Elbow bumps may replace warm embraces, and family dinner tables will be less crowded, but the spirit of holiday traditions will carry on this season.
“COVID is not forever, but our traditions are,” says Farmington Hills mom Erika Bocknek. “We’re still doing our traditions. We are not going to let them go just because they look different.”
“Hanukkah is a time for parties and celebrating with family,” she says. “In the past, we’d go to family and friends’ houses and celebrate at temple. That’s not happening this year. As a family, we are thinking of how to adapt traditions.”
She and her husband and their three children are still giving gifts to family and friends, but the gifts will be smaller, given to more people and probably dropped off on porches. Video conferencing technology may replace in-person celebrations for now.
Bocknek’s research centers around family rituals and routines and the importance of those rituals and routines on children’s mental health and development.
“Family rituals are really critical for children’s developmental health,” Bocknek says.
It is essential to teach children who they are in the context of their family in positive and loving ways. With winter bringing colder, darker days, coupled with a pandemic that has derailed much of people’s routines, maintaining rituals becomes even more important.
“I really want parents to know how powerful their traditions and rituals at home are to protecting their children’s mental health,” Bocknek says.
Making simple adaptations
Building rituals does not have to be a lofty undertaking. Something as simple as Taco Tuesday is a way to develop a sense of ritual. It happens every week, and the whole family can participate.
“You can always count on this, you can always be a part of it,” Bocknek explains.
Families having fun together and relying on each other gives children a strong sense of belonging, helps build self-esteem and strengthens connections, she says.
Bocknek offers some practical tips for families looking to build ritual. She recommends one small daily ritual — an “I love you ritual.” Add one weekly ritual that is about centering the week — a moment of connection and fun. And have one really good yearly ritual — one meant to create memories.
Joy is also key. Experiencing joy leaves an “emotional residue.”
“Research shows when children experience family ritual and joy, they carry that protective quality — ’emotional residue’ — and when they are under stress, it helps them self-regulate,” Bocknek says. “Twenty minutes of focused joy a day is the goal.”
What that 20 minutes looks like is different for every family and even among the different members of the family. A good way to generate ideas is to fill in the blank of the sentence: “We seem to really enjoy each other the most when … ” she says.
For Bocknek, that focused joy looked like a game of H-O-R-S-E with her 9-year-old son, Ethan.
“What we love to do together is laugh,” she says.
Admittedly not athletic, Bocknek says she is more likely to read with her children or do art projects. But, she and her son have the same sense of humor and are both competitive, and that added up to great fun in a game of H-O-R-S-E.
“I would shoot the ball and do a funny dance he had to recreate,” she recalls. “It became one of our best memories.”
“Different does not necessarily mean bad or good. It can simply mean different,” she says.
“I hope that this is a year that families are able to keep their most meaningful traditions alive and beautiful new traditions emerge,” Bocknek says. “I hope it’s not a missing page in our memory books. I hope it’s its own story.”
Bocknek encourages parents to sit down and consider what is most important about the holidays and be intentional in finding ways to keep those traditions alive under current conditions.
For Livonia mom Jessica Kennedy, that means her 18-month-old’s visit with Santa may involve Santa masking up or making a “window visit.”
“I plan to decorate the house like I have done every year, but with modifications of course, since we have an active toddler around the house now,” Kennedy says. “We will not be having any type of gathering for the holiday in attempts to keep him as healthy as can be.”
Kennedy’s son was born at 25 weeks — a micro preemie — and has chronic lung disease due to his prematurity. Even without a pandemic, the family would have stayed isolated as much as possible.
Still, they plan to embrace Christmas as warmly as they can.
“I love to decorate,” Kennedy says. “My husband jokes that our house looks like the North Pole most years. I usually have multiple themed trees in the house and Christmas decorations in every room possible.”
A big Christmas Eve dinner and gift exchange is a longtime tradition on her side of the family.
“Ever since I was little, all the ‘kids’ would pile onto the couch, and my uncle would read, The Night Before Christmas, to us all before we all head home,” says Kennedy.
The next day, the Kennedys visit her husband’s side of the family for more gift exchanges and more food.
The family won’t be piling on to a couch or joining relatives around a dinner table this Christmas. After adapting their traditions last Christmas to their infant son’s needs, they plan to follow suit this year.
“Last year we had a couple of family members over for a very short time on Christmas Eve,” Kennedy says. “I have a book with a recording of my uncle reading, The Night Before Christmas, and we read that before going to bed. We opened gifts on Christmas morning, just the three of us, and that is what this year will look like as well.
“I enjoy the idea now that we have a child to open our gifts on Christmas morning as a family of three and then go out to our extended family’s home,” she adds. “I think it’s a nice tradition that we will keep up as the years go on, but staying completely isolated for the holidays isn’t something we plan on doing if we don’t have to.”
Adapting to change is not abandoning tradition
Oak Park resident Rabbi Herschel Finman, co-director of Jewish Ferndale, would normally invite people over and have parties during Hanukkah.
“We’re not doing any of that,” he says.
However, the ritual of the holiday remains, he emphasizes.
“The very basic traditions of Hanukkah are not going to change,” he says.
People will still join with members of their household to light candles on the menorah each night. If people have special foods they like to eat during Hanukkah, they will enjoy those foods.
“All of that is going to be the same,” he says. “That’s not going to change.”
Public celebrations during Hanukkah have grown in popularity in recent decades, including a public menorah lighting ceremony at Jewish Ferndale.
“It has always drawn bigger and bigger and bigger crowds every single year,” he says. To maintain safe social distancing, those type of public gatherings will need to be scaled way back or turned into virtual events.
Since April, Rabbi Finman’s wife Chana Finman, who is co-director of Jewish Ferndale, has been hosting virtual events on the rabbi’s Facebook page. The couple has events planned for all eight nights of Hanukkah.
“Normally for Hanukkah, I’ll sit down and tell stories,” Rabbi Finman says. “(This year) I’ll tell the stories, but I’ll be looking at a camera instead of a bunch of people in front of me.”