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Holiday Traditions, Under Construction

Why our shifting families and evolving rituals can still be cause for celebration.
Holiday Traditions, Under Construction
Image: Gui Seiz / Flickr

When my adult son offered to host Thanksgiving last month, it felt as though a baton was being passed instead of platters of turkey and cranberry relish. For three decades, I’ve been the one to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Now, it was time to hand off the honor to the next generation… at least this year.

We work hard to create and maintain family traditions, especially around the holidays. This season is thick with memory – recalling every gingersnap, stocking, visit of Christmases past – as well as the unvoiced hope that the sweetest of these rituals will always stay the same.

But the truth is, things change. Fewer Americans celebrate the holiday rituals of their childhood, with slipping participation in every tradition mentioned in a 2013 Pew Forum survey. Americans are less likely to do what their families did when they were kids—whether that’s sending Christmas cards, going caroling, putting up a tree, or attending holiday services.

And our families look different than they used to. Families have been stretched into new shapes by divorce, the rise in children born to unwed mothers, same-sex relationships, and cohabitation. Plus, more than 10 percent of Americans relocate in a given year. With changing families—and the unpredictability of our own aging, illness, and death—our holiday gatherings are forced to evolve, if they even take place at all.

Composer Gustav Mahler said, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation ...

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