Reclaiming Holidays and Creating New Traditions

A Victorian looking red-brick house is nestled in snow and trees.Holiday traditions can be excruciatingly difficult for individuals who have experienced traumatic events, yet finding a way to decrease this difficulty is often a neglected topic. Many individuals take a “grin and bear it” attitude, and argue that the holiday season only comes once a year. While the final months of a calendar year do have a large helping of holidays, holidays occur throughout the year; birthdays and seemingly minor holidays can sometimes be harder than the big ones.

One way of dealing with these triggers would be to turn your back on all holidays and disengage from any such celebrations. Unfortunately, this approach does not work since you cannot navigate society without stumbling upon reminders of certain festive days and, more importantly, you rob yourself of the benefits that holidays bring.

Holidays mark time; they root us in a time and place, as well as in a community. For example, where I grew up one would never think of decorating one’s home with pink, red, or white lights for Valentine’s day, but a friend of mine, from a different part of the US, states that this is a regular part of her community’s Valentine’s day celebration. Not only are holidays a type of root system, but they also provide continuity between the past, the now, and the future. Your current and future celebrations build on pieces of your personal past, your family’s past, the past of your faith system(s), the past of your culture, and the ancient days of your ancestors.

If there is no history of pain or abuse linked with a holiday tradition, then the anchoring function of a holiday can be a positive cornerstone in your life. But, if there is a legacy, or onetime occurrence, of significant pain or mistreatment on, around, or near a holiday, then the holiday’s traditions, the holiday itself, or any mention/reminder of the holiday can take on the hue of mistreatment. It is as if the negativity of your experience becomes super-glued to the holiday.

Breaking the link between your mistreatment and the holiday is clearly a worthy, though difficult, task. There are a few ideas to help you with this. Before looking at these ideas, it is important to state that they are most appropriate if the mistreatment has ended and you are not required to interact with the individuals who mistreated you. If the mistreatment has not ended, or you interact with people who are linked to the mistreatment, then you might want to consider carving out a bit of time that is either separate from the actual holiday or separate from the unsafe/formerly unsafe individuals. In other words, explore these ideas in a safe environment as well as with safe people, so that you can grow and flourish.

The first idea is to recognize—in a detailed and convincing manner—that the holiday or a specific tradition is holding emotions, memories, or components of the mistreatment. And that, due to your life experiences, the holiday is no longer holding a unique and separate meaning from the trauma.

Following this recognition, grant yourself permission to separate the two. Remind yourself that you are actively healing and growing through the mistreatment, and that the mistreatment came from a person/people, not from the essence of a holiday. This mindset helps pull the mistreatment out of the holiday, but it is also important to pull the holiday out of the mistreatment—to focus on reclaiming your right to participate in the festivities of the seasons.

This notion of reclaiming the holiday, as a holiday, will require changing some thoughts, emotions, and actions. Don’t forget the actions. It is the actions that distinguish holidays from our ordinary days. A few ideas for reclaiming the activities of a holiday are:

  • Picking a piece of the holiday tradition that isn’t tainted and extending or magnifying this component
  • Using the untainted component as a launching pad for new traditions
  • Creating traditions that have nothing to do with the traditions you link with the mistreatment, but have everything to do with your understanding of the holiday

Creating your own understanding of the holiday is possibly the most healing idea. While culture, faith communities, and societies collectively define the meaning of specific holidays, never forget that you can create your own alternate or complementary meaning. For example, American culture suggests that the meaning of Mother’s Day is to appreciate and thank your actual mother, but maybe your mother was not a healthy person for you. In this case, grant yourself permission to unearth your meaning of Mother’s Day. Maybe you determine that the ability to nurture is a trait you believe Mother’s Day captures, and so you decide to appreciate and thank the people in your life that nurture you, or maybe you decide to spend Mother’s Day nurturing others. Keep in mind that the point here is not to heal the wounds linked to your mother, but to enable you to recapture the Mother’s Day holiday.

Any one of these steps may require a lot of dedicated emotional work and may take time—it is okay if you are grappling with Thanksgiving in the middle of March. Never feel hesitant to reach out to a trained professional who can guide you through these steps and help you capture the essence of a holiday, as defined by you.

© Copyright 2011 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Connie

    Connie

    December 29th, 2011 at 1:48 PM

    Focus on the good to erase the bad!

  • Elise

    Elise

    December 30th, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    Had a horrible incident at home years ago during the holidays. Needless to say, the next holiday season was all gloomy. The gloomy feeling declined later on but I cannot even imagine how someone who underwent a major loss (like death of a family member) during a celebration would deal with it.

  • maya g

    maya g

    December 31st, 2011 at 9:35 AM

    I reclaimed my holiday this year.
    I just told everyone that I was tired of the stressors that going home brought on, so I was staying at my own home this year!
    Yes at first that did not go over too well, but you know what? I sure was a whole lot happier this year at both Thanksgiving and Christmas than I have been in years!
    There were some people that I missed seeing but overall it was great. Think that I have found my new tradition!

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