their homes, but it was important to set that boundary in my home once my daughter began her recovery. By hosting at my home, I could help create a healthier environment.

Boundaries have never been more important than this holiday season. This is the time to protect yourself and your family. Just as we do in recovery, I encourage you not to go to a place or be with people that make you feel unsafe. You have every right to put yourself and your immediate family first for your own peace of mind and well-being.

Find your faith

One must have faith, even if the holiday is not a great day for you, that tomorrow is another day, and it is going to be okay. What happens today is not going to dictate what happens tomorrow or two years from now.

I was never a very spiritual person. I was just out there spinning, living vicariously through my daughter, wanting her to do the things I did not have faith in myself to do. Today, I realize I was nowhere near grounded, and that my lack of faith contributed to my daughter having her own self-esteem issues.

Finding my connection to spirituality has been life changing for me. My daughter’s ups and downs would once have paralyzed me with fear and anxiety. Now I am open to the changes and challenges of life, and much more aware of my place in the world, because I have faith. So, COVID-19 is throwing a monkey wrench in our plans for the holiday? My faith reassures me that it will not be like this forever.

Flexibility matters

One must remain flexible. This year will be different, but we may find that we like that difference, creating a new holiday tradition in the process. It is okay to be anxious – I think we all are – but perhaps part of the problem is that we have become rigid in our approach. We are not used to having to adjust our plans in this way. This is an opportunity to stretch yourself. It may hurt a bit at first, but you may end up being more flexible about life and relationships.

For this holiday season, my extended family has decided we will not gather in a big crowd. We will each find our unique way to experience the holidays, and we will get together at different times. For my part, I will focus on giving back and reminding myself of where I have been and how far I have come.

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