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When To Let Go Of Old Family Traditions — And Create New Ones

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We all have traditions in our lives. Maybe you make lumpia, or egg rolls, with your Filipino cousins every Christmas Eve. Or maybe you go to your grandma's house on New Year's morning to watch the Rose Parade on TV.

These rituals can foster a sense of unity with the people we love and help pass down cultural values. But what happens when these events no longer make sense? For example, what if we got in a huge fight with our cousins and aren't on speaking terms? Or what if grandma passes away? What do we do with these traditions then?

Life Kit talks to a psychologist, a spiritual educator and a chef who created a new cultural tradition for themselves to get their advice on what to do in this situation. They explain when it's OK to opt out of old customs — and how to reinvent them in an authentic way.

When It's Time To Let Go Of An Old Tradition

If it feels like an obligation. If you find that you're the only one who cares about keeping up a tradition and it starts to feel like a drag, let it go, says psychologist Andrea Bonior, who specializes in young adult life transitions and relationships.

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For example, if you've been tasked with making mom's casserole for Thanksgiving every year but no one ever eats it, you might say to your family: "I'd like to honor mom in other ways. There's a lot of prep work [involved in making this casserole] and I wonder if we could introduce something new," she says.

If you don't feel supported or respected. Cookbook author and chefDiep Tran has fond memories of making banh chung – a Vietnamese rice cake made with mung beans, pork and other ingredients – to celebrate Lunar New Year with their grandmother.

But as they got older, they felt more uncomfortable at family gatherings. She was the only person in her clan who was openly queer, and she felt like she couldn't be her full self around them.

She says she would go to their therapist after these events and "spend the next month trying to unpack what happened." For this reason, Tran made the tough decision to opt out of family functions.

If it feels overwhelming. If the tradition requires more energy, funds and brainpower than you're willing to give it, you can totally skip it, says Bonior. Let's say your mom wants you to come home for Christmas but you have a newborn at home, are worried about COVID and are stressed out about travel and ticket prices. You can say, "Hey mom, flights are a nightmare right now. What if we came in a couple of months?"

How To Create A New Tradition

Give yourself a tradition you never had. Think back to what was missing in your childhood, says Ehime Ora, a spiritual educator who teaches people how to pay homage to their family lineage. What did you not have enough of? A cultural connection? Time spent with extended family? These questions can "hint to creating newer, better traditions for yourself."

If you wished you had more of a community as a kid, she says, perhaps your adult self can join a weekly ceramics class. That's a tradition too — and it's a healthy way to foster new relationships with people while doing something creative.

Reflect on your values. Think about your own beliefs and principles, says Bonior. "Is it about giving back to others? Gratitude? Finding light in the darkness?"

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Then come up with a tradition that expresses those ideals, she says. If you want to help people in need in your neighborhood, for example, you might ask your friends to join you in volunteering at a soup kitchen the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Don't try to be perfect. Although Tran stopped going to their family's Lunar New Year parties, that didn't discourage her from observing the holiday. Instead of making banh chung with her grandmother, she began making the dish with her friends and chosen family. The gathering is now known as the Banh Chung Collective and has expanded to include anyone searching for community during Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

Tran says their banh chung tastes different from their family's. But that's OK. There's no one way to uphold a tradition or celebrate a holiday or make a family recipe, she says. "You're meant to break stuff. How is culture able to grow?"

Communicate your decision clearly. If you do decide to let go of an old tradition, don't leave your loved ones or family members wondering why, says Bonior. That might make them feel hurt or confused.

Instead, she says, explain your reasoning. For example, if you no longer want to attend your sister's annual Fourth of July party in downtown Washington, D.C., because the fireworks display on the National Mall leaves you stuck in hours of miserable traffic, tell her that. Then make it clear how you want to proceed with the tradition in the future.

More Great Tips About Family And Traditions From Life Kit

How to set boundaries with family — and stick to themMaintaining healthy boundaries is a way of taking care of your closest relationships, but setting those boundaries with family can be hard. The process starts with asking yourself what you need.

Every family has stories to tell. Here's how to document yoursLearning stories about our loved ones helps us to better understand the trajectory of their lives — and it helps us make sense of our own story. Here are five tips to guide you as you document your family history.

How to carry on a family recipe in your own wayMaking a family recipe for the first time can be daunting. Will it turn out just like you remembered? In this episode, podcaster Noor Wazwaz walks us through what to remember in the kitchen.

How to learn a heritage languageHeritage language learners are different from people learning a second language for the first time. They often grow up hearing it, but that can come with its own set of challenges. Experts offer their advice on how to learn your heritage language.

The audio portion of this episode was edited by Audrey Nguyen and produced by Summer Thomad. Marielle Segarra was the host. The engineers were Tre Watson and Hannah Copeland. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib with art direction by Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit npr.org.

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