On my Moms side of the family, Thanksgiving and Christmas were the only times we all gathered to celebrate together. It was always at my grandparents house. We all went. Thanksgiving was not on Thanksgiving day, but the weekend before or after. Christmas … same way. It was cousin time and a time for aunts and uncles to ask, “how is school?.” It always included lots of comfort food – multiple turkeys and two different kinds of stuffing for Thanksgiving, and a wonderful fusion of dishes for Christmas.
Dad’s side of the family had more abbreviated gatherings and it felt like more of an obligation than a celebration. I do remember opening a gift for Christmas one year … a portable record player with a 45 of Little Drummer Boy. I also remember that Grandma fixed duck.
By the time I had a family of my own, family holidays were in transition. Grandparents had passed away or simply delegated the hosting to their children. Mostly I was concerned with making sure our kids had cousin time and aunts and uncles to ask them how school was going. Of course it always is important that they have every opportunity to spend time with their grandparents! However, our move from Michigan to Texas changed the game. It was no longer just a matter of whose house we would drive to on Christmas Eve. We gathered when we could, and driving to Missouri to spend Thanksgiving with Dave’s parents was more apt to happen than driving or flying to Michigan. It also became very important to establish or own family traditions. Our focus was on the kids.
Now we find ourselves in this new empty nest phase of life … trying to keep family traditions together while respecting each grown child’s plans and preferences. We spend some holidays home … just the two of us. I admit to shedding a tear or two, reminiscing of times when the kids needed me to make monkey bread for them on Thanksgiving morning while we watched the parade together on tv. I appreciate how well my folks refrained from guilt trips when we could not come “home” to be with them. I also remember my dad telling my mom, when we were young, how unreasonable it was for her parents to expect us to all come and see them, when it would be easier for them to visit us.
As we strive for that delicate balance between pulling everyone together and allowing them to pursue their own priorities, I wanted to explore those options. For purposes of this blog post, I have chosen to focus on Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Some of you helped me on social media when I threw the topic out there, and I thank you for sharing different ideas with me.
If you are not familiar with the story about the Trip to Abilene (for a 6 minute poor quality video with an excellent message, https://youtu.be/HM-XyALCGXM ), I highly encourage you to watch this video! I hope and pray that we avoid making this trip as a family. Unfortunately, we sometimes strive for things without stopping to determine if they are the right things.
Why is it important to gather together as a family for holidays? Is it because the holidays are richer when surrounded by more of those you love? Is it so that no one is alone during this special time of year? Is it because … well, we’re supposed to do it?
We should also realize for whom we are gathering. I have heard people complain about all the preparation for hosting a family get-together, and wondered if those attending were complaining about havng to attend! Abilene, for sure!
I think it is extremely important that extended families make an effort to gather at least annually. Some people will think it should be far more often, but it becomes harder and harder (more on that later). As we explore options for how to plan holidays together, we should keep in mind our primary focus … are we doing it for us? for the kids? Is there a stage of passing the baton (who’s responsible)? Are the holidays the only time we gather? Our personal answers to these questions may help us determine what makes sense for our family … and every family is different!
What complicates matters?
Traveling / Distance
Years and years ago, families lived near each other. It was possible to visit both “in-laws” and celebrate at home all in the same day. It was easy to play it by ear and to be flexible.
Now families are more scattered geographically. Going “home” for the holidays often involves flight arrangements and time off work. Distance means that a trip home, in order to make it worth the time and expense of getting there, should involve more than a day or two. Sometimes hotel arrangements become necessary … especially if grandparents have begun downsizing to accommodate their new lifestyle.
In-laws Plans and Traditions
Let’s say your new daughter-in-law’s family has a long-standing tradition of throwing a big party on Thanksgiving. This party involves extended family and friends who often travel from out of state to attend. Would it be insensitive to still plan on a family Thanksgiving that conflicted? Or does this mean that your family works around these plans every year? This is not hypothetical … and I respect the other family’s plans. It’s just another consideration among many.
Single Kids & Single Parents
When we strive to reserve family get-togethers for a time everyone is free, we almost always look for days other than the actual holiday. What this means is that single kids or parents are alone on that holiday. Let’s not forget that, and make sure to include them if even for a smaller gathering or informal day of hanging out.
We all love the magic that children bring to any gathering! But one tired mom confided that holidays are a nightmare for them. It’s often complicated traveling with kids and all their gear… especially if they have several family commitments to attend. By the time they make their rounds, they have no energy left for those special, private days at home with just their immediate family. We need to give them time to establish what holidays mean to them.
Not everyone has a “normal” 9-5 weekday job. With at least a couple of my kids working in the service industry, I know all to well that they do not have direct control over their availability. If we cannot give them specifics well in advance, chances are that they will miss out on the family gathering. And if we wait until we find out what their schedule is, the other family members are left in limbo, and unable to lock in their other commitments.
Travel can be expensive… especially if hotel rooms and airfare are involved. Budgeting ahead for such expenditures is a part of “adulting” that not all of our children have caught on to. If I must be honest, we don’t always do this well ourselves. This consideration is a major one when determining family holiday plans.
Divorces and Remarriage
Now that’s another complication! More people to consider, and more individual families with which to make plans. As the “matriarch,” I have to be careful not to step on toes and not to offend, while at the same time providing some stability and plans that my family can count on.
One often overlooked consideration involves people who do not have children. If all of the plans center around grandchildren, for example, those of your kids that do not have children may begin to feel like second-hand citizens. Their vote should count as much as your kids that do have children.
Options for Family Holiday Scheduling
Divide and Conquer
This option is one that some families will never consider, but it is an interesting possibility. Couples see each other every day, yet we tend to assume that we need to make plans in tandem. What if we decided to each visit our parents on a particular holiday? I would go to Michigan and Dave would go to Missouri. Would our families wonder if our marriage was on the rocks? Or would they, although they love our spouses, enjoy having us to themselves like when we were growing up? And what if our kids did that … visit us without their SO (significant other)? Kill two birds with one stone?
Move the Celebration to Another Date
Perhaps Thanksgiving, rather than being the fourth Thursday of the November, is always celebrated with your family on the fourth Sunday of November. Or maybe you celebrate Christmas on New Year’s Day (and do all your shopping at post-Christmas sales). You can do whatever you want! Don’t let the national holiday calendar dictate what you must do and when! However, if you can plan on the family celebration date and agree to keep that date every year, as my friend Monica says, “We all always know when and where each year so there is no hassle.”
As my friend Brenda put it, “We don’t celebrate on the actual holiday. Our kids all have their own families and are making their family traditions. I remember how hard and stressful holidays were when they were little, and I don’t want to do that to them.”
Alternate Every Year
One of my friends confided, “we celebrate Christmas (mom’s side) every even year and on the odd year (dad’s side). So on the odd year, on Moms side to keep the gathering going, we will have a picnic gathering in October.”
Opt Out Altogether & Take a Trip
I’ve noticed that some people are using the holidays as a good time to take a family trip. This works well considering that many people already have some time off work during the holidays, and we can even redirect holiday spending (gift money) to covering the expenses of the trip itself. In fact, in order to increase the chances that everyone can attend, gifting “trip money” for birthdays and anniversaries during the year can serve as a lead-up to the family trip. Of course, it may be difficult to get away during the holidays due to other family commitments (in-laws), so it’s an option that the trip is in the summer. That lessens the pressure to make a big deal of holiday gatherings … center the focus for a different time of year.
Combined Family Gathering
Perhaps your family or that of your in-laws is small enough that it’s possible to enjoy a combined family celebration. I even know of one family that includes their exes and their spouses so that their kids don’t have to worry about going back and forth!
Although I’ve focused primarily on Thanksgiving and Christmas for this particular blog post, similar considerations exist for other holidays. For some reason, Easter wasn’t as big of an extended family celebration when I was growing up, and we tended to center it more around Easter Sunday and church as our children were growing up. But we look for any excuse to get together as a family! Birthdays are another holiday that deserve a family dinner, in addition to Mothers Day and Fathers Day.
I am using this blog post as a launching pad for a family discussion on how to handle the upcoming holiday season, and I hope it elicits those considerations for others. I will remind myself to focus on what’s important … what we are trying to accomplish. Avoiding a trip to Abilene … unless as Texans that’s where we WANT to go … is the objective!