I love Hallmark Christmas movies. It drives my family crazy, but each year on the last weekend of October, my television is tuned to Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas through the end of the year. And if I am unable to view a premier, I record it to watch later. I have a checklist, a system, so I don’t miss any of the new shows.
One of this year’s movies I had to record for later was Two Turtle Doves, a film about continuing treasured holiday traditions in the midst of grief and loss. I’m going to be frank: it hit a little too close to home.
Now, initially when volunteering to write about holiday traditions, I was planning on providing a generic list of family-fun ideas to consider. However, after watching this movie, I immediately decided this piece deserved much more than a list.
Holiday traditions are a fundamental part of how each of us celebrates the season. There’s a reason we keep going back to our own special traditions each year: they add meaning to our get-togethers and help us connect with those we love. Traditions become a part of our identity. They connect us to generations past and keep memories alive for generations to come.
Traditions add meaning to our get-togethers and help us connect with those we love. Traditions become a part of our identity. They connect us to generations past and keep memories alive for generations to come.
Family traditions are great during the holidays, but what happens when your family dynamic changes? What happens when you lose certain family members who were integral components to these traditions, or if you lose your family altogether?
Most families have holiday traditions they look forward to each year. In my family, it’s a tradition to get all of the children a new tree ornament (from, where else, Hallmark). We also have traditional recipes we make, some dating as far back as my great-great grandparents. We always attend a Christmas Eve candlelit service. We pick a night to go out for Gambino’s Pizza and drive around and look at Christmas lights. We get sucked into marathons of Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story. But my favorite tradition is playing our late-night game of Hearts around the kitchen table on Christmas night. Growing up, having all of my family together around that table was my favorite thing about Christmas—OK, it still is.
But, as the years went on, the time spent with family members slowly dwindled. My brother and his wife moved out of state. Three of my four grandparents passed away. Then, I lost my mom. The only people still left were my family of six, my dad, and my uncle—really, it was like eating dinner with my immediate family and having two extra people at the table. There was no house full of guests. There was no huge feast. There was no distinction from any other family dinner, other than the Christmas tree parked in the living room.
The dynamic of our family get-togethers changed to a point where I desperately tried to cling to any tradition I still could, but I felt like there was no one remaining who understood the special-ness and nostalgia that were now missing. It was like we were just going through the motions the best we could. I found myself aching for the Christmases of my childhood and fearful that I would never again experience the holidays the same way. It became a time of severe growing pains.
But after watching Two Turtle Doves, I am entering this holiday season encouraged to try again. This will be my fifth Christmas without my mom, but there is a new place setting at the table: my dad’s fiancée. As much as I fought the idea at first of my dad remarrying, I am now looking forward to incorporating her into our traditions and showing her why they’re so important to us. I’m also looking forward to incorporating some of her holiday traditions, as well.
One commonality the two of us share is a grief story. Another is that we both want to continue to honor our lost loved ones during the holidays. But that’s the thing: we all have stories of loss, we all carry some sort of grief with us during the holidays—whether it’s because of death, distance, broken families, or lost friendships. The holidays have a sneaky way of reminding us about our sadness, even in the midst of our joy.
It’s never fun to talk about grief and loss, especially during a season that is supposed to center around joy and hope. But, if we can’t also acknowledge that the holidays can also be a time of hurt and sorrow for people, we are doing a huge disservice to those we love. We have to find a way to honor both ends of the spectrum in the traditions in which we choose to participate.
For me and my family, that means opening up our home to a smaller amount of people, but still making those same recipes we love each year, even if it means leftovers for weeks. It means honoring my mom with the continuation of the tree ornaments, but also allowing my dad’s fiancée to participate. It means allowing her to show us things that are special to her, perhaps finding a new favorite tradition we all can enjoy together. It means slowly filling up the Hearts table again.
It also means extending grace and love to those without family or friends nearby. I know this time of year has not been joyful for some people for a long time, maybe ever. To those people, I offer a place at my table. You don’t even have to know how to play cards, you just have to show up hungry.
Traditions nurture our souls and are an important part of a feeling of community, of love. It’s important to remember those we have lost and practice traditions from our past, but it’s also beneficial to invite new people into our circles and consider different traditions that reflect who we’ve grown to be.
We all deserve that feeling of community, of belonging; the experience of love shared with others. We all deserve traditions during the holidays.
For more articles on relationship advice and the holiday season, check out:
What Your Grieving Friend Really Wants You to Know
10 Life Lessons From Christmas Classics
Why We Never Have to Be Home Alone at Christmas Again
Ask Dr. Zoe – Family Pressure During the Holidays
Being a Child of Divorce – at the Holidays
To the Person Grieving This Holiday Season
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