For many people, holidays like Thanksgiving bring back memories of delicious food, long celebrations with family and friends, sounds of football in the background, and fun family traditions.
But for others, like myself, the holidays can be a difficult time. I am far from family now, and although there were many fun moments (especially with my cousins!), my memories of the holidays are less than perfect. In fact, the older I’ve gotten, the more painful they have become.
As a young adult, November and December were really tough for me. I felt lonely and separate from others who seemed to experience so much joy during this time of year. Over the years, I’ve worked hard to not let my personal grief hold me back, but the discord and disconnection in my own family still makes it difficult to fully enjoy the holiday season.
As a mother, however, my hope is to now create a different experience for my daughters — and for me — and to work together to create new, more joyful memories of the holidays.
One of the ways I’m learning to do this is by creating my own rituals with my family. Rituals are shown to increase resilience and strengthen family bonds. They also create positive connections among family members, as well as long-lasting traditions that can offset some of the more painful experiences in our lives.
I was curious to find out what kinds of rituals were meaningful to CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) staff, so I made the rounds in our office one morning. I loved learning from everyone, but more than anything, I loved seeing staff light up as they shared their favorite holiday rituals with me, which ranged from sacred to silly.
Estela, one of our home visitors, told me that when her family gets together for Thanksgiving, her 88-year-old mother begins by thanking God for her family, sharing gratitude for what they have and for all being together. It’s a special moment for everyone.
Diane, our quality assurance manager, shared her fun and unique family tradition. Every year in her family, each person has to do a performance before receiving his or her Christmas present.
People plan their performances weeks before. One niece plays the tuba, and another does a silly dance. One year, Diane wrote 12 Haikus, one for each month of the year, and shared them with her family.
At our chief development officer Lori’s house, after the Hanukkah candles are lit, the family sings “Oh Hanukkah” and jumps in a circle. Singing and jumping are the highlight of the family ritual.
One of our intake therapists, Liz, celebrates Las Posadas, a religious festival observed in Mexico to commemorate the journey that Mary and Joseph made from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of safe refuge.
In her tradition, everyone visits neighboring houses with the baby Jesus wrapped in a blanket while singing “Las Mañanitas,” the Mexican “Happy Birthday” song. At each home they visit, they kiss the baby and eat a candy. What a sweet ritual.
Sherry, a therapist in our Great Beginnings program, told me that her mother loves buying small presents for each of the grandchildren, even though they are all over 21 and no longer need presents. It’s a great pleasure for her mother to give them, and I’m sure it makes those grandkids feel special, connected and loved.
What struck me about all of these rituals is that they didn’t need to be elaborate, expensive or excessive. Each family simply created something joyful that they can do together.
As we move into the holiday season, I look forward to the rituals we have established in my current family. As an interfaith family, we light Hanukkah candles and play a rousing game of dreidel, and also leave cookies for Santa and open presents under the Christmas tree. It is a special time — filled with love, and magic, and wonder.
I am working to unhook myself from the past, from my own sadness and pain, in order to give my girls joyful family memories that will serve as an anchor for them as they grow up. And, each and every year that goes by, these new traditions help me to heal my own past and create a new future — filled with connection and belonging.
This is the best gift of all.
— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.