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  • Writer's pictureEm

Creating New Traditions for the Holidays After Estrangement

Entering this time of year can bring up a lot for those estranged from their families. Thanksgiving is this month, and if you’re anything like me, it starts to feel like a countdown to all the big holidays and the uncertainty and loneliness that comes with it. Holidays have always felt hard for me and I always dreaded them and the exhaustion that came with them. In my past, it was for reasons of feeling like I had to force happiness, spend time with family when they always made me feel bad, and a decline in my mental health. It felt like a marathon of how much familial abuse I could take and how good I could hide that I was suffering.

Fall leaves in a field

Now holidays have evolved and they are hard for other reasons. It is a time of grief and remembering hard times. Last year I pushed myself too far and showed up to events that I didn’t have the capacity for. But holidays now are also an opportunity for positive memories, creating better relationships, celebrating what I have now, and creating new traditions. Without having immediate or distant family to spend holidays with, I am in the process of creating new traditions for how I want to spend holidays.

So how does one create new traditions? I am in the process of figuring that out now, but I thought we could explore it together.

As the holiday season approaches, whether you celebrate or not, people start talking about travel plans to see family, what gifts they are going to give to their parents, and even advertisements and media start focusing on family bonds for the holidays. It can be a lot to handle as it seems like a general increase of the messages of “family comes first” and “it’s the time to cherish family” from society. I’ve already found myself in conversations about plans for holidays, so it’s made me realize it might be time to think about how I want to spend my holiday season.

It might be the ongoing mix of creating new memories and also letting myself be sad. Providing space for both. But, this year I want to start exploring creating new traditions.

I’ve come up with a list of questions to help us brainstorm:

  1. What past traditions did you enjoy and want to reclaim?

  2. What past traditions did you not enjoy and want to retire?

  3. Who do you feel good spending time with?

  4. What aspects of the holidays fill you with anxiety?

  5. What aspects of the holidays make you feel good?

  6. What self care routines can you focus on this time of year?

  7. What things are important for you to focus on while you navigate this time (staying true to yourself, setting clear boundaries and sticking to them, getting enough rest, sharing your story to those around you, etc).

  8. What community do you want to focus on? Do I want to do something to spread good to others?

This year I want to find things that I can make into a tradition for myself. Every year, with my sister, we’d make cinnamon rolls on Thanksgiving morning. I think I’ll continue that and maybe include one of my friends in the process. This year, a couple of my friends aren't visiting their families for Thanksgiving, so we are going to make dinner together and spend the day together. Doing something simple with people I enjoy feels like the perfect, low pressure, holiday I need.

I get anxiety from being around people all the time during the holidays and feeling pressure to perform and appear happy. So, this year I think I’ll set aside time to be by myself and let myself be sad if I need it. And, maybe, I won’t host the dinner so I’ll have the option to leave if I need to.

Cooking with herbs and fall ingredients

Maybe I’ll find some new recipes to cook this time of year that will make me feel comforted and enjoy the tastes of fall and winter. I’ll go on walks now that it's getting cooler outside and enjoy the changing foliage, taking time to appreciate and be in nature. These are simple acts of self care that I think I can commit to.

Holidays are also a time to focus on community and spreading joy. So I think about what actions I can take that will be for that purpose. In my city, there is a protest march that happens each Black Friday in support of the Ohlone indigenous people. It is to spread awareness of the indigenous people in my area and how their land has been taken and sacred places have been destroyed by building a shopping mall on top of them. This is important for me to take part in, as I am able to help a meaningful movement. It makes me feel like I can bring a purpose to the holiday when I don't agree with what the holiday celebrates. Maybe you can find an event to take part in too.

I think as I continue to navigate estranged life, I find I have to keep learning about how to listen to my body and mind to know when I’ve had enough socialization, when I haven’t had enough rest, or when I’m in a situation that is triggering or increases my PTSD symptoms. This time of year, I tend to have a harder time with these things, so, for me, it feels like a good action step to build new traditions.

So, I’ll bake some cinnamon rolls, cook my favorite meals, go on that autumn walk in the woods, and maybe more traditions will arise organically as I build relationships with my chosen family. I think I’ll take a break from watching the parade and going to big family-oriented events (even if it’s not my family). That’s where I am at, and that’s okay.

hiking shoes of a person walking across a log in the forest

And for Christmas, I’ll have to do some preparation too. Maybe I’ll go ice skating with my friends like I used to do with my family. Maybe I’ll still make Christmas cookies, but maybe this time I’ll make them for my friends. Maybe I’ll go to my coworker’s house as she invited me to join her and her family for Christmas, or instead, maybe I’ll spend the day inside drawing or watching my favorite shows.

There’s no perfect way to celebrate the holidays or navigate this time of year, but there are ways we can put the focus on how we can make ourselves happier and take care of ourselves. So whether you have your own family now, your chosen family, are new to building your support system, or don’t have many people to reach out to at this time of year, know you are not alone. Loneliness is actually a common feeling during the holidays, even if people don’t say so or don’t show it on their social media posts. The National Alliance for Mental Illness even cites “extra stress, unrealistic expectations, [and] sentimental memories that accompany the season” are sources of loneliness during the holidays for everyone. So this year, I am going to try and make realistic expectations for myself and what I can handle. Maybe that will be my new tradition.


~ I want to acknowledge that Thanksgiving is a problematic holiday with its base in colonialism, genocide, and the harsh mistreatment of indigenous peoples. It is important to hold space for this truth while you celebrate this holiday.


Article by Em, Together Estranged Newsletter Coordinator

***Disclaimer: Em is not a certified mental health professional. This article is written as peer-to-peer support for the Together Estranged Community. If you are having a psychiatric emergency, please seek professional help.


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