We Always...Wrestling with Holiday Traditions



In his book A Simple Christmas, Mike Huckabee writes: “Why do we do the same things the same way at the same time with the same people? From the food we eat…to the way we exchange gifts…traditions are as much a part of what makes Christmas special as the meaning behind it. Traditions give us comfort, familiarity and a sense of well-being. We keep them because they reassure us that, no matter how crazy our lives become and how many things change, there are some things that anchor us to who we are…We establish traditions to give us connections to our past and a sense of security about the uncertainties of our future.” (Page 73)


Traditions are a great part of holiday joy, but when our loved one always participated a certain way and he or she is no longer with us, we are anchored and secure no more. We wrestle with the question: What do we do now?

Perhaps you have always had a home-cooked family dinner. This year you can make reservations and go to a restaurant. The essence of the tradition, the family gathering, is still there, but the setting has changed for this year. Next year you can decide again.

My family always had Thanksgiving at my sister’s house. On the first Thanksgiving following Mom's death, it was too painful because Mom was in attendance the year before. So, we had Thanksgiving at my house, 125 miles away, for the first time ever. Mom never attended the actual holiday in my home.

Serving her favorite foods in different surroundings was good for us because we combined the old traditions of food with a brand new setting. Of course, there was a sad vacancy at our table, but it wasn’t as profound as if we had spent the day at a place so filled with her memory.

Every Sunday during November, the traditional month to honor the dead, I set one place at the table in memory of loved ones who have died. My husband and I share favorite stories. The custom may seem odd to some but setting aside a specific time to recall the past comforts us. Consider if this ritual of remembrance will help you.


You might also combine rites of mourning with your traditional seasonal activities:

Place evergreens on the grave the day of your family celebration, or Christmas morning. Be creative on your visit. Read a passage from the Christmas story, sing a carol, cry if you want to, reminisce about holidays spent together, or simply share the silence with love.

If your place of worship decorates the altar for the season, buy a poinsettia in your loved one's memory.

Spend some time looking at past holiday photos that show your loved one enjoying the festivities. At first, this may be too painful, but over time, photos and the moments that they capture can provide great comfort.

Set up a favorite picture with a few holiday greens around it. If others in your family do not find this comforting, or you do not wish to share, you can place the display in a less obvious location of your home. You will know it's there.

Talk out loud to your deceased loved one. Tell them of your holiday plans and how much you miss them. I have found this oddly comforting. Sometimes I am filled with warmth and love when I talk to my mother and she feels very near. Other times not much happens but I feel better anyway.

Set a place at your holiday table for the loved one who is no longer with you. Before the meal, ask each member of your family to share a favorite holiday memory of the one who has died.

If you have a Christmas tree this year consider buying a live tree that you can plant in your loved one's memory after the holidays are over. Take comfort in the knowledge that evergreens are everlasting.

Buy a remembrance Christmas ornament and have it engraved with your loved one’s name. Hallmark has some beautiful angels that come with lovely poetry. Give them as gifts to family and friends who loved him/her, too.

Better yet, create your own ornament that symbolizes the dear one who has died. You may find hollow, clear ornaments in craft stores that can be filled with symbols of the life of your loved one. My mother loved redbirds, as she called them, so a cardinal ornament was a natural choice for me.

Make the creation of special ornaments a family event, if appropriate. Include children. Gather everyone around the tree and let each person explain the significance of the ornament before hanging it. Sing your loved one's favorite carol.

Invite the gift of memory. If you are having family or close friends over, place a basket with writing paper, or a scrapbook, near the door. Ask your guests to write down a favorite holiday memory of your loved one. You can either read them for all to hear or save the basket of written memories for a private time. Or, call in advance and ask your guests to write down a favorite holiday memory to bring with them. Place the recollections in a basket when they arrive. Make a beautiful memory book out of it later. Include favorite holiday photos of your loved one. Computers have changed the way we write, communicate and save memories. Use your imagination. 

Consider giving items that belonged to your loved one as special Christmas presents, but be careful with this one. You want the recipient to treasure your precious gift. Make your gift list with care and do not give away items that belonged to your loved one until you are ready.

Dad owned a beautiful railroad pocket watch and chain that had been in the family for about 100 years. He kept it in perfect working order. After Dad died, my sister and I gave the watch to his great-nephew who works for the railroad. The pocket watch remains among our cousin's most prized possessions, but it took several months before we were ready to give away our father's precious heirloom.

If your loved one always carried out a certain holiday tradition, such as reading a favorite story on Christmas Eve, do so this year in his or her memory.

Acknowledge, too, that some traditions may be so precious, and unique to your loved one, that you do not wish to continue them after his or her death.

Every year my mother gave Christmas stockings to my sister and me, even into adulthood. The items were small but useful—toothpaste, paper clips, socks, post-it notes, pens, and the like. I received mine in the mail and she always marked it “From Santa.” Then sometime during the next year, I would return the stocking to her, tell her to thank Santa for me and she would load it with treasures again the following December.

The year after Mom died, my husband offered to fill the empty Christmas stocking for me. I thanked him for his thoughtfulness and said no. Some people might take comfort in maintaining the tradition. I do not. This one belonged to only my mother.

Give to your loved one's favorite charity in his or her memory.

It is common in grief to lack the energy or desire for Christmas shopping. If this is true for you, but you would still like to do something for others, consider charitable giving
. With so many charities to choose from, both home and abroad, there is sure to be an appropriate charity for everyone on your gift list. Ask your friends and family to do the same for you.

Purchase a wreath to place upon a veteran's grave. Learn more at WreathsAcrossAmerica.org. Their mission is to Remember, Honor and Teach. Or, you can order the Patriot Pair: one to give and one to place on a veteran's grave. Worcester Wreath is the company that, until 2009, made all the balsam wreaths for LL Bean. The wreaths are beautiful and full. I purchased wreaths for Arlington National Cemetery in memory of my father, a World War II veteran. I created postcards on Print Shop announcing that for every wreath I gave, one would also grace the final resting place of a veteran during the holiday season. I mailed the postcards to all those on my list, and judging from their comments, they most appreciated the meaning associated with the gift.


For peace of mind before you give to charity, please visit:

BBB Wise Giving Alliance: Check Out a Charity

Charity Navigator: America's Largest Independent Charity Evaluator

Donate a children's holiday book to the public library in memory of your loved one.

My mother was a librarian and was often in charge of the children's story hour. After her death, the school where my sister was principal donated a reading chair for story hour to the library in my mother's memory. It was a beautiful wooden rocking chair, her favorite, engraved with a gold name plate. It was a thoughtful gesture. The point is, with some loving reflection, you can do something lasting to commemorate your loved one's life and perhaps beautify an area or help others in the process.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, give sorrow words because the grief that does not speak will break your heart. Write a holiday letter to the dear one who has died or keep a holiday diary. Writing can help you safely express all the complex emotions you have surrounding the season and the absence of your loved one.

You can write the holiday letter or diary any time, but you might want to make a ceremony out of it by writing it on Christmas Eve and burning it in your fireplace, or in a fireproof container, on New Year's Day. Or, perhaps you will want to read it at the graveside and keep it forever. To learn more about grief and writing, please visit Focused Expressive Writing.

Let the ideas on this page help you generate your own sacred observances. It bears repeating: Grief rituals are deeply personal. Your heart will let you know what you need, or don't need, in order to grieve. The word inspiration comes from the Latin word inspirare meaning into breath or in spirit. Stay open to inspiration and please follow your grieving heart.

The deaths of both my parents and my best friend threw me into a club that I didn't want to join. I didn't want to be a griever. I was fortunate, however, because my mother loved Christmas. She did everything possible to make the season special for my sister and me despite the fact her own mother had died on December 22. When I was little, I would see Mom quietly cry in late December and I did not understand the reason why. Now I know.

The Christmas season was bittersweet for her, yet she continued living her life well and brought joy to others in the process. Regardless of my sadness, I sense my mother would want me to look for beauty and love in the season wherever I can find it; and yes, miss her a little, too.

From Healing After Loss by Martha Whitmore Hickman, December 23 entry:

At this season of the year—so filled with memories, and for most people, family occasions—sometimes our grief seems all but unbearable. And grief is often especially sharp around holiday occasions.

But after awhile we begin to savor the recall of those gathered times when we were all together, when the tenor of the days was festive and mutually cherishing. If our loved one had a particular role in the rituals of the season, we who take over that role may feel a special bond with the one who is gone.

So memory nourishes the heart, eases the sharp edges of grief, and whether or not we speak of it to each other…gathers us as one family in the great human stream of life.

In my memory I can live with my loved one again, and be glad.

Go to next page: Finding Comfort in Unexpected Places


April 2019


Why can’t I find a page or link that used to be here?

Over the last eleven years, The Grieving Heart® meandered into many topics and lost its purpose. I have deleted 40 pages to bring it back to the original focus of grief and helping grievers.

Web addresses come and go and I cannot guarantee the accuracy, safety or longevity of third-party (external) sites. Adding links by request, or finding and fixing broken links are massive time consumers, so I have deleted many outside sources and will limit additions in the future. The external links that remain are checked on a regular basis and related to grief, helping grievers and pet loss. 

I will continue to honor and remember veterans and fallen soldiers because it is the least I can do for those who have given so much.

I hope that my renewed attention to grief information will make The Grieving Heart® a better experience and comfort for you. Thank you for visiting. CJ



 My E-mail:

Christine at The Grieving Heart dot info 

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How complicated and individual mending is,
the time required for healing
cannot be measured against any fixed calendar
Mary Jane Moffat
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