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Simple solutions for the most complicated time of the year

This week, families around the world officially move into the holiday season. While many of the most magical and meaningful holiday moments involve celebrating with family, it’s the family aspect of the holidays that can often bring tension, stress, and bad feelings.

The who, what, and why of the holidays are easily overtaken by the when and the where. Enjoying time with loved ones seems like a peaceful proposition, but it all too often gets very complicated!

I certainly don’t propose that I have all of the answers, but I think sometimes it helps just to hear how other families navigate the question “Where will we spend the holidays this year?”

1. Establish your boundaries

This is the foundation for all of the decisions you will make for the holiday season. It’s also the most powerful and empowering part of this process because your holiday boundaries may be the only part of the season that you are able to control.

A counselor friend of mine gave me a script to help me self-talk my way through my own feelings as I respond to the feelings of others about our holiday plans:

I am not responsible for <fill-in-the-blank family member/friend’s> happiness.
If _______ is mad, that is his/her feeling, and it doesn’t have to affect me.
I cannot make ___________ happy.
It’s okay that I am happy and he/she is not.
Good boundaries mean that I don’t let his/her attitude ruin my holiday.
Good boundaries also mean that my feelings matter just as much as his/hers, and I might need to call him/her on it.

Whether you are a single or married, have children or don’t, are just starting out in life or are in the twilight years, you get to decide what the boundaries for your holiday season will be! Keeping your feelings about the feelings about the feelings of others in check is pivotal.

2. Be flexible

Photo by cliff1066

This almost seems contradictory to establishing boundaries, doesn’t it? But it’s really quite complementary. Once you have decided for yourself or your family what the non-negotiable parts of the season are, you are free to be flexible with the aspects that are negotiable.

Bear in mind that holiday plans may change from year to year, depending on the circumstances of life. Laura Tremaine of Hollywood Housewife shares:

During our dating and early married life, my husband and I always spent Thanksgiving with his family and Christmas with mine. It worked out perfectly for both of us. But both of those trips required extensive travel, and now that we have little children, the decision is more complicated emotionally and logistically.

We’ll still be spending Thanksgiving with my in-laws, but this will probably be the first Christmas where I awake in my own bed, 1,500 miles from my parents. I’m excited to start my own traditions, but I’m already mourning the end of an era in my life.

Joy Bennett of Joy In This Journey agrees that sometimes things just change through the years, and the best approach is to be open to those changes:

We are fortunate to live less than an hour’s drive from my parents and two hours’ drive from my husband’s. We alternate between families and switch each year. The years that we have Christmas with my family, we sleep in our home and have our Christmas morning celebration before we go to their house for their celebration. The years that we spend Christmas with my in-laws, we have our own family Christmas the day we leave our house.

I have discovered that spreading the holidays out really helps my kids enjoy things more. When they received everything in one day, it all blurred together into a frenzy. This way they receive a few things from us one day and get to enjoy them before we go visit family. 

The reality of life is that loved ones get married, loved ones get divorced. People move away or pass away. What works one year may not work the next, and the simplest approach to the holiday season often requires being flexible.

 3. Be open-minded

Photo by woodleywonderworks

Again, once you have rooted yourself in your boundaries for this year’s holiday season, it’s fun to explore ways to create new traditions for yourself and your own family. I love this idea from Megan Cobb of Fried Okra:

Distance and circumstances make being with either of our families for the holidays a tricky and fraught proposition at best, so we’ve opted to create our own holiday traditions, just the four of us, for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We plan visits with our families at other, less-chaotic and emotionally-charged times throughout the year.

Now that our kids are older, we’re planning Big City adventures for both holidays. It’s a great time to take advantage of small crowds and lower rates in downtown hotels, restaurants and other attractions and enjoy the holiday decorations and festivities together in a really nice, relaxed atmosphere.

When all of the travel for both holidays got to be too much for Lora Lynn Fanning of Vitafamiliae, she and her husband decided to cut out out the November travels: “We decided to stay home at Thanksgiving and enjoy the holiday with all the other out-of-towners. We had a Thanksgiving club and it was magic.”

Nish Weiseth of Nish Happens notes that living far from family created the opportunity for family members to travel to see them: “Erik and I are grateful to have parents who enjoy traveling to see their kids & grandchildren. So, this has worked out well for everyone while keeping holiday travel with kids to a minimum. It has proven to be the best & most fair option for both sides of the family each year.”

An open-minded approach may look very non-traditional for some families, and that’s okay! The most important thing is to be open to what works for your family at this moment in time.

4. Take tradition with you

Photo by jacreative

As a child, sometimes my family traveled to the home of grandparents’ on the holidays, and sometimes we stayed at home. No matter where we were, we had one long-standing tradition: every Christmas Eve, my father read the story of Jesus’s birth from the Bible, and then all of us were allowed to open one gift from under the tree. This tradition was easily carried to wherever we were celebrating this year.

Find something that is meaningful for you and your family and plan to take it with you if you travel. Sometimes this is the simplest way to tie all of your holidays past, present, and future together.

5. Make peace with reality

Adapting to change always brings a certain level of stress, and there’s something about the holiday season that magnifies the tension. For most of us, changes will come to our holiday plans – small changes and big. Leaning on the boundaries you’ve established might just help you to make peace with the reality of the moment.

car in snow
Photo source

Kelly Gordon of Love Well lives close to her in-laws but far from her own family. She says, “We make an effort to travel to my family as often as we can, but for the holidays we place a higher premium on our immediate family traditions and closeness. Traveling the entire month to see extended or even close relatives would suck away the joy of the season for me.”

If we aren’t careful to be intentional, the joy of the holiday season can quickly be replaced with hard feelings, anger, and disappointment. More than anything, sometimes extending grace to ourselves and others is the simplest way to allow us to experience the most wonderful time of the year.

How does your family navigate the issue of holiday plans and travel?

This post was first published on November 21, 2012.

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  1. Gina

    There is so much wisdom here! We’ve been married 9 years and both come from close-knit families so holiday time is something we had to sort out early on. I’m a people-pleaser so setting boundaries was hard for me. Thankfully, both families adjusted and allowed us some breathing room. In fact, we just changed our “traditional” Thanksgiving plans last week because we felt it was in the best interest of one of our children. One of the BEST decisions we made in this area was claiming Christmas Eve as non-negotiable time at home – just the four of us. This met a bit of resistance the first year because both of our families have long-standing Christmas Eve traditions that we had participated in until that point but claiming that time has allowed us to establish traditions of our own and protected us from holiday burnout. Now, running around to see everyone on Christmas Day is a joy after such a restful Chistmas Eve. Our kids are much sweeter too!

  2. Victoria

    We live a fair distance from family and the expense of trying to visit them over the holidays is just to great. Truthfully I am glad for this honest excuse because I really do love having a quiet Christmas just the 5 of us to reflect, and enjoy.

  3. Brittnie (A Joy Renewed)

    I love the script your counselor friend gave you. This is so very true and so very helpful! I can easily get suckered into caring too much about what a certain person thinks or how that same person responds to decisions I make for myself/my family.

  4. brie.

    mainly we don’t.

    now our second christmas married, we’ve decided to never travel for christmas. we live in the UK, my husband’s family is in new zealand and mine is in canada. having to choose which family, contend with high flight prices and high emotions meant it was exhausting and not a break at all.

    so we’re hunkering down in our flat here in london, we’ll attend our local church for services and spend time enjoying our neighbourhood and all it has to offer! we’ll skype or call family over the immediate days of christmas but not get too hung up on when and where. and we’ll probably spend new year’s with friends. i love it this way.

  5. Robin from Frugal Family Times

    Before we had kids everyone wanted some of our time on Christmas Day. We would have three celebrations to visit on the big day and spent about 7 hours in the car, in snow and ice. Everyone enjoyed it but us. We set a boundary once we had little ones: we’d be staying home Christmas Day. We gave our extended families time on the days leading up to and following Christmas, but the day was for us to build traditions with our children. It was a relief like no other. I started to enjoy the day again, and the rest of the family adapted.

  6. renee @ FIMBY

    Megan, do you think everyone around the world shifts into a holiday gear? I think this is mostly an American phenomena, because of Thanksgiving, but I could be totally wrong. I wonder how people outside the States view the frantic pace of the American holiday season. (I know this wasn’t the direction your post went but it’s what came to mind when I read your first paragraph.) I’d be curious to hear from Simple Mom readers for other parts of the world.

    As for travel, sometimes we go, sometimes we stay put. This year we stay and my parents are coming to us (from 8 hours away so they’ll stay for a few days). But here in Canada we don’t have Thanksgiving to contend with one month before Christmas.

    • Megan

      Good point, Renee! I have to confess that most people I know living overseas are expats, so they tend to carry on in the same traditions of those of us over here. I would also be SUPER interested to hear about the pacing and tone of the holiday season for families around the world.

    • Tsh

      That’s definitely one of the things I miss about living overseas—we Americans go nuts during the holidays. I know it’s crazy in other parts of the world, too, but where we lived, they don’t even celebrate Christmas, so we were free from the culture “telling” us what to do, what to buy, what’s important, etc. We could totally decide for ourselves. December 25 was just another day for everyone else, so we had our own little Christmas fun inside our apartment. 🙂

    • Jennifer

      Renee, I’m in Canada too, and sometimes I wish we had a late Thanksgiving. I really don’t like it when you walk into a store on Nov 1st only to be greeted by discounted Halloween tchotchkes and laughing Santas. I really wish stores would hold off until at least after Remembrance Day, out of respect.

      For our family, the lead up to Christmas starts on the first Sunday of Advent (this year, Dec 2). It can be hard to maintain an attitude of quiet anticipation when corporate North America is encouraging us to empty our pockets, but we find that our family traditions of the Advent wreath and Jesse tree help with that.

    • Lisa

      I’m Swedish and currently live in Luxembourg. We spend Christmas just the four of us since we never live in the same country as our families (my husband is German). We have lived in several countries the last 13 years, and have experienced many different christmas traditions, so we have developed our own thing – cherry picking our way through them all :-). I think Europe might not be quite as “crazy” as the US, but there are strong traditions over here too. I might mention also that in Sweden, the christmas tradition goes way back before christianity – so a lot of our traditions have nothing to do with “the birth of Jesus”. That was just added later…. and adjusted (just like Santa Claus was…)

  7. Sandy Cooper

    “I am not responsible for happiness.
    If _______ is mad, that is his/her feeling, and it doesn’t have to affect me.
    I cannot make ___________ happy.
    It’s okay that I am happy and he/she is not.
    Good boundaries mean that I don’t let his/her attitude ruin my holiday.
    Good boundaries also mean that my feelings matter just as much as his/hers, and I might need to call him/her on it.”

    Can I just frame print that and frame that and have it tatoo-ed on my thigh?????

    Our long-distance family drama began days ago with trying to figure out who is bringing what dish. It’s a turf war and it digs up years of hurt feelings. E-mails and phone calls have already dominated my last 2 days.

    I’ve decided I’m keeping my little family HOME next T-Giving. I’m exhausted and we haven’t even travelled yet!

    • Sandy Cooper

      Sorry for the typos…I was tying so fast! Very emotionally charged right now! (frame print frame!! haha)

      • Megan

        That script has helped me in SO many situations – not just the holidays! As a touchy-feely personality type, it’s really easy for me to let the emotions of others take over my own enjoyment of a situation. I hope that helps you as you navigate the weeks (and years! ha!) to come!

  8. Jenn

    Well said. I think boundaries are especially important. Most of our extended family is near but that seems to cause even more problems. Everyone want’s their turn on babies first christmas ect. One year it go so bad with all the “why it’s our turn.” me and my husband decided we would do christmas at home just the then three of us. It was a difficult decision to make and execute with two very unhappy grandmas but it sent a clear message. We haven’t had trouble with them being more flexible about days in years since.

  9. Katelyn

    In our early marriage years before children, we were 6 hours drive away and would “go home” for 2-3 weeks during the Christmas season. My husband’s parents and my mother live within 15 minutes of each other so a single visit can/must include both sides – a blessing and a difficulty. My father’s family is 2 hour’s drive from my mother’s house and I would frequently do a day visit during this time. During my son’s 1st Christmas (5 months at the time), we went home for 2 weeks. It was doable but I was ready to be back in my quiet house with our own routine by the end. By my son’s 2nd Christmas, we’d moved 2000+ miles away from family. We did not go anywhere for Christmas but did have my mother visit us during Thanksgiving. This year (my son’s 3rd Christmas though he’s only 2.5 years old) my in laws are flying to stay with us for 10 days and we will have no visitors for Thanksgiving. My MIL has already offered to pay for our airfare next year to have us come visit for Christmas. I’m hesitant and my husband is gung-ho set to hie off for several weeks. I think it’s more difficult for me because I bear the majority of the “baby care” for our son and being out of our routine (food/sleep/activity) especially for extended periods of time in someone else’s house is stressful. (My son has never been a great sleeper and out of routine traveling makes it worse.) I also feel internal pressure to “share the baby” equally between both sides’ grandparents despite the fact that one house is NOT set up for a toddler. I’m not sure what we’ll do next year. We have awhile to decide and waiting to see what our routine looks like as my son gets older will play a definite factor. I foresee us going but for shorter than my husband would like and longer than I would like.

  10. Sarah Westphal

    Great post Megan!
    Due to my husband’s family living on the West Coast of Canada, and us on the East Coast it hasn’t been an issue as my in-laws travel to stay with us for Christmas–which is a true blessing! (My mom and dad are deceased unfortunately.) My problem is slowing down the house projects enough to really enjoy the season. So this year my man set boundaries on doing house projects–which is to say NONE from end of October until after January. So this is the first year we/I will actually relax! I have actually booked off the first two weekends in December from inviting people over (or visa-versa) so that we can watch those Christmas movies and not decorate the tree in a mad rush at midnight the night before my in-laws are due to arrive!
    So excited!

  11. Tehila

    Being Jewish we celebrate Hannukah so it’s simpler to take our candleholder than it is a Christmas tree around with us. We still light the candles for 8 days, sing our traditional songs, and even make the traditional donuts where we have the facilities to do so 🙂

    Thanks for a great and practical post!

  12. Rita@thissortaoldlife

    Such a helpful post, Megan. That script alone was worth the price of the click. 🙂

    As a child, every Christmas was the same: Christmas Eve with one set of grandparents, Christmas day with the other, and the day after at my great-grandma’s farm. When we’d return home, Santa would have visited and we’d have our final (4th!) “Christmas.” I loved the sameness. It was wonderful, and I’ve been sad that because of divorce, remarriage, and geography I haven’t been able to give that to my kids. As I’ve reflected this year, I’ve realized that I’m giving them something else instead: The gift of adaptability. Part of my holiday struggle as an adult has been trying to hold onto those childhood traditions–which, of course, didn’t fit so well as all of our lives changed. I hope my children, when they are grown, will feel freedom to craft their holidays in ways that work for them. Guilt-free.

  13. priest's wife (@byzcathwife)

    We are pretty low-key and flexible around here- one thing we do is celebrate the 12 days of Christmas- which START on Christmas day—then we have plenty of time to celebrate and visit

  14. Emily

    This is the first year since we’ve been married that we’ll be staying home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. In the past, we traveled home for both, or at least Christmas, and then celebrated with both sets of parents AND both extended families! It was always a crazy whirlwind trip. This year, my husband has a new job without as much vacation time, and we had two big trips for weddings, plus family came out to visit us for my college graduation. So, we’re staying home. It wasn’t an easy decision for my husband, but I’m really looking forward to having our own little celebrations with just the two of us!

  15. Christine

    This is always such a balancing act. I tackled it in September this year. Pregnant with our third child and living far from family I decided we absolutely would not be having family visit for Christmas (I’ll be 39 weeks pregnant) and traveling was obviously out. Family was understanding that I couldn’t consider hosting anyone. I also said that I would prefer no visitors for Thanksgiving but that if it was important I would accomodate. My family does low-key Thanksgivings, and so that wasn’t an issue. Thankfully, my in-laws understood that a visit after the baby would make more sense anyway. It has made this a very low stress holiday season, which is great because between trying to finish a bunch of work stuff before the baby comes and prepare for baby and Christmas, I have just about all the stress I need without any extra people around!

    Besides, there’s always next year.

  16. Lex

    “Establish Boundaries” – Man, I need to work on this. Thanks for the reminder. I’m seriously going to jot down that little mantra. 🙂

  17. Carole

    I think it’s interesting that most of the comments so far are from people who have to choose between traveling or staying local. What about those of us with both sides of the family in our home town? It’s challenging because it seems that there is no “good” reason not to “do it all.” Going from house to house with young children is tiring! I’m curious to hear from others who have both sides of the family in the same town. How do you deal with sharing the holiday without stressing out?

    • Emily

      This year we’re traveling partly to avoid local stress! I found it really interesting that to me it felt easier to fly across the country with my husband and our 2 yr old than to stay here and do the negotiating of various events with all the local family members who live within an hour’s drive from us. We’ll still be with some family, just not the usual ones. My in-laws actually seemed to handle the idea of us traveling more easily than our attempts last year to try to do things differently than how they always did them. We’ll see them either before or after our trip to exchange presents. I’ve learned that it’s really important to them to see us opening gifts from them, maybe less important than being together on the actual day. Whereas my mom tends to fall apart over gift giving and cares more about being together. So that is one way to try to work things out, besides thinking about your own boundaries, see if you can sort out what the other people’s strongest feelings are about and work around it if you can.

  18. CreditDonkey

    The established tradition in our family is to spend Christmas Eve with my mom, with all the siblings and their respective families. However, I am sure this will change in due time when mom is no longer with us. I hope this won’t come soon as we love her and enjoy spending time with her.

  19. Mary

    Oh gosh, how topical. I just traveled for Thanksgiving, which is cooling my previous eagerness to travel for Xmas. But eventually the relatives do have to be visited if the families are to stay close. I loved the counselor comment you added, “Good boundaries also mean that my feelings matter just as much as his/hers, and I might need to call him/her on it.” Yup! Or, if calling them on it does not/will not work, at least understanding the nature of the situation and where the frustration is coming from.

  20. Katie @ The Very Hungry

    Thanks for reposting this one. Now that it’s pointed out, a LOT of holiday chaos does seem related to boundary issues. I think how the over buying is connected. I also appreciate Nish’s idea of an out of towners party. We have friends who do this kind of thing but call it a “Misfit Party!”

    Happy holidays and a bright new year to you all.

  21. Maggie

    Such good advice. I often think we need a collective time out for everyone to just sit in stillness for a bit. Emotions (particularly for little ones) run so high and a little bit of quiet would do us all so much good.

  22. Caroline Starr Rose

    Because my husband’s a pastor, family comes to us this time of year. This will be the first time in a long time it will just be the four of us, which is actually going to be lovely.

  23. Robyn

    Thanks for this reminder. I’ve been using a script similar to the boundary and feelings one listed above Every. Single. Day. this season. Emotions are running extra high this year.

  24. Stephanie@Mrs.Debtfighter

    The best gift my parents and in-laws have given us is an easy holiday! We celebrate Christmas with the in-laws on a different day so there isn’t a whole lot of driving around on Christmas day. My parents come to our house on Christmas since we are the ones with kids! 🙂

  25. Rain San Martin

    We opt out of Holiday travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas. If they want to visit us on Thanksgiving the door is open, yet Christmas is kept super simple. Now I can enjoy the Holiday season more than ever before, which means much more baking just for the fun it.

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