First, let me start with a basic: This is definitely something I advise engaged couples to talk about right away, especially if you marry in the fall or winter—meaning that family holiday plans hit right away. You’re still adjusting to married life, and then bam! The families are calling to arrange holiday plans. Sometimes, both sets of families become very emotionally attached to ‘getting you’ for your first married Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Thanksgiving. If distance is a factor, someone’s family has to ‘win.’ And someone’s family has to hear, “We’ll be with you next year.” That can be very, very tough on your new marriage—and also on the families.
Photo Credit: Hailey Erickson Photography
Here, how to handle if...
► One familiy lives nearby 
► Both families live nearby 
► One or both families live far away 
► You celebrate the same holidays 
► You celebrate different holidays 
► You're stuck on one holiday 
The bottom line is this: Everyone has to be flexible about holiday traditions. Remember the main goal: Spending this important time together. Here, the four basic steps to deciding how to spend your holidays (don't worry—we'll get into the nitty gritty, too!):
If parents start calling now to ask if you’ll be at Christmas or other holiday events, don’t give an immediate answer. Use this smart stall tactic: “I have to talk with (spouse) so that we can make a plan that works best for everyone.” It’s not okay to say “yes” to the first family that calls, then tell the second family—who doesn’t start planning Christmas in November—that they missed the boat. That sets up a competition that stresses out parents, hurts their ability to blend in with the other side of the family (if they see them as trying to ‘steal you’ for holidays), and sets a precedent that’s really hard to break.
You have to be the one to deliver the diplomatic message of, “We love spending holidays with the family, and since we’re a combined family now, we have to explore ways to make the holidays fun and fair to everyone. Some things are going to need to change a little bit for everyone, but that’s necessary so that the holidays stay special and enjoyable.” Deliver this with a smile, of course.
Talk to your fiancé or spouse about what family holidays mean to you. Would you be heartbroken to miss out on your family’s traditional Christmas morning breakfast? Maybe your groom doesn’t hold that moment as a must with his family. Maybe he’s more of an ‘I can’t miss Thanksgiving’ guy, and you’re fine with that. When you know each other's key holiday moments, you can work together to make sure you’re both getting the precious holiday experiences that mean the most to you.
If you’ve been spending the holidays apart (despite being engaged or even married), and you’re not happy with the current situation, it’s time to speak up. Say, “This has gotten too hard on me to be without you for the holiday. Let’s come up with a new plan. We can host, or we can alternate who we spend the holiday with, but being apart every year just can’t happen anymore. I don’t want this to build up and cause resentments and fights. I’m just at my limit, and we need to make a new plan.”
Here’s a tip that I love: Ask your parents about how they split the holidays when they first got married. If their parents lived in different states, did they take turns visiting different families? Did they host? Getting input from the parents gives you a lot of insight into their mindset. Maybe they hated having to drive around all through Christmas weekend and haven’t thought of that in years. It's also a gentle reminder of the dilemma you're facing.
Try not to stress; it’s often an easier discussion than you might expect. Most parents realize that when their kids get married, holidays have to be divided. Change isn't easy, but sometimes it's inevitable.
Once you make your decisions, call both sides as soon as possible, especially if you know your mom starts making menu lists months in advance. Assure the side you won't be celebrating with that you'll be with them for another upcoming holiday.
If parents protest, keep in mind that this can be hard for your parents, especially if it’s your first time missing the holiday. And it’s likely to be tough for you as well. So reassure them that you wish there was a way to spend the holiday with both families, but it’s simply too difficult for you to drive such a long distance to get to both places and, given holiday traffic, you don’t want to spend the entire holiday on a highway.
The good news: Any holiday decisions you make as a newlywed don’t have to be your holiday decisions for life. If you sense that there’s an unfair division brewing, speak up! Some parents really know how to push the guilt trip button to get their way. Some parents actually want to ‘beat’ the ‘other side’ in getting you more often. And some parents, sadly, use the holidays to get as much attention and control as possible. So if you’re being told that his parents have to get every Thanksgiving, and your parents can get the next day (every year), that’s an important conversation to have. Just ask your spouse how he’d feel if his mother never got to see him on Christmas. Remind him that you’re keeping the holidays fair and equal, and everyone has to compromise equally. Tell him you’re really starting to dread Thanksgiving, since it’s hurting your family not to see you and hurting you not to see them. And giving them the day after feels like a consolation prize. Your spouse might not have seen it that way.
Fights can happen during the holidays, since you both may be under a lot of pressure from your families. So, share the news clearly and early that you’re an extended family now, and while you’re doing your best to make everyone happy, the reality is that you may just have to spend some holidays apart from time to time.
You can either choose which holidays you’ll each “get” every single year, or you can divide the list in half and alternate where you spend each holiday every year. This option lets you be fully present at the family holiday, not checking your watch for when you need to leave, not missing dessert or sitting there sensing your parents' disappointment that they’re only getting you part-time. And it's a smart option if one or both of the families live far away.
The first alternating year can be really hard before the holiday arrives. All you can think about is what you’re missing or that you have to miss your family’s holiday first. But you’ll get through it. You’ll call and speak to everyone, getting the love through the phone. It does get easier in following years, and you’ll notice a few things during the holiday that are actually a relief. You get to unwind and relax after Thanksgiving dinner, watch a movie or play games with the family, rather than hitting the road. Shake off the disappointment, and you can be present for the wonderful things happening where you are.
Next year, it’ll be at the other family’s place or at your own place. The whole point of a holiday is celebrating traditions and spending quality time with family and friends. And it’s not selfish at all to say, “It’s too exhausting for us to travel to both places. We really need to be in one place this year. And next year, we’ll be with you.”
Another factor is a big one: Do either of you have an ill parent or grandparent for whom this might be the last holiday? That takes precedence over everything. The other side of the family will surely understand. And if this is your only time to meet your sister’s new baby, as they travel in from another state or country, that makes being there a high priority.
If you plan to hit up two families on one holiday, the most important factor to take into consideration is your travel time—and be realistic about holiday traffic. A two-hour trip can easily turn into a six-hour trip. My brother drives 5 hours to spend Christmas Eve with us, and then he and his wife drive 6 hours to New Hampshire on Christmas morning to spend Christmas evening with her family. This works for them, and everyone is happy with the situation. But if you’re not looking forward to holiday road trips, or if both familes don't live within reasonable driving distance, that leads me to option #3.
You can begin your marriage by hosting the holidays yourself. Just say that it’s a dream of yours to host everyone in your home and use your gorgeous shower and wedding gifts for such a momentous occasion. You’re excited about it, and it would mean the world to you. Besides the sweetness of your dream come true, it puts an effective end to the ‘we always do this on Christmas Eve’ and ‘we always do this on Thanksgiving.’ The chain is broken, and you’ve ushered in a new era of ‘although our holiday traditions are different, since life has changed for all of us, the meaning of the holiday is the same: we’re all together.’
Stay flexible: Remind everyone that this year’s plan may not be the way it’s always going to be. There could be a different plan next year, so no one has to get upset that they’ve ‘lost’ their holiday traditions.
If both families live nearby: If you, your spouse, and your families are devout, and attending services is an important value to you all, the main concern is that each family may want to attend religious services in their own church. Inviting one side to the other side’s church might work if they’re open to it, so ask. If they say they’d rather not, ask which mass they attend. Some families go to 3pm mass and some go to midnight mass. You might decide to go to mass with one family, host the holiday dinner in your home, then go to mass with the other family. Or, if that’s too much for you, you go with your family and he goes with his family. That way, you’re not apart for the holiday itself; you’re just doing something separate for an hour.
If one family lives closer to you: Alternating years is your best-case scenario. One year, you don’t have a lot of driving or flying to do, since you’re spending the holiday with the family that lives nearby, and the next year you have the big trip to spend with the other family. Religious services are shared and traditions maintained, but the expensive trip is every only other year, which can be more realistic on your newlywed budget.
If both families live far away: This scenario often calls for one family to ‘get you’ on, say, Christmas Eve, when you can attend services together. Then you either depart late Christmas Eve to get to the other family, or you spend Christmas morning where you are, then leave right away to get to the other family. If traveling is too expensive and/or time-consuming, it's perfectly fine to spend the holiday at home with just the two of you!
When you and your groom are of different religions or cultures, there can be a lot of holidays popping up every few months. Since many of these celebrations can fall on weekdays, you or your spouse may find yourself unable to take extra time off work. And it’s okay to not celebrate every single holiday! Decide ahead of time which holidays you’ll attend together, which you or your spouse will attend solo, and which you’ll skip altogether.
The best marriages remember to take each partner’s needs into consideration, and it would be unfair to drag your partner – or be dragged yourself – to yet another holiday obligation. You don’t want anyone feeling miserable during the visit or building up resentment.
Important: If you’re not going to the holiday event, call or Skype in to say a quick hello to everyone.
Whether you’re of the same religion or of different religions, Thanksgiving can be a tricky one. For starters, it’s one of the few one-day-only celebrations (Christmas has Christmas Eve. Hanukkah has 8 whole nights to fit in everyone. Even the Fourth of July is celebrated all weekend long). Here, a few options:
Split the day in half: But definitely take travel time into account. Thanksgiving is a really food-heavy holiday (not that other holidays aren’t!) but we all know the turkey coma that happens after the big holiday meal. Are you really going to want to hightail it out of there after dinner to do dessert with the other family? There’s also the other parts of Thanksgiving that factor into family traditions: Watching the parade on TV or playing a family game of touch football. Measure out what you can realistically do if you plan to split the holiday.
Turn Thanksgiving into a multi-day celebration: This becomes an especially common approach if your siblings are also married. Get their input; this may be the solution that everyone has been dying for year after year. Maybe your parents have been disappointed in the years prior to your wedding that they only saw you every other Thanksgiving or that you always had to leave prior to dessert. Just say, “Let’s call this year an experiment and see how it goes.” If it also works for your siblings, it might turn out that parents get the full-attendance Thanksgiving they’ve been wanting for so long.
Host both families in your home: Yes, it’s a lot of work. But you can mobilize siblings to make a few dishes (maybe their specialties) or bring chairs to make it easier on yourself. Be the captain and send out an email asking everyone what they’d like to make or bring. If you’ll be hosting a lot of people, set up the food platters in the kitchen for everyone to help themselves buffet-style. That’ll give you more room on the dining room table. Plus, there’s no endless, awkward platter-passing or hot plates on trivets that turn one person into a pass-the-plate food server. Bonus: It keeps the platters closer to the refrigerator for easier cleanup.
Go out! Every few years, we take everyone to a big, special brunch at a great hotel nearby. We all get champagne, an endless selection of buffet food options, freshly carved meat, more desserts than we’d ever be able to make, and a pianist playing great music. We all get dressed up, and everyone’s so happy because no one has to work their butts off to host the holiday. It’s just happy family togetherness time and often costs just as much as all of those grocery and liquor bills. (We found that we missed the leftovers, so we bought a turkey breast, mashed potatoes and some sides to have at home.)
Go your separate ways: If you’re both truly and honestly happy about spending the holidays apart—you with your family and he with his—then do it! If you’ve noticed in the past that you’re missing your family too much while at his family’s place, and let’s say his mom (with whom you have a rocky relationship) notices your down mood and whispers to your groom with a dramatic sigh that your mood has something to do with her…then it can be far better to just go where your heart wants you to be. Why deal with drama when you’re already bummed out? And why subject your groom to your dad’s inevitable rantings about politics?
Let's face it, not all families get along like the Brady Bunch. Given some families’ personality clashes, maybe it’s best to just go yourself, your spouse go deal with his mom’s act at her place, and then the two of you do your own Thanksgiving the next day. Or, if you had to travel very far to your families, have a special meal the next weekend for just the two of you.
If you have kids, though, it may be best to alternate where you go as an undivided family. Or host the holiday yourselves, with the kids pitching in and taking great pride in making the centerpiece or the place cards.