Even at a distance, your family can preserve cherished traditions - and create meaningful new ones

Jonathan Hill illustration


he pandemic has upended a lot of the routines that are embedded in our lives. Its impact is particularly apparent during this time of year. Family get-togethers are normally such a fixture of the season, and yet, as a way of avoiding risk to themselves as well as those close to them, many households have opted not to host their usual large holiday meal or decided to forgo the annual trip to see distant relatives.

From a psychological standpoint, suspending those traditions can be a difficult thing to do.

"As humans, we're just wired for repetition and for wanting to repeat things that bring us joy," says Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day. "These rituals are our beliefs and our values translated into action. By doing them, you are preserving those memories and building on them at the same time."

Furthermore, long-standing traditions actually take on more significance when we find ourselves in unsettling circumstances. They serve as a familiar, reassuring constant that helps keep us grounded when everything else seems like it's up in the air.

"It's all very powerful, primal stuff," says Cox. "And it's good to have that as a kind of anchor — to know that, by hanging on to these words, this event or this recipe, our family still matters."

Long before COVID-19 hit, Kierste Wade was faced with the challenge of maintaining cherished traditions and family connections across geographical distances. Originally from southern Utah, Wade now lives in rural upstate New York, where she blogs about her homebuilding and home decorating experiences at OldSaltFarm.com.

"We don't get to see our family very often, even during the holidays. I have six kids, and it can be difficult to travel," she says. "So we've learned how to do some of those traditions from far away. It's definitely possible. And at this time, it's even more imperative that we make the effort to either create new traditions or figure out ways to still do the traditions that we already have to keep those connections alive."

"Capitalize on technology," says tradition expert Kierste Wade, to foster family connections until it's safe again to gather in person.
"Capitalize on technology," says tradition expert Kierste Wade, to foster family connections until it's safe again to gather in person.

To maintain the in-person traditions of the past, Wade recommends trying to "capitalize on technology." That includes using apps like Zoom and FaceTime that have become so vital in the age of social distancing. It could be something as straightforward as opening gifts or sitting down for a meal together while virtually linked through your tablet or smartphone. Or you might go for a driving tour of local holiday light displays and share the video, whether live or recorded, with members of your family.

But long-distance connections certainly don't have to be high-tech. Cox fondly recalls a ritual practiced by a family she interviewed more than 20 years ago for her book The Heart of a Family: Searching America for New Traditions That Fulfill Us.

"This family was scattered all over the place. And they had this great practice that they did a day or two before Thanksgiving every year, where they would all bake the same pie at the same time, and it was a recipe from Grandma Betty. Then Grandma Betty would pick up the phone and call and talk to every single grandchild while this pie baking was going on."

Sharing History, Enriching Tradition

Instead of reading from a book, take turns telling your favorite personal stories.

Make a family documentary by "interviewing" relatives.

Cook a relative's signature dish or a traditional recipe that celebrates your family's culture.

Set time aside to browse old family photos together.

Have each family member share a song that they enjoy or that brings back fond memories.

Ask older relatives — even by phone or video chat — what life was like growing up.

Turn genealogy into a fun family project by creating a collaborative family tree.

Beyond preserving traditions, there's a lot of fun and inventiveness to be found in establishing new ones. Many years ago, Cox started a New Year practice of having her family write down the best and worst things of the past twelve months — their most positive memory, for instance, or the worst movie they saw. At Thanksgiving, she does a similar gratitude exercise with construction paper leaves that are affixed to a centerpiece called the Thankful Tree.

"That's the kind of thing where, if you do Zoom with different branches of the family, you can read out what's on your leaves and share those things. And you can look back on these things later and see what mattered. They become a narrative of the history of the family," she says.

"Every single tradition had to start somewhere," adds Wade, which is why she advocates for balancing the old with the new. Her own book, Simply Tradition: 70 Fun and Easy Holiday Ideas for Families, was designed to provide inspiration to those intentionally looking to build upon their family's more established customs and celebrations.

"A lot of our traditions have actually happened rather organically but also by having a conversation about it. What can we do to connect? What are our favorite things to do and our common interests? They don't have to be fancy. It can be as simple as having a game night. What it really comes down to is spending time together."

50th Odessa Deutschesfest @ Odessa

Sat., Sept. 18, 7-1 a.m. and Sun., Sept. 19, 7 a.m.-2 p.m.
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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.