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No Husband? No Grandkids? No Turkey? No Problem!

How to create new rituals when your holiday traditions change.

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illustration of two female friends hugging each other emerging from a gift box, holidays
Andrea D'Aquino
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I quit Thanksgiving cold turkey in 2007, the year I got divorced. No more hauling out the holiday china, with place settings for 12. No more sweet potato and green bean casseroles. No more tying up an 18-pound Butterball and stuffing it into my Showtime rotisserie.

Same thing with Christmas. I used to do Christmas big — three real trees, each with a different theme. My masterpiece was the 9-foot-tall Victorian tree with cherub ornaments in our living room.

Now those ornaments are in a storage unit somewhere, packed away with my family’s personalized hand-knit Christmas stockings.

I may never see them again. Like my memories, it’s enough to know they’re there.

My family had changed, and my holidays had to change, too. It’s sad, yes, and if I think about it too long, I’ll cue up Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and have myself a messy little cry.

My husband left, my mother died, my kids are grown, my grandkids have other houses to go to, and my boyfriend is Jewish.

If I’ve learned anything in 67 years, it’s this: I can’t wallow in what was. My happiness can’t be tied to how my holidays used to be. Any expectation of a “right way” to do Thanksgiving and Christmas defeats the whole life-giving purpose of those days.

So, I created new rituals to warm the holidays, and I hope these transformative tips help you, too:

First, remember: a holiday is just a day. I used to feel sad at noon on Dec. 25 when my frenzied over-doing was over and done. Now I love Dec. 25 all day long … because I’m usually at a friend’s house, a couple of my kids are nearby, the drinks are flowing — and someone else has done all the work.

The calendar doesn’t decide how I feel. I can choose merriment any day of the year.

When my friend Chanda Torrey married her husband, Paul, they had too many relatives to visit in just one day, so they created their own holiday — “Thanksmas” — in between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They descend on Paul’s family’s house with “a ton of holiday-themed hats. Everyone gets a hat. It adds to the goofiness,” says Chanda, who lives by the motto: if you ever feel down, dress up.

Costumes make everything better. Chanda is a bubbly creator of joy who’s so skilled at making life fun. She even started a company — Gifter World — to help others become more skilled at gift-giving. She became my hero during the COVID-19 quarantine when her husband and her “bonus daughters” — Olivia, now 22, and Angela, 26 — joined her in various wacky games and posted their photos on Facebook.

One classic Chanda game is the “color photo shoot.” They pick a specific color out of a hat — “pink!” — and then run around the house dressing up in that color, even carrying mops in that shade. “We dress head to toe in that color and hold props — then take pictures,” she says. “We laugh so hard, our faces ache for hours. It’s hysterical.”

My family is also a fan of Claus-play. On one of my mother’s last Christmases, my daughter Kate and I dressed her up in a plaid flannel dressing gown and matching hat. Mom stayed in character as “Mrs. Claus” all day, and the photos from that Christmas still crack me up.

Costumes, games, themes — these are tricks that fuel new memories — and help us let go of the past.

Put yourself in a new place. On one of my first Christmas Eves after my divorce, I made an unplanned detour. Instead of pouring myself a lonely shot of Evan Williams Eggnog — which, I admit, is a worthy companion — I went to church, Then I headed to the home of Kathy, the mother of my two stepdaughters. Our four girls — her two and my two — huddled around their two moms, and we talked about loss and love, and our unorthodox but devoted family.

That night remains one of my most cherished Christmas moments.

Practice active acceptance. I value Kathy’s big heart. Our connection is bigger than any disruption caused by divorce. We are all family, no matter the state of matrimony or who makes the mashed potatoes.

We practice what I call “active acceptance” and focus on what joins us, not what divides us. This is a choice and a gift, and I know how extraordinary it is, especially now that Kathy and I share grandchildren.

Carlie Daniels discovered this gift growing up with a Jewish dad and a Catholic mom. Instead of bickering about their different rituals, Carlie’s Italian-Catholic “Nonna”, Gloria, and her Jewish “Grandma”, Rosalie, became friends, and the entire clan shared both the Jewish holiday traditions and the Christian ones.

“My parents raised us with an appreciation of our family as a whole,” says Carlie, who is co-rabbi with her husband, Ryan, at Temple Israel in West Palm Beach.

“We’ve seen what real acceptance looks like, rather than 'this is mine and this is yours',” Ryan adds.

Give your love away. Thanksgiving and Christmas are now our creation celebrations. This year, three of my girls and I will spend Christmas in Colorado, where two cherished friends — Vince and Bob, who my daughters call their “guncles” (for “gay uncles”) — fill monogrammed stockings for each of us. Nothing under the tree is as important as who’s around it.

“When you’re feeling sad, or you’re feeling lonely, remember that you have the ultimate gift to give: your friendship and love,” my pal Chanda says. “Reach out to a friend and say, 'Let’s get together’.”

You get bonus points if you bring funny hats.

How have YOUR holiday traditions changed in recent years? Let us know in the comments below.

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