Focus on the Family

Holidays and the In-Laws

There are no specific right and wrong ways for families to spend the holidays together, but there could be better ways.

by Wilford Wooten

How have you dealt with special days like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Easter, Memorial Day, and birthdays? Most of us might think only in terms of the way we grew up, perhaps with Mom and Dad, and expect these occasions to be celebrated the same way.

The only problem, now that you're married, is whose mom and dad's celebration of the holidays you're going to adopt. An added challenge confronts blended families, who may have a host of combinations of relationships and traditions to consider.

One husband and wife, like many others, found themselves in a quandary. Where should they go for Thanksgiving? In an effort to respect the desires of both sets of parents and a grandmother, they ended up rushing from house to house. The result: They didn't enjoy the food or the time together.

Sometimes practical considerations minimize this conflict. If family members live far apart, the question of where to spend the holidays may be answered when travel costs are taken into account. Often, though, the solutions aren't quite so clear.

Premarital counseling may be the best place to start addressing this question; it's frequently covered in that setting. Whether you discussed this important area of family relationships before you were married or are just now beginning to deal with it, here are some key concepts that can help you decide how and where to spend your holidays:

  1. Sit down with your spouse and share—orally and in writing—how each of you feels about holidays and how they're spent. Include major national holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions that are special to you. If it's your family's tradition to take a drive to see the changing autumn leaves, for instance, don't hesitate to mention it. The same goes for marking the start of fishing season, the last day of school, or the Super Bowl.
  2. Explain how you spent the holidays as a child. Which aspects did you enjoy? Which would you like to change? If the two of you were raised in different countries or cultures, what holidays could you learn more about? For example, a spouse who grew up in England might not realize the significance of Thanksgiving and Independence Day to a mate who was raised in the U.S.
  3. Consider how your parents and other relatives may wish to have you involved. Perhaps a Christmas Eve service together is important to the wife's parents, while Christmas dinner is central to the husband's. Try to be open to the desires of family members—but not controlled by them.
  4. Agree on how you as a couple would like to establish your own holiday traditions. Work for balance and fairness. For example, you might decide to spend Christmas morning with your parents and Christmas evening with your spouse's (if both live close by). The following year you might spend the whole day at home as a couple—or, if you have children, with them.
  5. Be open to changing your plan as needed. Flexibility and variation can help to avoid hard feelings when the in-laws' expectations aren't met. For instance, you might invite relatives to gather at your place instead of agonizing over which ones to visit. You might even take a vacation during the holidays to add variety and break the cycle of expectations.

Despite the usefulness of these steps, holiday observances still can be an emotional minefield for couples and in-laws. Here are some cautions to keep in mind:

  1. It may be a lot easier for you and your spouse to change what you want for the holidays than for parents to adjust what's been important to them for many years. Share openly with them some of your ideas and hopes for holiday times, letting them know that you value being with them.
  2. Develop realistic expectations of how the holidays should be spent. Wishful thinking generally leads to hurt feelings and disappointments. Personality differences, physical limitations, and philosophical disagreements don't disappear just because a particular date on the calendar has arrived. On the contrary, these factors often become more pronounced under stress—and most holidays provide plenty of that.
  3. Holiday gift-giving can be a source of conflict and hurt. While it's better to give than receive (Acts 20:35), most people seem to prefer a balance of the two. Exchanging presents can easily get out of hand, creating hardship for family members who can't afford the expense. Try creative options. For example, you might give Christmas or birthday gifts to immediate family members, exchange names for other relatives, or give single gifts to family units.

There may be no specific right and wrong ways for families to spend the holidays together, but there could be better ways for you to approach holiday traditions and expectations. To keep those days worth celebrating, remember these tips: