Mental Health and the Holidays

Every time I hear the word “tradition” I’m taken back to a song with the same title from Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye, his family members, and the town folk all recite their roles in the song. It is insinuated that each role keeps the balance in the system, or the status quo. Traditions are a big influence on the way families function. Ask any elementary school child what traditions they have, and they will most likely reply with all the fun experiences of their family Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. Each of these traditions is full of rituals, routines, and procedures. I wonder if we, especially during the holiday season, consider how traditions affect our mental health. Everyone knows that the holidays can be stressful and full of triggers that can reveal even the most disciplined hulk-like parts of our personalities. I want to explore, with you, the power of traditions and how we can utilize the best parts and discard the worst, so our mental health is strengthened instead of weakened.

The Good

One of my favorite articles ever written on traditions is found on a website called The Art of Manliness ( ). The article addresses how traditions establish a positive family culture:

  1. Traditions provide a source of family continuity and identity.

  2. They strengthen family bonds.

  3. Create comfort and security.

  4. Teach values

  5. Add rhythm and seasonality of life.

  6. Pass on cultural and religious heritage.

  7. Connect generations.

  8. Create Family Memories

Using family traditions as a way to connect with others can be an important tool for strengthening our mental health. Mental illness and isolation are related, according to Hara Estroff Marano. She stated, “…we are built for social contact. There are serious life-threatening consequences when we don't get enough. We can't stay on track mentally. And we are compromised physically…” ( ) . Think about all the feel-good movies on TV during the holidays. They are generally about a family or individual who overcomes isolation and finds connection. Connecting means interacting on many levels by sharing interests, listening, talking, working, laughing or playing together. It is saying “I see you” and “you are important to me.”  

The Bad

Sometimes family rituals can be used as a means of control or coercion. There can be lot of shame attached to our expectations of what we think our families “should” be doing. Despite what other families do or what great-great-grandmother did, you get to make deliberate choices about yourself and your own family. Putting boxes and walls around traditions kills creativity. And killing creativity takes the fun out of family traditions. If you want that positive experience with your family this year, pick out what you want to keep and let the rest go. You do have the power to decide for yourself how you want to create your traditions.

Another way to build a positive family culture is to change the language used. State what you want and why you want it. Use an “I” statement if you need to. Here is an example, “I really want our family to spend Christmas Eve together at the cabin, because it makes me happy. When you tell me you’d rather work I feel hurt, because your presence is important to me.” You can only make assumptions about your own feelings and desires. Shame can be passed on through accusations and wrong assumptions. You can tell someone how you feel, but it is their right to internalize it how they want. Another way you can beat shame is to accept another’s feelings. Reflective listening (acting as a mirror to the other person’s emotions) encourages respect. Saying something like, “I can see you are angry” in a calm and curious tone can keep that shame monster away. Shame in our celebrations dampens the atmosphere and keeps us from enjoying and connecting with each other. It also builds stress and increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, or other mental ailments.

Try It Out

If you haven’t ever seen Fiddler on the Roof put it on your list to watch. While you are watching it, see if any of the ideas presented in this article resonate with you. You can also do your own experiments while visiting with family and friends this week. Pay attention to how you feel and what comes up for you when you start recognizing shame or find connection. Make that decision to connect with others. Using family traditions as a vehicle for connection can help improve your mental health, and this is a great time of year to try it out.