Holiday Traditions and Toxic Families: Take Care of Yourself

Holiday Traditions and Toxic Families: Take Care of Yourself November 16, 2023

When I was in elementary school (or maybe junior high – it was a long time ago) I had a folder that was covered with snarky sayings. It was white with black text and bubbles around the text – kids would color the bubbles different colors to create something unique to them. The folders were really popular for a year or two. I remember this because I remember one – and only one – of the snarky sayings:

“Tradition is the art of making the same mistake over and over again, on purpose.”

I thought that was hilarious. Not surprisingly, my mother did not.

As an adult I have mixed feelings. On one hand, some traditions are deeply meaningful to me and to many others. A line I borrowed from ADF and use in almost all of my public rituals says “as our ancestors did in time of old and our children may do in times to come, so we do now.” We don’t know exactly what the ancient Druids did in their rituals, but it’s almost certain they included a central fire, invocations, and offerings. Knowing I’m part of a tradition dating back several millennia feels good and right.

On the other hand, that tradition only feels good and right because it still works. It still creates an environment conducive experiencing the Gods and spirits and to forming and maintaining good relationships with them. We see conservative religions shrinking, in large part because their traditions (especially those that insist 2000 year old social norms are timeless truths) are unhelpful and many times harmful to people here and now.

photo by John Beckett

The holidays and tradition – not always a good thing

And that brings us to today. Or rather, where we will be a week from today – the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. Which will be followed by Christmas and all that involves, what we generically call “the holidays.”

For some, the holidays are a wonderful time of gathering with family and friends, eating and drinking, gift giving, and continuing traditions that date back hundreds of years… or at least to the Victorian era.

For others, the holidays are a time of frustration and stress, spending time and money and energy they don’t have to meet the expectations of others – or of themselves – that create more problems than they solve. For them, tradition is an Sisyphean boulder that must be pushed up the same hill over and over and over again.

And let’s not forget the evil sorcerers of Madison Avenue, whose advertising tells us we can’t maintain even our helpful traditions unless we buy what they’re selling.

If thoughts of the holidays and their traditions fill you with anxiety and dread, I encourage you to take an honest look at the traditions you’re following, and then actively choose which ones you do and don’t want to continue.

It’s OK to change a tradition

Sometimes that snarky folder from my childhood is right – some traditions are mistakes that never should have been continued. More often, traditions are things that were good at one time, but that have lost their meaning, or whose costs now outweigh their benefits.

It’s OK to break them, or to replace them with new traditions.

Winter Solstice gift giving is a tradition that dates back at least to Roman times. Christmas presents were a huge part of my childhood, and as I grew older I learned to enjoy giving as much as receiving. But about 20 years ago, my wife and I realized we were stressing out trying to find things to give each other. We ended up spending a bunch of money on things we didn’t need and many times, didn’t really want.

So we decided to stop buying presents for each other and instead, spend the money on travel. We enjoy that a lot more. It’s less stress and more fun.

I really enjoyed family Thanksgivings as an adult. I know some people have objections to the holiday (and their concerns are valid) but it’s great as a celebration of family, food, and football. But the deaths of my father and my brother mean that it’s not the same, plus now I’m 800 miles away. I’m thankful I have good local friends who I can join for turkey and everything.

If something doesn’t work for you, find something else that will.

photo by John Beckett

It’s OK to draw – and enforce – boundaries

For many, the problem isn’t the tradition. It’s who they celebrate the tradition with.

Let me be blunt: not only is it permissible to cut toxic people out of your life, it’s necessary – even if they’re family. Our obligations to our families are greater than our obligations to friends and acquaintances. But those obligations don’t include enduring abuse and exploitation.

If you need to skip family gatherings for your mental health, do it.

Yes, this can be complicated, particularly if you’re dependent on family for finances or other support. Two years ago I wrote Boundaries: A Meditation for Holidays with Difficult Families to address these complications. I can’t tell you what to do in a complicated family situation. I can encourage you to declare, negotiate, and enforce boundaries where ever you can. If you can’t make something right, do something to make it better.

And then come back next year and make it better still.

And work to remove your dependency so you can draw and enforce boundaries on your terms, rather than on someone else’s.

Acceptance is best – tolerance is required

Most of my family tolerates my Paganism. They know I’m Pagan and they think I’m religiously incorrect, but they choose not to bring it up in conversation. They value our relationship more than asserting their own beliefs. That’s good enough for me. I don’t need them to validate my religion and I don’t need to critique theirs.

A few of them are accepting and occasionally curious, even though they’re firmly committed to their own religion. That’s even better.

It might be different if our disagreements were more visible – if I was gay and bringing my husband to dinner instead of my wife. I think most of them would be at least tolerant – most of my family are good people. And also, you don’t have to be gay for family members to reject your spouse – I’ve seen plenty of cases where a family didn’t like someone’s straight spouse and made holiday gatherings uncomfortable, or downright unwelcoming.

In a perfect world, we would all accept each other for who and what we are. As a society we’re getting better about that, although we still have a long way to go. Until then, can you live with tolerance?

That’s for you to decide – not me and not anyone else.

But if family members won’t behave decently toward you and yours, walk away. Your family obligations do not extend to enduring abuse. For your own good, and for the good of those who are also impacted, walk away.

Which means if you need to say “I’m not coming and here’s why…” then do it.

Traditions are easier to replace than to drop

Just dropping a tradition leaves a hole – fill it with something. If you don’t you’re likely to feel a desire to go back to what you left, despite the suffering it caused.

Not going to Thanksgiving dinner with your abusive family? Find some friends to share a turkey with.

Have to walk away from the religious aspects of Christmas? Focus on the secular celebrations. Or be a Pagan and celebrate the Winter Solstice – it’s been around a lot longer.

Walking away from a tradition you’ve always known is a loss. Filling it with something new and better (at least potentially) is an exciting improvement and can help inspire you to make other necessary changes in other parts of your life.

photo by John Beckett

It’s OK to change a tradition.

It’s OK to say “no” even if it disappoints the family patriarch or matriarch.

If your situation is precarious, draw what boundaries you can and do what you have to do.

And if none of this applies to you and your family is healthy and welcoming, give thanks for them and for the grace of the Gods.

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