In 1995 Lisa Stewart moved to Washington and enrolled at Howard University. Right away, she wanted to put down roots.
"I just decided, I'm making a new life and I'm going to have to spend a Thanksgiving and a Christmas [here] to make it home," Stewart recalls.
That year, Stewart began to "re-tradition," a different way to think about how we create customs.
Everyone tweaks holiday traditions, adding sweet potato pie to the menu one year or switching from color lights to icicles the next. But what happens when lifestyles change?
Moving to a new city is just one event that can force wholesale changes in traditions. A marriage, a new baby, an aging parent, a divorce, a death, even the sale of Grandma's house, can change the kinds of things you do to celebrate a holiday, where you celebrate it and who celebrates with you. But that doesn't mean you have to go without traditions.
"We are in such a rapid rate of change around the world, traditions are our anchor," says Karen Soltes, a social worker with a private practice in Bethesda. "We have to create something that feels solid and predictable. That is what traditions do."
On the surface, re-traditioning is like redecorating except instead of a lamp and a rug, you look for new ways to celebrate the holidays. But re-traditioning has a downside that decorating doesn't: If you don't do it, and you need to, you might face the holidays with more than an empty calendar.
"You can end up sad and lonely, angry or worried," warns Peter A. Wish, a Sarasota, Fla., psychologist and co-author of "Don't Stop at Green Lights: Every Woman's Guide to Taking Charge of Her Life and Fulfilling Her Dreams." Re-traditioning takes five steps:
See the Need "Acknowledge the change [in your life], how it's affecting you, the feelings you're having about it, and deal with the ramifications," says Ronald G. Nathan, a Guilderland, N.Y., psychologist and co-author of "Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness."
That means letting some traditions go. When you do, you make room for new ones. You'll find these new ways to celebrate the holidays in your community; others you can create for yourself.
The most popular do-it-yourself option is the "orphan" celebration. You "adopt" people without holiday plans and they adopt you. That's how Annandale resident Dick Shea, a retired Navy captain, and his wife, Mary, celebrated holidays when he was stationed overseas. They hosted potlucks for others who couldn't be with family.
"We wanted to fill the house with people because we were far from home," says Mary Shea.
Make a Plan Think about what's worked for you in the past and what hasn't. Generalities are fine. Specifics are better.
"Write down what you like to do for fun -- generally and within the holiday," says Wish.
Maybe it's being with people, exploring new things, spending time outdoors or helping others.
Ask yourself questions. Do you enjoy casual events or more organized ones? If music is important, do you like to listen or sing along? Are you looking for something spiritual? Do you want to be around children?
If you have immediate family, talk with them. And not just with your spouse -- traditions are important to kids, too.
In short, take a personal inventory and then, if appropriate, a family one. If not with paper and pen, then at least think about it or bring it up at the dinner table.
Take Action Now that you have a plan, look for choices that fit your general criteria. Ideas are everywhere. Read newspapers and local magazines. Surf the Internet. Study community calendars. Check out the bulletin board at the public library.
Be flexible. When it comes to family celebrations like Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Kwanzaa or Christmas, don't just think about the "big" days. Look for ways to celebrate throughout the holiday season. Not all traditions have to include everyone. Even if you have a family, look for things you might enjoy with a friend or by yourself.
Contact local churches and synagogues. Think beyond your own religion.
Several organizations have holiday programs open to the public. The Smithsonian definitely does. So do colleges and high schools. A lot of them are free or inexpensive.
The best ideas, though, can come from friends, neighbors and even work associates. What do they like to do during the holidays? What are their favorite traditions? Did they try something new last year?
"All of this involves some risk," admits Nathan.
No one wants to feel rejected or appear lonely. The key is how and when you ask your questions. Try saying, "What do I like to do?" rather than "What should I do?"
And start asking people soon. The earlier the better. If you ask someone the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving about Thanksgiving Day, it can feel like you're fishing for an invitation. If instead, on that same Wednesday, you ask about December traditions, you're just making holiday conversation.
If you do get an invitation, say yes when you can. You'll enrich your host's holidays as much as your own.
No matter what, know you have options. Even if you wake up on a "big holiday" with nothing planned, you can find a religious service, go to the movies or walk a park trail. The Smithsonian's museums and zoo are closed on Christmas, but most are open every other day of the year, including Thanksgiving.
"There is always something to connect you to your community," Wish says.
When Lisa Stewart re-traditioned in 1995, she made community service a holiday priority. She contacted Greater DC Cares, the area's largest volunteer coordinator. They got her involved right away. Outreach has been her Thanksgiving tradition ever since. And now it's her career.
She is volunteer relations coordinator for Greater DC Cares. She says the organization always needs more volunteers. And not just adults. Families work, too.
That brings us back to the people who celebrated the holidays with you in the past.
Communicate You don't re-tradition in a vacuum. No matter how you decide to celebrate your holidays, consider the ripple effect. The changes you make may have an unexpected, and sometimes unwelcome, impact on others.
When District resident Allen Lear and his wife had a baby, they didn't want to choose between their families. Instead, they celebrated Thanksgiving with friends in Charlottesville, a tradition that has lasted decades.
The Lears' tradition of celebrating Christmas in the District lasted a long time, too. All the way down to the special corner in the house where they put the tree. Even when their children moved away, everyone came home for the holidays.
But things have changed. Two years ago the Lears moved from the District to Montgomery County. Last June, their oldest son got married. This Christmas, he's not coming home.
"His wife has a family of her own -- what's up with that?" Lear says with a laugh.
There's no question, establishing your own holiday traditions is a natural progression. Minimize hurt feelings with good communication. When you make plans, figure out who needs to know about them. Ask yourself, "Who's going to be affected by this?"
"Go ahead and do what you have to -- openly, honestly and with sensitivity," advises Wish. "Then you've done your part."
That only sounds easy.
"Sometimes you just have to draw the line," Wish says.
But draw that line early. Your decisions may force others to re-tradition, too.
Pick Your Traditions Re-traditioning takes time. The new ways you celebrate the holidays this year are not traditions yet; they are different things you are trying.
Choose the ones you like and do them again and again. When you do, they become your traditions.
Next year, plan to celebrate the holidays with the "keepers" and build from there.