The One Constant When Holiday Traditions Change

Dec 15, 2023

Reading time: 6 Minutes

Family decorating the Christmas tree

We always eat Christmas dinner at Grandma’s — it’s tradition! We have to sing carols before presents — it’s tradition! It’s not Christmas Eve until we read that one book — it’s tradition! And we can’t forget the eggnog — it’s tradition!


But what happens when Grandma moves into a nursing home? Or when a new baby’s nursing schedule means carols have to be skipped? What about when your teenagers ask to spend Christmas Eve with their friends? Or your blended family members reveal they prefer cranberry punch over eggnog?


We all know that seasons change, but do those treasured traditions have to fly out the window? That doesn’t feel jolly at all!


Holiday Traditions Have Always Been Changing


It’s no secret that holiday traditions change over time. For example, did you know:


  • In colonial America, Christmas meant donning costumes and going door to door to receive gifts?
  • In the 17th century, Massachusetts made celebrating Christmas a crime?
  • Christmas trees didn’t become popular until the 19th century?
  • And Elf on a Shelf didn’t show up until 2005?


For better or for worse, celebrations of Christmas haven’t always been the same. But throughout centuries of ever-changing cultural traditions, the reason for celebration remains the same, whether people want to acknowledge it or not: the birth of Immanuel, God with us.



Family Holiday Traditions Change Over Time


In the same way, family holiday traditions change over time. As traditions shift, Christmas holds an air of wonder, as in, “I wonder what we’re supposed to do now?” And while each new stage brings its question marks — and the discomfort that goes with every unknown — there’s one constant that threads through time and ties traditions together.


Traditions in Young Adulthood

Christmas as a young adult often means trying on new traditions to see what fits. You might go to an ugly Christmas sweater shindig with friends one night and a sequin-clad hors d’oeuvre office party the next.


For couples, the decisions mount: Will it be a real or artificial tree? Will we attend Christmas Eve candlelight service with your parents or mine? Morphing previous holiday traditions into future ones can be daunting.


But in the sweaters and the sequins, Jesus is there — with us.


Traditions with Small Children

When children are small, traditions shift dramatically again. Late night sequins are replaced by early morning jammies. The candlelight service might be skipped for a few years, deemed too stressful with squirmy toddlers in the pew. Instead, you set up the Fisher Price nativity, making stable animal sounds as you talk about baby Jesus in the simplest terms.


On that artificial tree, the breakable ornaments are placed strategically out of reach. And the menu? Well, the tradition might be more mac ’n’ cheese than figs and brie for a few years, but that’s okay.


Because in the mess and the macaroni, Jesus is there — with us.


Children singing in a Christmas choir


Traditions with Older Children

With older kids, an endless stream of school parties and sports team celebrations is enough to swirl your mind like a peppermint. Is this the white elephant event or the gift card exchange — I forget?


Now they’re reading the Christmas story on their own in church and singing carols in the pageant, so you create more updated traditions like a great cookie bakeoff or a present-wrapping contest. Slowly, new hoodies and “drippy” shoes replace toys and dolls under your evenly-decorated artificial tree.


And in the parties and the pageants, Jesus is there — with us.

Traditions as an Empty Nester

When children move out, they should be encouraged to start their own traditions and, depending on your child (and where they live), you may or may not be together for those special holiday moments. And that’s okay. Traditions are important but, in my opinion, they should be determined by the nuclear family, not the extended one. So, what does that look like?


This year, it was setting up the beloved nativity and decorating the tree without my kids. I could have been sad, but instead I chose to wistfully recall Christmases past with a smile on my face, hanging the ornaments with their precious baby faces, and thanking God for the privilege of being their mom in all seasons.


And in the quiet, Jesus is there — with us.


Traditions When Someone’s Missing

Whether you are missing your children who are making their own memories, or missing a loved one who has passed away, holidays without your loved ones are hard.


There are ways to honor those who are no longer with us, whether it’s maintaining those sacred traditions, like hanging their favorite ornaments or singing their favorite Christmas carols. Or, you may choose to switch things up so it’s not so painful. Half the battle is just acknowledging that it won’t ever be exactly the same. But you can rest assured that our Lord knows your heart and will be with you through it.

Because in the aloneness, Jesus is there — with us.


How to Shift Your Holiday Traditions


It may be a fact that holiday traditions are constantly in flux, but that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Mental Health America recommends the following tips when adjusting to a new season of traditions.


  • Mourn traditions. It’s okay to be sad when your kids choose a ski trip with friends over your annual skating outing. It’s all right to shed a tear when you donate that Fisher Price nativity set. Stuffing down sad feelings can lead to depression, but letting yourself feel and process grief is one of the best ways to move forward. Reach out to a professional counselor if needed; online mental health appointments are available through the Medi-Share Member Center.  


  • Reinvent traditions. Just because a certain tradition can’t be done exactly the same way over time doesn’t mean you can’t keep the essence of it going. Let the kids choose a new Christmas movie when they get too old for that one you’ve always watched. Use FaceTime to decorate cookies together across the miles. Exchange presents in the afternoon when a senior relative can’t drive in the dark. Being flexible in how and when things are done can help keep traditions going.


  • Create new traditions. Don’t be afraid to try new things as you enter new seasons. Does your new daughter-in-law enjoy running? Add a family 5K to the Christmas season plans. High school grandkids looking for service hours? Help distribute Christmas meals together. The point of traditions is usually about being together, so look for new ways to be together with the ones you love.


Holiday traditions will change, but Jesus always remains the same. He is Immanuel, God with us, “to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20) So whether your traditions this year are in the wish-we-could-catch-a-breath stage or the wish-you-were-here stage, keep your eyes fixed on the constant in every season: Jesus is here — with us.



Co-written by Melissa Richeson and Dawn Carroll.


Also seen on The Christian Post.

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