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Many families find themselves in emotional and physical ruts during the holidays -- especially around traditions. Sometimes, sticking to the same old routine (gorging on your sister's “heart-attack stuffing"; traveling four hours to your mother’s house on Christmas Eve with three screaming kids in the car; listening to your Austrian grandmother threaten to call “The Krampus,” Santa’s nasty sidekick who kidnaps children and throws them into the fire pits of hell) isn’t always best.

Here are a few steps to getting your family to shift traditions that are unhealthy, outdated or just a complete pain in the butt:

Good: Alter One Tradition A Tad

Slightly altering food traditions is an easy way to change things up. Of course, there will be some family members resistant to new recipe suggestions -- people who, say, have been making a certain green-bean dish that involves a can of cream-of-mushroom soup and those crispy onion things forever, "and who are you to come in here and change this family heirloom of a recipe?" Yeah, those kinds of people.

“I think one of the reasons we don’t change [holiday food] is because comfort foods trigger our memories as children and families," says Deanna Brann, Ph.D., a psychologist and expert on in-law relationships. "Food really represents our family." Instead of an all-out attack (“Every time I eat this, I’m thisclose to an angiogram"), Brann recommends that you lightly suggest that your sister try using low-salt mushroom soup in her concoction instead, or even try her hand at whipping up a different, healthier version of the dish

Better: Add A Fresh Tradition To The Old

So your sister is attached to making her same ol' green-bean casserole. That shouldn’t stop you from starting a tradition of bringing your own healthy side-dish alternative, like Lemony Broccoli with Olives or Quinoa-Stuffed Tomatoes. Poof: You've added a new tradition to the mix! But what if the issue isn’t about food? For many new couples -- and newly blended families -- it’s not about erasing what you've always done, but about introducing fresh rituals on top of the old. “Traditions give families a sense of consistency and stability moving through time,” notes Jacqueline Hudak, Ph.D., LMFT and clinical director of the Center for Couples and Adult Families at the University of Pennsylvania. So instead of putting the kibosh on the traditions that have always made you feel all mushy inside, add one or two new ones (a cookie swap; an Ugly Christmas Sweater party) to the yearly roster as a way to celebrate your new-and-improved family.

Best: Create A New Tradition Altogether

Sometimes old traditions have to change, because life changes. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the easiest thing to handle -- especially if a family member has passed away. “The first holiday without that person highlights the sense of loss,” says Hudak, who suggests that families acknowledge the loss and create some kind of new ritual that comforts them. For instance, after her mother died, Hudak began driving to the cemetery by herself every Christmas Eve -- a "new" ritual (which sometimes involved her sister and kids) that went on for about 20 years. “I was focusing on getting the grief out, and by the time I got home I was in a different space,” she says.

In the end, it will be up to the family as to whether or not old traditions can be transformed. But if you don't succeed this year, don’t give up. Try again next year.


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