Surviving your first big holiday with traditions and expectations can be downright frightening for a new couple. BOTS takes on the humbugs and saves the big gift for last.
I was jumping up and down on the bed excitedly. “It’s CHRISTMAS!”
I giggled, eager to tear into the mound of presents under the tree. I wondered what might have been waiting for me. I wanted to get going on what would surely be a special day for us.
He opened his eyes briefly and said “Go back to sleep. Nobody will be up for HOURS.” Crestfallen, I complied, but with resentment simmering inside of me. This is no way to spend Christmas, I muttered to myself.
Christmas had a certain protocol in my family of origin:
- Open stockings.
- Eat “breakfast” (definition ranges from a single mandarin orange to pancakes, eggs, and bacon depending on how annoying we kids were).
- Open presents together, distributed by whomever has been designated to be “Santa” that year.
In my former partner’s family, they were apparently more prone to COMPLETE CHAOS. It was the height of barbarism, I decided. It took a lot of years for me to realize I was imposing a judgment based on my own experiences as if they were somehow superior. Ok, I still think they are, but it’s clear I had a form of “Christmas privilege” going on that did not contribute to peace on earth and goodwill towards man.
To be fair, from his perspective, my family does Christmas Eve all wrong. His family was Catholic and would open a present on Christmas eve. There was also the attendance at midnight mass.
In our family, Christmas Eve was always lazy, sometimes with takeout Chinese food. We are Christmas eve non-traditionalists, holiday anarchists who sometimes watched How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
These disparities meant we usually decided to just separate for the holidays and reunite later so we could enjoy Christmas the way we wanted to. It worked for us until we had a kid and then there was a need for compromise.
What I learned from my last attempt at Christmas family blending taught me that like Christmas morning, there are three steps to integrating the holidays so that there is peace on earth (or at least at the dinner table):
- Communicate expectations. Describe what is important to you and what you can take or leave from a holiday perspective. Be specific. Don’t just say “there should be cranberry sauce”, particularly if it needs to be homemade to be considered legitimate. Have your partner do the same. Try to hear them out if it turns out they are not on Team Eggnog. Believing cranberry sauce from a can to be equal does not mean they were raised by wolves.
- Find overlap and common ground. Identify which traditions can be continued and what that would look like. Consider making a Venn diagram with some festive wreaths and see where you end up.
- Start new traditions. Honoring things that are special from your family of origin is important, but you are starting a new family. Find what is going to be meaningful for you together moving forward.
The nice thing about the holidays is that it isn’t a pass or fail proposition, but something that can be improved upon over time. In the end, blending two families is about negotiation, consideration, and a respect for diverging cranberry sauce related opinions.
Alison, I think you nailed it! You can probably guess that this is a pretty common situation when I work with partners in therapy.
Rituals are a big part of all of our lives even when we don’t recognize it. We all have ways we do things that have meaning to us. And there are often many of them surrounding events like holidays.
Think about how complex it is.
First, families of origin often have expectations of you. “Of course you’ll come home for the holidays. You always do and we don’t want to spend the holidays without you.” You partner’s family may be saying the same thing to them.
Meanwhile you and your partner each have their own expectations. You are trying to handle other people’s expectations while making your own decisions and creating something new. That’s a lot to navigate. Imagine what it might be like for people in polyamorous relationships!
Add to that your other point. There are three types of expectations: those we know and have expressed to the others involved, those we know but haven’t expressed, and those we don’t even realize we have.
The third type can really cause trouble—they are the ones that even catch us off guard. We haven’t bothered to share them with our partners because they don’t even enter our conscious thinking. Yet when things don’t go a certain way we may get hurt or angry.
It may seem like our partner did something to us. In reality, if you didn’t even know to express it, how can you expect your partner to just magically know it?
I’d offer a few more suggestions to your great list.
- You don’t have to manage other people’s emotions. You should be kind and respectful, but know that, at the same time, not everyone has to like your decisions. Your family of origin may be unhappy that you aren’t coming home. They get to be. It isn’t your job to manage that for them.
- Be creative. Alternate from year to year. Do both things. Figure out what you like about a specific ritual and see if you can accomplish it another way.
- Be adventurous. You might actually enjoy doing it a new way!
- Be compassionate. You love your partner and they love you. Assume good intentions…do you really think they are trying to do things with the intent to hurt you?
And just to be clear—I want jellied cranberry sauce from a can, fresh whole cranberry sauce, cranberry orange relish, and this frozen thing my mom made that had cranberries, apples, whipped cream, marshmallows.
What time is Christmas dinner?
I’ll get back to you on that, Jay. I’m on Team “No Cranberry Sauce, Hold The Eggnog Please.” That being said my grandma used to make these chocolate coconut log thingies that I really loved. Also there must be Christmas crackers OR I WILL CRY. I agree with you though, it’s the thought that counts. Intentions matter, whatever side of the eggnog debate you find yourself.
Happy Holidays from us at Babble of the Sexes!
Photo: ion-bogdan dumitrescu/Flickr