Once I got myself and my girls away from him, I realized we would have to create new traditions. I didn’t want to keep up the same things out of habit when most of those things sucked the joy right out of my holidays.

For many years, my then-husband had many expectations of me when it came to holidays. In fact, I really had to turn myself into Martha Stewart and throw wonderful dinners, amazing parties, and decorate the house in a way that created the fake Norman Rockwell impression he wanted. “Stress” doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling of knowing I was being constantly critiqued and should never, ever expect a “thank you.”

Reframing the Holidays

Once I got myself and my girls away from him, I realized we would have to create new traditions. I didn’t want to keep up the same things out of habit when most of those things sucked the joy right out of my holidays. I decided to look at it as an exciting experiment instead of an ending or a beginning. I cheerfully began to ask my girls about what they might like to do to celebrate the season, which relieved the guilt I felt for not wanting to carry on and gave them a voice in the changes. Slowly but surely, we chose the traditions we wanted to keep, and replaced the ones we didn’t. Here are some ways to create new holiday traditions, especially if you have children in the mix:

Take the opportunity to “walk the talk.”

My girls and I have always enjoyed volunteer work, but typically got so wrapped up in the crush of trying to make the holidays fit a mold that we lost a lot of joy. Part of our new tradition became doing one special service project together during the holiday season. Our favorite so far has been ditching Thanksgiving dinner at home to go serve Thanksgiving dinner at a local shelter program. There is literally nothing better in this world than putting yourself aside to serve others and watch them enjoy being treated as people. This is so desperately needed in the world.

Decorate completely differently or not at all.

You can’t imagine the deals you can get on holiday decorations at your local thrift stores. One of the best things I ever did was stop doing the Martha Stewart Christmas trees with handmade ornaments and fancy ribbon and themes. Good Lord, I had a tree in every room in the house, each with a theme and a color scheme. Now we have one tree each year and it is covered in an explosion of my girls’ ornaments collected throughout the years, lots of lights, some pinecones, and whatever else we feel like putting on it. I also had a themed wreath for each room in the house. Those are gone. I have one wreath for the door. Using pictures of my girls and me from holidays past has been a great source of decoration, too.

Focus on joy and not expectation.

When I was tempted to spend a lot of money I didn’t have on decorations or gifts, I asked myself why. Why was I motivated to overspend on this particular thing? It often came down to one issue: guilt. No matter how right my decision was, it was still hard to unravel the family and give up on the dream. What I discovered over the years was that focusing on a balance between what the girls wanted and what was really meaningful kept everything in perspective. So while they may get a new phone, they also get some handmade keepsakes from Mommy with love letters tucked inside. When the phone is long gone, I guarantee they will still be holding on to those keepsakes.

The key to creating new traditions is to let go the notion that there is only one way a holiday should look.

Focusing on what’s missing or different steals the joy from what’s there. Now instead of staying up late to be Santa and sneaking up the stairs afterward, I sleep on the sofa in the glow of the tree lights and thank God for the joy and privilege of being able to create the life I want with my girls. Where is the loss in that?

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Aubrey Cole

Aubrey Cole

I survived a quarter century of psychological, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. When I got out, I vowed to help others do the same and founded the Emotional Abuse Survivors Network project in 2012. Now, I offer hope and healing to others on their journey as they rediscover themselves. My forthcoming books, Bodies in the Basement and Define Winning, chronicle my experiences, escape, and recovery. There is nothing so special about me that others can't emerge and thrive.
Once I got myself and my girls away from him, I realized we would have to create new traditions. I didn’t want to keep up the same things out of habit when most of those things sucked the joy right out of my holidays.

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