It's ok to take a year off.

By Stacey Ballis
December 05, 2019
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Traditions are wonderful. Having celebrations to count on year after year, to look forward to, sometimes are the very things that can tether us to joy in times of adversity. Knowing that whatever else happens, my friend Doug is going to have his annual holiday party and there will be ham, and turkey tonnato, and spicy peanut noodles and good friends and generous drinks gets me mostly through whatever else December may throw at me.

But taking on an “annual” anything can also be a burden. Because like it or not, it creates expectations and that can lead to disappointment. If and when the tradition ends, there are always people who were included who feel let down by its absence. I am as guilty of this as the next person. For many, many years my bonus brother brought me to all of his family holiday gatherings. As a Jew, I suddenly had Christmas and Easter celebrations to attend, and his family became an exuberant extension of my own. By the time I brought my husband into the fold, I had bonus aunts and uncles and cousins, many of whom had literally forgotten we weren’t actually related by blood. So, when all of the generation that hosted these grand gatherings decamped in retirement to warmer climes, and the second generation decided it was easier to just do something small on their own or to stick with the in-laws for the holidays, I suddenly found myself bereft of Christmas and Easter and Second Thanksgiving in one fell swoop.

Traditions aren't set in stone, though. They're subject to change, as is everything, and that's ultimately a great thing. Doing something just because you always have can be stressful and demanding, and suck all the joy out of the proceedings. A dear friend used to host an epic annual party that got bigger and bigger every year, to the point that it stopped being fun or affordable to host. There was no way to cut back, no way to start asking folks to BYO, she felt in many ways trapped by the event, and instead of looking forward to it, she started to dread it. It took a perfect storm of some personal issues and work travel to require the cancelling of it one year, and then she just never did it again.

There is something so generous about the impulse to start an annual tradition. The last thing you want is for it to become a burden. If you are thinking about it, some recommendations: Every other year is still tradition but gives you some breathing room. Starting it as a potluck or at least an event with audience participation allows it to grow and expand without becoming an undue financial burden. Limiting it to a small select group is also a way to keep the reins tight. Making it an annual event but not necessarily on a specific day can also be helpful if it is not directly tied to the calendar. Even just hosting it the same month can be a good way to keep things flexible.

And finally, not every tradition needs to be forever. Don’t ever hesitate to take a year (or five) off, or to have one last one and acknowledge clearly that it is the last. Or to offer it up to someone else to take it over as host. The moment it stops being something you look forward to as much as your guests, or the moment life changes require that it shift or go away, that is okay too. You are allowed to put the brakes on a tradition, no matter if it is two years old or twenty. The fifteen years I spent my “ham” holidays with my extra family were amazing and a gift and I cherish those memories. The fact that everyone has moved on doesn’t diminish that, and some new traditions have emerged in their place.

I’ve made a strong return to a Jewish Christmas of movies and Chinese food, and we’ve pulled in some friends and family to share that day with us. We cozy up in front of the TV in our loungy clothes and watch something classic and funny and then go out for egg rolls and fried rice and fortune cookies. It is a lovely new tradition, and we are looking forward to celebrating again this year.

Although, if we ever get a call that our bonus family is gathering around a ham and we are invited? We’re gonna ditch the new tradition as quick as you can say Aunt Karen’s Rainbow Jello. It’s our prerogative. Our pals will get over it.

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