Creating Your Own Family Holiday Traditions

This is another old post I’d like to resurrect since it’s so relevant to both this month and this month’s theme of Ritual  & Routine. Enjoy!

The key to being a happy mom during the holiday is creating traditions that work for you.

I spent my first few married Christmases with my husband’s mother’s family in Buffalo, New York. Jon’s family had always gone to his maternal grandfather’s and uncle’s houses in Buffalo during the holiday, and since he was the oldest sibling and his younger brother and sister were still in high school, the tradition was going strong, whereas in my family, in which I was the youngest of four grown siblings, holiday traditions had become much more fluid. So it only seemed natural that we’d continue the trek to Buffalo each December 23 or so, spending Christmas in Jon’s grandpa’s small home and hitting the same parties and gatherings Jon’s family always had while he was growing up.

And it was fun. Jon’s family is full of hilarious people; the get-togethers were a veritable orgy of food, drinks, gifts, and laughter. But I never felt like the holiday was truly ours. By the time we made the 8-10 hour trek out to Buffalo (usually in the snow), we’d have just a couple of days to hang out before driving back home again. There were parties to attend, gifts to open, the customary post-Christmas-sales shopping to do…all packed into a short period of time. No big deal for teenagers, or young people without kids. A much bigger deal when you throw an infant (and later, an infant AND a toddler) into the equation. And not at all like the quiet, close-to-home Christmases I’d grown up expecting.

Of course, when you get married, a lot of what you know to be true about your life is destined to change. Expectations are set aside, and old traditions fall away or morph into new traditions as you create a new family. Often those traditions are a crowded blend of each spouses’ family’s customs. And sometimes that works for a while…but often it isn’t really sustainable once the babies start coming.

When I hear from moms who find the holidays stressful and awful, a common theme is “too much”. They’re buying too much, they’re spending too much. They’ve got too much on the calendar. They’re traveling too much, socializing too much…probably eating too much. They’re just plain trying to pack too much into too little time.

I think sometimes “too much” is a symptom of blended traditions getting out of hand. Try as you might, you can’t possibly fit two entire families’ holiday customs into just one family’s life. Especially when that family has small children. Yet, because we don’t want to disappoint anyone, or we don’t want to rock the boat, or we don’t like change, or we just aren’t sure how to create our own rituals, we stick to old routines that no longer work.

As for us, I knew by the time my second child’s second Christmas that we couldn’t keep up the winter Buffalo trips. Jon’s relatives’ homes seemed to grow smaller as the boys got bigger, and I always felt like we were in the way. More than that, I just wanted to be in our own home, creating our own customs with our own little family.

So we did. We shifted our celebration with Jon’s family to the weekend before Christmas, while we spent New Year’s with my family. It’s a good thing, too–I can only imagine how stressed out I would be right now, planning a trip to Buffalo right before Christmas with five children. Making the change wasn’t easy, as I worried about upsetting my in-laws or alienating Jon’s extended family or just plain looking selfish. But if any of the in-laws were disappointed or upset, they never let us know. In fact, they eventually stopped going to Buffalo at Christmas too, as Jon’s siblings got older and scattered off into their own adult lives and his mom and dad bought a home in Florida.

As for us, we’ve settled into new traditions that are a hodgepodge mix of what we loved about our own childhoods and what we want for our kids’ childhoods. Some things are non-negotiable (for Jon it’s Chocolate Charlie on the table. For me it’s Hershey’s Kisses in the stocking) and some are our own improvisations, still a work in progress. But our tradition gives us plenty of time for enjoying the holiday the way we want to (which for us, equals as little running around as possible).

The holidays don’t have to be as stressful as we sometimes make them, but simplifying often takes the initiative and courage to change things that are no longer working. Sometimes that means being the first person to suggest an alternate to that three-hour-drive to get to Aunt Edna’s by noon on Christmas Day for her annual turkey dinner. Maybe it means simply choosing to stay home until your kids are old enough to tolerate long drives. Perhaps it means opening your own home to guests. Maybe it’s as simple as deciding that buying gifts for every man, woman and child in the extended family has started to become a burden (most likely for everybody else, so you’ll be doing them all a favor if you suggest a change!). Maybe it just means scaling back the number of party invitations you accept or presents you buy your kids so that you don’t feel so over-extended physically or financially. Whatever it is that’s giving you stress, you do have the power to make changes. After all, you are a grown-up now.

Changing things will probably require a discussion with your spouse and possibly an uncomfortable conversation with other members of your family. You’ll very likely have to compromise. But if you just take a few minutes to imagine the kind of holiday you’d like to have, you can probably come up with two or three concrete things you can do—or eliminate—to help you get a little closer to that ideal. Then tweak as necessary.

It’ll probably never be perfect–what ever is?–but it doesn’t have to be the most stressful time of the year, either. Save that distinction for tax season.

Is anything stressing you out about your current holiday traditions? If so, what can you change so that you can enjoy yourself more?

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