Shiny things, dressing up, free stuff, an extravaganza of decorations. What’s not to love about the holidays? Well, plenty.
The holidays have always been about other people’s time for me. I remember as a kid my three brothers and I would get up as early as possible on Christmas morning, waking our parents at the crack-ass of dawn so we wouldn’t miss any part of the day. After we had opened our gifts and played for a bit, we would pick out our favorite toy, then pack everything up and head over to Grandma’s to visit with our relatives. Once there, we’d eat until we were full and usually fall asleep on the floor until it was time to go home.
After my parents divorced, the time was divided a little differently. We would try to get as much time playing with our new gifts before it was time to head to Dad’s, a 45 minute to an hour drive in often snowy New England weather. When my grandmother got too old to host Christmas at her house, she would come over Christmas Eve, wake up and enjoy Christmas with us, and everyone would pop by my house to visit her. My youngest brother and I would open our presents and eat the giant breakfast he had cooked cooked, but then would have to rush out by noon to get up to Dad’s before it got too late. This meant that we would miss some of the festivities, but that was just “the way it was. We would get home, exhausted from the long drive, to find some of our cousins and aunts and uncles still there, but inevitably we would have missed most of them (we have a huge Italian and Irish family–think boisterous and fun and entirely unable to fit in one house at the same time.)
It never occurred to me to hate or resent this, because the alternative was not getting to see my Dad at Christmas. In retrospect it probably devastated my mother to have us gone on Christmas, but she had always tried not to put that on us. She would patiently listen as we showed her the gifts we had gotten from Dad and his second wife, and it never occurred to me until I was an adult how difficult it must have been to praise the gifts and not be mad that we had missed most of her favorite holiday. Thanksgiving was much the same as Christmas, until we got older and we smartened up and went to Dad’s on the day after instead.
Enter Husband With Much Different Christmas Traditions
My husband’s holidays were very different from mine. His Christmas morning was spent getting up and opening presents like I did. He would have a big Christmas breakfast, too. That’s about where the similarity ended. He would take his time setting up his toys just so, relaxing around the house, and arguing with his siblings over who got the most presents. Christmas Day was sacrosanct–there was nowhere to go and nothing to do but enjoy the gifts and good food. Even when he got older, and his parents hosted a huge Christmas Eve party every year, everyone would come to them. There was never a time where he had to be anywhere else or accommodate anyone else’s schedule.
When we got married, we spent our first Christmas Eve at his parents’, and our first Christmas at my mom’s, both of our parents disappointed that their child wasn’t there for all of the holiday festivities. Thanksgiving was split, meaning we spent a few hours at each parent’s house. We’d just get dinner down at one house and would have to leave to make it to dinner at the other. When you wonder why people gain a few pounds when they get married, my Thanksgiving experiences shed some light on that. When we had our first child, this was just our normal pattern, at least in my mind. It never occurred to me to do any differently than I had my entire life. My husband, on the other hand, whose parents had never divorced, who had always been home on Christmas, had other expectations.
“What’s the hurry?” he would demand. “We just opened our presents! We can go over later.” He would get increasingly irritated that I was rushing him and I would get increasingly stressed that we weren’t getting out the door in time for my brother’s famous Christmas breakfast spread. It was the biggest thing I looked forward to on Christmas, and we were going to “be late.” Thanksgiving was even worse. If we were at his parents’ I would be anxious to get to my mom’s “on time,” and when we were at my mom’s he would eventually be looking at his watch and getting annoyed that we weren’t at his childhood home yet. I can imagine it was just as upsetting for both of our mothers, who could never really tell what time we would be showing up.
There were a couple of years where I would constantly be thinking we were late for Christmas and he would be wondering where our Christmas was. The holidays became a source of real stress instead of the joyous occasion it should have been.
It took about two years after my son was born for me to realize that we were still living my childhood life. We were grown, and married, and had kids of our own now. Of course we both wanted to see our parents on the holidays, but how did we manage that and still make our own traditions, our own time? The answer wasn’t easy. It was a subject that made it into marriage counseling, and there were frustrated tears about losing the connection to my family, and conversations about “making time” for our own family. Ultimately, I knew my husband was right in this instance (but don’t tell him I said that); we were spending every Saturday and Sunday at our respective parents’ and every holiday at both as well. Couple that with two demanding, full-time jobs and two kids and it left very little time for us to be on our own.
It took far more time than it should have for me to come to the very simple answer. I sat down with my mother, and he sat down with his parents, and we talked. It sounds pretty simple, but for me it was one of the most difficult things in my recently married life.
In my head, I had built up this response from our parents. They would be upset or angry that we weren’t following “their” schedule. They would be hurt, or offended, or would think we didn’t want to be with them for the holidays. I hate conflict, so I just couldn’t figure how we could possibly tell them things had to change. They would be devastated.
Were they? Yes, a little—at first. But they both had had these very same conversations, these very same compromises, with their own parents. They knew the importance of making your own traditions. The initial reaction to change–mostly disappointment–turned into a real understanding of the reality that their children were finally, truly grown. They had a family of their own, and they needed some traditions of their own.
We began by “trading off” Thanksgiving. No longer would we travel to both houses in one day. We would still show up to his parents’ on Christmas Eve and my mother’s on Christmas, but we would have to leave Christmas Eve well before midnight mass to get the kids to bed and show up on Christmas after we had opened our gifts and had our coffee/tea. It was time to compromise a little–while we wouldn’t spend the entire day at home, as my husband had, neither would we rush out the door before the kids had had a chance to play with their toys for a bit.
A few years ago my mother in law was diagnosed with cancer. We knew she wouldn’t last until Spring, so instead of going to my mother’s house that year as scheduled, we spent it with my in-laws. That was followed by the big Christmas Eve party, which was just before she passed away. The following year my mother suggested having Thanksgiving at our own house. The planning of Thanksgiving has become a memory we make with our children, from the planning of the menu to the place cards they make and set out, and part of me wishes we had done it before my mother-in-law had passed away so she could have seen it. But I don’t think I would appreciate having Thanksgiving at my house so much if I hadn’t had years of traveling to two other houses. I think shopping for the food and rearranging the furniture would stress me out if I didn’t know how much easier it was than the alternative of traveling. As it is, my biggest stressor at holiday time is where I’ll fit everyone in my tiny 5-room apartment.
My sister in law took over the Christmas Eve party, so we still get to see everyone at her house, and Christmas has become a much more relaxed affair. Breakfast has sort of become brunch, and the winter holidays have become my favorite part of the year again.
Just don’t get me started on Halloween.
Photo Credit: Flickr/ MsSapangbato8908