The Power of Tradition
Bonnie Harris says family traditions can be strongly branded upon children and decades later those children grow into adults who relive their holiday traditions and, often, define themselves by the family culture and their role in it. Harris, who is the author of Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You'll Love to Live With, says the problem is that when these traditions no longer work for their own family, it's very difficult to switch out of that old mold.
"Everyone knows you have to make compromises, but that's harder than usual when the holidays are the issue," Harris says. "It's especially hard when two people are starting a family and both want to carry on their family traditions. It can be even harder if they're from different religions."
Harris says the ability for an adult child to confront their parents about wanting to start their own traditions depends upon the relationship between the generations. "If your parents have always been accepting of your growth and development it's easier to say to them that you need to change traditions so your own children can spend the holidays at their home," Harris says. "Just the fear and stress of trying to broach the subject can make you say the wrong thing, or say it in the wrong way."
The reason it is important to bring it up, Harris says, is because the happiness and comfort of your own children are what are at stake. "The important thing about holidays and children is to be sure you're not imposing too much on your own children," Harris says. "If there's a lot of family stress around your particular schedule, it's time to adjust the ritual."
From Three Christmases to One
For a while after they had their first child, Lynn Morley of Belton, Missouri, tried to keep up the "three Christmas" tradition she and her husband had followed when they first married. It was a daunting schedule, beginning with Christmas Eve at their own home, then a two-hour plus drive to her in-law's house, and then a plane trip to Florida on Christmas Day to spend it with her parents. But when her second child, Matthew, was born, it became too much.
"Traveling with presents plus baby gear, whether in a car or on a plane, was a nightmare," Morley says. "My husband would have our oldest child plus the luggage, while I had the youngest strapped to me and a car seat in each hand. Oh, and we were both wearing backpacks. There's nothing merrier than Christmas in an airport—right? After my favorite holiday of the year turned into a stressful one and we were preparing for one more, I suggested to my husband that we host the holidays."
He had some objections, but Morley countered them all with practical suggestions for how they could make it work—and it has. If there were resentments or hurt feelings, Morley says the family kept it to themselves.
Dr. Donna Tonrey, director of the marriage and family therapy program at La Salle University in Philadelphia, says it's natural for extended family members to be unhappy when asked to change their expectations for the holidays, but the newly formed family needs to come first. She says the priorities should be in this order:
- The couple
- The children
- The extended family
Dr. Tonrey suggests that if a holiday tradition has become stressful, you need to begin by examining the tradition itself and deciding if it really does have meaning, or if it is, at its core, merely a habit. "Most people aren't even aware of where their traditions come from," Dr. Tonrey says. "Before you know it, they're just doing these things mindlessly. The meaning gets lost. It's important for people to know their traditions, understand them, and then change them if necessary."
She suggests that examining the traditions should begin with these three questions:
- Why do you want to continue this tradition?
- What about it feels special to you?
- How does it fit in for this new family of yours?
Honestly examining your traditions and how you feel about them can help you determine if you want and need them, or if you're merely following them out of guilt or misguided loyalty. In Lynn Morley's case, she just loved her extended family and wanted to make everyone happy. In the end, she knew she had to make her own family happy first, and everyone seemed to accept that and understand.
"We still travel, but the stress is gone because we do it on our timeframe," Morley says. "Some might say this is selfish, but our families don't think so. We all acknowledge that Christmas is about the children, not the adults, so it works for all of us. After all, how often do you have a family birthday get-together on your actual birthday? My dad once told me that it doesn't matter where we have Christmas or on what day, as long as we're all together."