How to shift holiday traditions when two kids at home becomes one

A family learns to shift holiday traditions as one kid takes her leave for school. While parents look forward to ending sibling sparring over the holidays, sometimes absence can make the heart grow fonder. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Baker Paige Retus makes individual apple pies in this file image.

Thanksgiving and Christmas might be different for my son and daughter this year, if our recent Halloween celebration is any indication. But in those differences, maybe my children will find new opportunities to grow.

We parents like to share holiday traditions with our children because, in a world of flux, family customs offer the assuring promise that some things will never change. But even traditions can evolve over time, as I was reminded when we carved jack-o’lanterns this autumn for All Hallow’s Eve last month.

Every October, my son Will, now 13, and my daughter Eve, now 18, made their own jack-o’-lanterns at the kitchen counter, usually quarreling from start to finish. Sibling rivalry being what it is, they tended to offer each other unsolicited advice about how the carving should be done – an exchange that led to quite a few tantrums and more than a few tears along the way. There were moments, I know, when each of them wished for the luxury of being alone.

As parents know – and as children eventually learn – life tends to challenge us by giving us what we asked for. “Is Eve coming home to help us carve jack-o’lanterns,?” Will asked me hopefully this year, perhaps already sensing the answer. I reminded him that Eve went off to college this fall, the first step in building a life of her own. Our family would probably be carving pumpkins without her.

That absence pointed to other changes on the horizon. Maybe Eve will be absent, too, when we go shop for a Christmas tree to bring home and decorate – another family ritual that, truth be told, also had its share of brother-sister disputes.

But change can bring good things, too. For the first time in his life, as he adjusts to being the sole youngster-in-residence at our household, Will is learning a little bit about what it’s like to be an only child – an experience Eve enjoyed before he was born. My wife and I have more time for one-on-one experiences with Will, and that’s opened doors for greater emotional intimacy.

When Eve returns home for family visits, Will has also glimpsed what his own life might be like in just a few years, when he heads off to college himself. What he’s noticing, I hope, is that even though Eve no longer lives with us full-time, she – and, by extension, he – will always have a place in our family circle.

We expect Eve home for Thanksgiving, and she’s already asked whether my wife Catherine will be in the kitchen making pies, an activity that Eve usually helps with.

The holidays inspire us to cling to what endures. I hope, as my family’s traditions develop, that my children will keep in mind the one changeless thing among us.

And that thing, of course, is love.

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