Managing Old and New Family Traditions

Baby Talk, Dec/Jan '98
By Stephanie Coontz

Combining traditions has always been a challenge. But it's particularly difficult today because so many older family members embrace rituals that were developed long ago when the wife was home full-time and could spend her days cooking and preparing for the holidays. These traditions are totally inappropriate for today's families, when women work and men share in the household responsibilities, so it makes sense that families are struggling to rethink them. I've seen a number of responses that have worked for families.

Scale down expectations
Families say, "Yes, we'll do it the old way, but not quite as big."

Take shortcuts
Instead of trying to prepare the entire holiday meal themselves, they purchase part of it.

Change the dates
Some families have moved Thanksgiving dinner from Thursday to Sunday because it's too difficult to come home from work on Wednesday and expect to make that Thanksgiving meal the whole family's attached to.

Go potluck
Others have made their holiday meals potluck parties with extended family members.

Turn the holiday into a vacation
I've known single parents who spend their holidays with their kids at hotels, where they can relax by the pool instead of being stuck in the kitchen.

Create new traditions
This is the healthiest response I've seen. It requires a family to recognize that one woman cannot and should not do everything herself. For instance, the family may devote a "family day" to the cooking. In this case, Dad and the kids must be willing to help, and Mom has to give up her monopoly on expertise. New traditions are best if they arise from the combined effort of the entire family. There's no one structure or ritual that's either the secret to success or the road to damnation. People need to figure out what's right for them in the context of their situation. Anything families can do to take the pressure off is worthwhile.

A word of advice
Forget the myth that your nuclear family can be everything to you and meet all of your emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs. This is something that haunts a lot of people during the holiday season. It hurts because people travel long distances, knock themselves out, and then squabble. There's a lot of tension that could be relieved if people's expectations were more realistic.

Stephanie Coontz is the mother of one and the author of The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families (Basic Books).

Facebook Image You Tube Image