How to Decide Where to Spend the Holidays

Determining where to celebrate the holidays once you're married can be extremely complicated. Here, get targeted advice for your specific dilemma.

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

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.

Next: The three basic options for holiday plans ►