Motherly Collective

Some of you, like me, grew up in a family that did not celebrate many of the traditional American holidays. I remember a whole spectrum of feelings and experiences every fall and winter as “the holiday season” marched from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s. Envy at the easy familiarity and comfort of my friends’ family traditions.

A certain loneliness when surrounded by public, shared expressions of holiday cheer that didn’t have a special meaning for me or my family. Furtive glances around to share a secret look with someone (anyone?) else also trying to balance awe and respect for the pageantry with confusion about how to make my own meaning out of yet another unfamiliar holiday experience. 

Related: 3 simple steps to make setting boundaries easy this holiday season

If you grew up in any minority culture, some aspects of this experience may be familiar to you. As we become parents, helping our children navigate these experiences takes on a certain weight. We know that they will have to struggle to find their own meaning while we still want to help make things better for them than it was for us.

An important part of my job as a child psychiatrist and the Chief Clinical Officer at Hopscotch (and a dad of two young daughters) is to help families navigate untraditional versions of the holidays. Here are some of the strategies that have been helpful: 

How to navigate nontraditional holidays

1. It’s OK to feel differently during the holidays

It’s important to recognize that it’s OK to have mixed feelings about the holidays. It’s OK not feel cheerful or festive during the holidays that were not part of your family traditions. Or conversely, to feel homesick or nostalgic for holiday celebrations important in your culture that are not necessarily celebrated by the majority where you live. Consider spending time with other families who may more intuitively understand your experience. Normalize this confusing range of emotions and experiences for your children, but also help them understand the importance of curiosity and respect for others’ holiday traditions.

We still need to be prepared to make some decisions as parents, though. How do you want to address others’ holiday greetings? Children especially may need concrete coaching about exactly what to say. “If someone says Merry Christmas to you and you don’t feel comfortable saying that back, you can just say Happy Holidays.”

Other common challenges for parents arise around whether you will participate in your community’s traditional holiday, or whether there is a holiday important to your culture around the same time you could celebrate. Be prepared for children to struggle with feeling left out and plan other positive family activities to help them feel connected and supported. For example, you could host a feast representative of your family’s culture and have the children call relatives and ask for funny family stories to share with everyone. 

Related: 10 phrases to help kids cope with holiday disappointment this year

2. Figure out what you want the holiday season to really be about

Sometimes it can be helpful to think through what a particular holiday is really about. What is actually special about Christmas? Beyond an opportunity for our nation’s retailers to make up half their annual sales, it’s about reconnecting with family and community, passing on our spiritual and cultural traditions and reminding ourselves to be kind to others around us.

Now, how do those ideas align with your family and cultural values? Does it make sense for your child and family to connect with those ideas and the celebration going on around them? Let them put up some lights or a tree!

Related: How I am teaching my children about the seven principles of Kwanzaa

Would you prefer to sit this holiday celebration out completely? Have your own special family dinner or a family movie night.

Or do you want to transfer these ideas to a completely separate holiday celebration that’s more central to your culture? Find a holiday tradition in your culture that resonates with you and your children and celebrate it in a meaningful way at a different time.

Sometimes we can also appreciate what a traditional holiday is about, but want to have a different focus for our children. Think deeply about what’s important for your family to experience during the holiday season. Our providers at Hopscotch help a lot of families with this process of identifying meaningful family experiences around the holidays.

Perhaps you want to connect with extended family across generations. Craft a special celebration that allows your extended family to share important family memories or traditions with your children. Or maybe you want to focus on giving back to your community. Organize a day of service and invite like-minded families to join you in helping the underserved or vulnerable.

3. Position your family’s holiday stance as a superpower

Role modeling creativity and effortful meaning-making around the holidays can show your children how to adapt to many new social situations. Don’t like watching football on Thanksgiving? Create a new tradition: Pick a special movie for your family to watch on Thanksgiving instead. Not sure about caroling around Christmas? Celebrate music from your culture instead, helping your children understand what the music is about.

Feeling isolated or disoriented by all the holiday lights and displays in a new community? Ask your kids to help you decorate your home with colors, art or important family items that are centered in your culture. Your adaptiveness and thoughtfulness can teach your children they can define their own joyful experiences, no matter the cultural or holiday context around them. 

With a little attention to your emotional experience of majority-culture holidays, you can model for your kids and family how to navigate our multicultural world in a way that adapts and celebrates and is meaningful to you.

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