Everyone’s family has different traditions around the holidays, and nothing brings out these differences more than marrying into another family.
My husband and I celebrated our first Christmas together at my parent’s house years ago. As a joke—and backhandedly helpful gesture—my entire family conspired to create a three-page document of “rules” to guide him through the big morning. On the list were things like:
- Dad has to make coffee and turn on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Spirit of Christmas album before we open gifts.
- Large gifts—or “major awards,” to use a reference from The Christmas Story—are hidden behind The Blue Chair and don’t come out until the end.
- No one shall open gifts in any predefined order that will upset the Festive Chaos.
It was a silly list of quirks honed from years of family Christmases together. They weren’t quite rules as much as they were traditions—traditions from childhood I was eager in my own geeky way to share with my growing family.
Of course, my husband’s family had their own traditions, too. His parents had “coded” their Christmas gifts for years in order to outwit three bright children prone to snooping. The code could have been a pattern to the words on the tags (which were never actually the names of the recipients), a theme involving bow color or style, or a cleverly plotted scheme behind the wrapping paper choices for each person’s gift. The kids’ job was to crack the code for the gifts—and hopefully not before Christmas Eve.
Before we had kids, reliving these family quirks was a big part of coming home. After we had kids, we still enjoyed the chance to remember our own childhood and continue the tradition—and our families liked having little ones around the Christmas tree again. But we also began to develop mixed feelings about going home for the holidays. By continuing to recreate these familiar experiences, we were abdicating the opportunity to form traditions in our own home. Our kids weren’t going to have memories around our home at the holidays the way my husband and I both did.
Then of course, we had the practical challenges of lugging gifts to and from our parents’ house every year. With families growing, there were more gifts to truck out of town, and less space for them. Additionally, our kids were young, and opening gifts from so many people was overwhelming for them. I didn’t like the fact that each gift from each person didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved.
And in the midst of everything, we had kept many traditions I had growing up, but we’d lost one big one: after the gift exchange, the festive meals, the church traditions, and the time spent with extended family, my family used to spend Christmas Day home together, enjoying the time off with each other and playing. Doing this away from home was not the same. I wanted my kids to have a chance to experience that same kind of cozy time with family in our home.
So this year, we’re breaking tradition. We’re staying home for Christmas, living in a city where we have only one family member in town (who is moving away in the New Year). We’re planning to connect with our friends and our community here on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And we hope to give our kids that magical time on Christmas Day—not the magic of materialism (or, at least not just that—we’re not ditching the gift-giving tradition), but the magical time of spending the day together enjoying each other and playing.
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It’s not easy parting ways with the past. And admittedly, it’s an experiment. If we hate it, who says we can’t resurrect something we loved? But hopefully breaking traditions will give us a chance to form new traditions. Traditions that still involve our parents in the weeks before and after the holidays, and our own family traditions in our home. I don’t know what they will be—traditions seem to have a way of forming themselves. But I know they will be quirky, memorable, unique, and meaningful. Because that’s what really makes a great tradition.
How to Break Family Traditions
1. Give your family advanced warning. Don’t spring it on them at the last minute. Let them know what you want to do and why.
2. Plan time to see your family outside of the holidays. Show them that it’s still important to you to celebrate together, and carve out dedicated time and space to do that.
3. Let go of the guilt and the fear. This isn’t one of those times when there’s no turning back. Give yourself the opportunity to experiment and see what works for your family.