There is no single right answer to how to celebrate a holiday. There isn’t even a right answer as to which holidays to celebrate, although I’m pretty sure that spending two months on a one-day holiday is a little excessive. Personally, I’d rather see more new and fabulous holidays than put extra glitz and glamor into any that currently exist, except for New Year’s Eve, of course, which reminds me *orders disco ball.* In our heart of hearts, there IS a right way, though. Even the most cynical among us will still have a chewy caramel center somewhere in there, a tiny remnant of ourselves aged somewhere from two to six years, the part that would definitely believe in a fairy if only we ever saw one. That’s not the part of us, alas, that comes to the negotiating table when we blend families.
I’m a grinch, I’ll say it now. I like celebrations and big parties, but I want to do them my way. For instance, when I make Thanksgiving dinner, I never make stuffing, because stuffing is not a food. Come on! You’re going to be plenty stuffed after this meal. Calling it ‘stuffing’ is a bit too on the nose. Might as well start calling pie the ‘fattening.’ Ah, but it turns out that a lot of people wait all year to eat stuffing. Just because I refuse to make a dish does not mean it isn’t going to creep onto the table. Also, just because I do make a dish does not mean anyone is going to eat it.
One year, when my husband and I were newlyweds, I spent three days cooking and preparing for both of our families to come down for the weekend. I think I made something like 17 different dishes. My hubby was on a diet. He went through the buffet line and came away with: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and biscuits. In other words, the stuff he made himself. Not so much as a molecule of all the fancy-dancy new recipes I had made!
I had only myself to blame for taking offense. In his mind, there is one true Thanksgiving menu. I could have saved myself approximately sixteen hours of labor by delegating the cooking to him.
The first lesson of merging family holiday traditions is: Take full and total accountability for your own emotional experience.
The second lesson is that you can almost always fit in the tradition that is most meaningful to you, while still accommodating someone else’s. All it takes is listening respectfully with an open heart. This is what you like to do? Fair enough. Sounds awesome.
When you marry, you start a new life with this new person. Traditionally, formally, correctly, this is the time when both of you cut the cords. You start over as adults with your own new family. In any argument or quandary that involves the parents or other in-laws, the spouse must win. A marriage in which either party sides with the family of origin, against the spouse, is not a forever kind of a marriage. Check this with any etiquette manual or advice columnist, unless you wish to wait and discuss it with a marriage counselor. Or a divorce lawyer.
That being said, when you marry, you marry an entire extended family, a backstory, everything that comes with your spouse. The pets, the kids, the baggage, the habits, everything. Be gracious to your in-laws because if your marriage is a good one, you’re going to be seeing a lot of them. For years. You may wind up seeing more of them than you do of your own blood relations - and who knows? You may come to find that you prefer it.
Starting a new life and a new family is an adventure, an exciting challenge. Making new holiday traditions (and sometimes ditching old ones) is part of the fun. You are not only allowed but encouraged to add or subtract whatever works for your clan. Often, the littlest kids are the ones with the best, most imaginative ideas. For instance, one family I know now calls canned whipped cream “zizz.”
When my parents married, they discovered that they had different traditions for when to open Christmas gifts. One opened gifts on Christmas Eve, and the other did them on Christmas morning. They shrugged and decided to... do both! We would open gifts from extended family on Christmas Eve, and do stockings and Santa presents on Christmas morning. This expanded the festivities, and it was more manageable for excitable little kids. We also had a tradition that we would take turns opening gifts, starting with the youngest and going around the circle in ascending order of age. One year, we went with the free-for-all method, and it was total chaos. Much less satisfying or interesting than the deferred-gratification method, when you can actually watch the reactions of each person opening their packages.
I live a thousand miles away from my family, and I always feel a serious case of FoMO when they’re all partying without me. At some point in the evening on a birthday or holiday, I try to convince one of the younger family members to set me up on Skype so everyone can say hello. I find myself peeking out of a laptop screen in the kitchen, at such a height that it almost feels like I’m sitting there at the table. I want to reach out and help myself to some cookies or a marker. One day, there’ll be a robotic arm, and I’ll be able to move my own Scrabble tiles...
Family is what you make it, and traditions can be, too. As we blend and flow into new formations of step-in-laws, marriages, divorces, adoptions, births, graduations, and every combination of relationship, we adjust. It’s always possible to love just a little bit more and make room for one more chair at the table. There is always more fun to be had. We have to remind ourselves of this, that holidays should be fun, fun for everyone. With creativity and flexibility, we can innovate new traditions while still paying our respects to the old.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.