What To Do If Our Holiday Traditions Collide? Come on Parents, Get Curious!

I love Thanksgiving; it’s my favorite holiday.

I’ve attributed my bias to the fact that, as an ex-pat Canadian, I didn’t grow up with the national fanfare and non-denominational appeal of U.S. Thanksgiving.

In short, I don’t have any childhood baggage around the holiday, no challenging familial associations, no assumptions about what Thanksgiving merriment should look like.

In the absence of that baggage, for years Thanksgiving seemed—to me at least—like an opportunity for festive inventiveness, a day to be designed and redesigned annually to reflect my shifting experience of gratitude.

Now that I’m married, and a mother, I’ve been thinking about how to keep that inventive spirit alive and how to approach any number of occasions, not just Thanksgiving, in a way that both honors my own and my wife’s distinct holiday yearnings and reflects what we want to create together as a family.

Like many things that are passed from one generation to another, how we celebrate holidays—including, where and with whom—gets naturalized over time:

We’ve always done it this way and we always will.

Yet as parents in committed relationships, we often juggle two different sets of family traditions. When that happens, it’s not uncommon for couples to spend so much time negotiating, or battling over, holiday details that we forget to discuss and, better yet, discover what kind of holiday we—as a couple and as parents—want to create for ourselves and our family.

How do we begin to do that?

A great first step, assuming you’re spending the holidays with your, or your spouse’s, family of origin, is to approach this season like a cultural anthropologist, or an intrepid explorer, charged with discerning the unique tribal practices of your hosts.

Your job is to be curious about those practices—even if you grew up with them—to better understand their importance and their symbolic value to the tribe.

Once you’ve had a chance to record data about your and your beloved’s holiday traditions, both of you jot down those that are most important to you, those that honor each of your priorities and values.

Next, share your discoveries with your spouse. Don’t be surprised if, it turns out, that what you value most about your childhood traditions is less about the specific practices and more about how they enhanced your sense of self or family.

Understanding what we don’t appreciate about some of our own or our spouse’s holiday traditions is equally useful; by inverting what we dislike, we often find what’s important to us and what we want to honor in our own family.

Once you’ve done this legwork, ask yourself and your spouse:

What traditions feel non-negotiable and what about them is so important to you?

If you find that one or more of those traditions incite disagreement, consider:
Given how important this tradition is to me, how do you think we can find a way to honor it, at least to some degree? OR

How might we honor each other’s traditions—even the ones we dislike—in a way that’s respectful? How can we communicate our different perspectives to our kids and still reflect a team spirit, even if we don’t agree with each other’s priorities?

And, perhaps, most importantly:
If we were to set aside both our families’ holiday traditions and imagine starting from scratch, how would you describe what this holiday means to you and what you’d like it to mean to our family?

What new or revised traditions might capture the spirit of your holiday vision?

Many of us experience holidays (or pressure from parents or in-laws about them) as primal and sacred. Conversely, some of us bridle against holiday fanfare so much that it’s hard to imagine the merits of any past traditions.

Whatever our story, holidays offer our relationship and family an opportunity to understand what we do and don’t appreciate from our own childhoods and what unique traditions we can design for our own children.

In that sense, we’re not just explorers this holiday season, we’re time travelers; inspired by the holiday spirit we’re primed to step into team spirit with our spouses, and bridge the gap between our pasts and our kids’ present.

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