How Letting Go of Traditions Made Me Love the Holidays Again

published Nov 16, 2015
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)
(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

As a kid, I lived for the holidays. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were always a happy blur, with frenzied cooking and cleaning and car trips from one relative’s house to the next. Thanksgiving was two or three huge meals packed into one day, eating so much we thought we’d die, and then going back for another slice of pie anyway. Christmas was a multi-day affair, with Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas morning breakfast, the opening of gifts, and then the real chaos began as we prepared to host our extended families or otherwise pile everything into the car to travel to them.

It was chaotic, but I loved being surrounded by my family and the warmth of tradition.

The Holiday Shuffle

Even after I moved out, I continued these traditions by staying at my parents’ house from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day, while also tacking on the usual extended family visits. On top of my own family’s rigorous holiday schedule, I added holiday meals with my husband’s parents. We would leave one house, bloated and tired, only to arrive at the next house minutes later, unable to truly appreciate the food that had been cooked for us or the company of our loved ones.

As the years passed, I came to dread the holidays I had once loved. My husband and I would argue annually about how much time I could reasonably dedicate to my family for the holidays. He wasn’t crazy about sleeping in twin beds in the guest room, even when I offered to push them together. I worried it would break my parents’ hearts if I gave up any of our traditions; I imagined telling my dad I wouldn’t be coming over on Christmas Eve. In my mind, he wept and begged to know why I didn’t love him anymore. (It was very dramatic.)

At the same time, I felt intense guilt for frequently relegating my in-laws to the weekends before or after the holidays. I was certain that my mother-in-law secretly harbored resentment toward me for stealing her son away from her. I felt helpless to change anything, though, so I carried on this way until I was a bona fide Scrooge.

I announced my pregnancy to our families on Thanksgiving Day two years ago. That holiday season was an eye-opener for my husband and me. After the last dish had been washed and dried and we unbuttoned our pants, we looked at each other, exhausted from three Thanksgivings in one day. What would this be like when we had kids? And what about when our kids had kids?

Suddenly, we both saw a never-ending cycle of familial obligations, too many meals for our stomachs to handle, and a lifetime of holiday misery stretching out before us. We needed a solution.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

The Solution

So I began the heart-rending process of creating the “perfect holiday plan.” I knew that our immediate families were our priorities, so I gave myself permission to decline any invitations to extended family events. It seemed a little heartless at first, but I realized that my parents don’t still have holidays with their aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I felt a twinge of remorse knowing that the whole family was reveling without me, but I was so relieved to not have to cook another dish, drive an hour out of my way, and have my son miss his nap that any regrets I had quickly dissipated. It also helped that I was finally off the hook for tolerating my uncle asking deeply inappropriate questions about my finances and railing against the government.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday because I love cooking, being surrounded by family, and reflecting on what we are grateful for (mostly pie). That feeling isn’t exclusive to one day of the year, though, and rushing off to see another family after stuffing my face didn’t make me feel very thankful. By moving one of our families to the weekend after Thanksgiving Day, we were able to slow down, enjoy the time with our parents and siblings, and really get into the spirit of the holiday.

When planning Christmas, I envisioned my ideal future and realized that I wanted to wake up on Christmas morning in my own house, open gifts with my children, and make them breakfast, just like my parents had done with my sisters and me. This meant that staying the night at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve was completely out of the question. I did, however, love having Christmas Eve dinner with my parents and sisters. I asked them if we could have our full family celebration on Christmas Eve, and they all agreed. My father didn’t break down into tears. No one accused me of treason. Everyone seemed pretty relieved, actually. Since my husband’s parents always have official holidays off work, it made more sense to celebrate with them on Christmas Day. My mother-in-law has always been very cool with not getting “real” holidays, but I’m pretty sure her heart grew three sizes when I told her she could spend every Christmas with her son and grandson.

This will be our second year of executing my “perfect holiday plan,” and having a blueprint for our holiday schedule has already made my life so much less stressful. The guilt I initially felt for abandoning tradition has subsided, and I’m actually looking forward to the holidays again. And so far my husband and I haven’t had any holiday arguments beyond which is the superior Thanksgiving pie: pumpkin or pecan (the correct answer is, of course, pumpkin).

How Others Cope with Holiday Family Scheduling

Curious about how others coordinate their holiday plans? Here are five responses that show the various ways holiday schedules can take shape.

Sally Kuzemchak says: “My husband’s parents celebrate Thanksgiving two days later, so their three kids (including my husband) can spend Thanksgiving with their in-laws and everyone can be together to celebrate. We have the big Thanksgiving meal, play a ‘Turkey Bowl’ football game, and have all the same traditions — just two days later.”

Carrie Havranek says: “We usually end up hosting my husband’s parents and my sister in law and her clan after the holidays. They often come up to our house (we’re the only ones who don’t live nearby his family), and we call it Christmas part two. It ends up being super relaxing and we usually do something simple like a pulled pork or something else really hands-off, hang out, open presents, eat food, etc. With my sister and her wife, we sometimes wait until January to get together on the years they don’t come out to our house from Brooklyn for Christmas Day.”

Alicia Ritchey says: “I’ve managed to create our own traditions and juggle family by making it a rule to stay home on Christmas Day. My husband’s side has always celebrated on Christmas Eve, so we go there in the evening for dinner. We also have a meal with my extended family on a weekday. Since my birthday is the day after Christmas, my immediate family picks a day afterwards to celebrate both occasions, which I enjoy, since the festivities get to be extended. To further eliminate stress, we have agreements with many of the adults in our families not to buy gifts for each other. This focus on quality time and not cramming it all on the 25th makes the season much more enjoyable.”

Kirsten Olson Madaus says: “We are a military family, so we’re not near any family and our vacation time is usually spent traveling. Our traditions have changed depending on the situation. We had a stretch where we lived near my folks, and the first fall when we were talking about how to be with everyone, my mom said that we should just go to my in-law’s for the holidays. She felt that she got to see her grandkids for recitals, birthdays, school concerts, or just whenever. Being together on a particular day in December wasn’t as important when she got all the other stuff that it was hard for her fellow grandma to travel nine hours to see. So while we were stationed there, every Christmas we went to my in-laws’ and spent the time with them. After we again moved and our kids were older, we started staying home more and inviting our families to come to us.”

Kayle Crofford says: “I’m newly married, but family is really important to my husband and I. Both sets of our parents are divorced, and he also has a stepmom, so her family is an entire extra side. We’ve been dealing with our shared family obligations for a while. I think it’s about trying to be fair … but at the same time taking into account individual situations. I’m not crazy about my dad’s family, so I really only worry about seeing them on Christmas Eve. It helps when families decide to have events on different days. We try to split things up as much as we can, we prioritize, and we try to not go to more than two or three places in one day. It’s not a perfect solution, and as we have kids we’ll need to streamline even more, but it works for us and it works for now!”

* * *

Your turn! Tell us, how do you decide how to split up the holidays between family and friends, and what has changed your choices along the way?