Holiday Traditions to Remember Loved Ones

After someone you love has passed away, Christmas, Hanukkah and other holidays and birthdays will never be the same. In recent years my family has had to adapt to celebrating Christmas without my sister, my Dad, my uncle, my father-in-law and this year we lost my Nana. There have been years when it was just so sad that I couldn’t wait for Christmas to be over.


My sister and I, Christmas 1995.

Remembrance traditions won’t change how much you miss your loved one, or prevent the pain, sadness, regret, anger and other emotions and feelings that may arise. However, I have found that, for me, acknowledging my emotions through intentional actions helps me feel more connected with those I have lost. Sometimes I am surprised by the good feelings that arise alongside the tougher emotions. And at other times doing something in their honour gives me a safe space and time for the tears to come. I have found that allowing the grief, rather than avoiding it, has been the best way for me to begin to heal.

When you are ready, here are some ideas for incorporating acts of remembrance into your holiday traditions.

Decorate with your loved one in mind
  • ted-ornamentHave their photo or something special of theirs on the mantle, with the stockings, or near the menorah.
  • Create photo ornaments to hang on the Christmas tree. Buy or make an ornament every year that reminds you of your loved one: perhaps a fish ornament if they loved fishing. The angel on top of our tree was at my sister’s bedside through her last December.
  • If you hang a wreath, add a star or other symbol to represent your loved one.

wreath2009_12_22_laura_4439 starsimg_7075

I created a wreath of remembrance that I hang up most years and on it are stars with the names of loved ones we and our close friends have lost.


Buy them a gift
  • Letter in a stocking

    My Mom hung my sister’s stocking every year and would tuck a note to her inside it, even if it was just to say “I love you and miss you.”

    Buy a present they would have loved and give it to someone who is in need that would appreciate it: a friend who is struggling, the local women’s shelter, a senior in long term care who doesn’t have family, or the charitable angel tree at the mall.

  • In their memory, take flowers to the hospital where they died and ask that a volunteer or nurse give them to someone who is alone with no family.
  • Donate to, or volunteer for, a cause they loved, or pick something totally new, a cause that means something to YOU and give your time or resources in your loved one’s name.
Visit your loved one
  • Visit their grave site, go to a place that they loved, or look at some photos of you together. Whether out loud or silently, talk to them. Tell them whatever is on your heart.
  • Walk a path that you used to take together. Write their name in the snow, make a snow angel, or tie a paper heart with their name on it to a tree with biodegradable raffia.
  • Write them a letter in your journal, or on a card or paper and put it on the tree or in their stocking.
  • Connect to them through music or by using or wearing something of theirs: a ring, a sweater, a blanket, their mittens.
Connect and remember through food and drink
  • gingerbears

    Before she got Alzheimer’s disease Mom used to made gingerbread bears with my sister and I and gave them to special friends. This is a loving tradition I want to continue.

    Cook or bake or buy something that was a favourite dish or treat of theirs. My Nana was famous for her apple pies so making her recipe brings her closer.

  • On family occasions we toast my father-in-law to start the meal.
  • Mom always lit a candle at Christmas dinner in memory of my sister.
Participate in a ceremony of remembrance whether public or private
  • Have a ceremony at home. One year, long before I became a Celebrant, I held a small ceremony at home and invited a friend who had lost his wife that summer. We lit candles beside their photos, lit 4 candles to honour our grief, courage, love and hope (much like this), and shared something about the one we missed. At a family gathering you could each have a candle, and when one person lights the next person’s candle they that person receiving the light of remembrance shares a memory or words about their loved one (as described here #5) before lighting the next person’s candle.
  • img_7099Attend a community ceremony. Many communities have “Blue Christmas” church services or secular holiday services of remembrance, such as the Memory Tree of Light ceremony hosted by Bereaved Families of Ontario York Region and others hosted by funeral homes. I have been attending one or more every year because it helps me to feel less alone being with other families that have lost loved ones.

The power of ceremony lies in symbolic intentional action, in articulating and expressing emotion, and stopping to acknowledge and connect to what is most important to us. 

If you have your own traditions to remember loved ones I’d love to hear about them. Please comment and share so others can benefit. If you have any questions about how to honour your loved one, you can comment below or reach me here.

May you find moments of peace over the holidays.

Laura Higgins
Life-Cycle Celebrant
Portrait Ceremonies