Bring peace to the holiday tug of war

McMurran Hall Winter, Frank Ceravalo

I wrote this article a couple years ago, and I posted it last year on the blog. I opened the file again when I received an online message from Casie Attinger-Price of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Casie asked could she share the article with her family.

I thought others might find this article helpful around the fun and frantic December celebrations.


Packing and driving – During many a holiday season, when I was in my 20’s and a new mom, I spent an hour in the car getting to my mother-in-law’s house for Christmas Eve. On Christmas day, my husband and I would pack up the car and the toddler and drive to my mom’s house in the morning and then to my sister-in-law’s house in the afternoon. After the holiday, I was wiped out and angry. Every year I vowed next year would be different. I was not having the Christmas I truly wanted, and I was frustrated – I didn’t know how to talk to my spouse about my holiday dreams.

Run run run – Why do we do this? Why do we run run run during the holidays? According to Kim Leatherdale, a licensed counselor and therapist in Oldwick, New Jersey, women are naturally pleasers. We want everyone to be happy; we want everything to run smoothly. As a result, we rarely get to relax and enjoy the holiday. And we rarely have the opportunity to form our own family traditions. Many of us have not had the Christmas we dreamed about since we started our own family and succumbed to all the family pressure.

It’s what we do every year – Talking about holiday dreams and personal holiday preferences is not something most couples talk about before a relationship develops or even after you say the “I do’s.” But as the holidays approach, you hear little snippets about what others continue to take for granted. Your mother-in-law might hint about the menu for her Christmas brunch, or you might overhear your mom on the phone with a sister planning the Christmas Eve dinner. Some relatives may start planning your holiday for you simply because it’s what they did last year.

Talk now – Perhaps now is the time to discuss holiday plans with your spouse. Decide on a time to sit down and talk about it before the invitations and expectations start to pile up.

A checklist –

  • Communicate – According to Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, Wexford, PA, don’t imagine that your spouse is a mind reader. Sit down and talk about what you liked and did not like about last year’s holiday, and discuss what’s important and not important. Be willing to listen and compromise, and be open to each other’s ideas of how to handle the holidays, demanding relatives, and a demanding schedule.
  • Start your own traditions – According to Kim Leatherdale, a counselor and therapist in Little Silver, NJ, when you are living at home with mom and dad, that’s your bubble. Once you are married, that should be the most important relationship – you need to move your bubble to surround you and your spouse. If you want to start new traditions in your own home with your spouse, do it.
  • Tune in to the kids – Be aware of your children’s needs and desires, within reason. If your teen daughter wants to see her BFF on Christmas Day, or if your kids and their cousins want to play together, allow an opportunity for that to happen. Invite them to visit on Christmas Day and talk to parents or family members ahead of time.
  • Be aware of feelings – Leatherdale suggests that you be aware of other’s feelings but don’t feel responsible for them. Understand that your mother-in-law may be upset with a new plan. You are not responsible for making her happy – she is. And once you and your spouse decide on a plan, sit down with the families and discuss it together.
  • Take turns – Has the holiday schedule of visiting been a little lopsided? More time with one family or the other? Decide to take turns, i.e., this year we go to your mom’s house for Christmas Eve, next year we go to my mom’s for Christmas Eve. Decide what part of the day you want to spend with your own family in your own home. And communicate that information to your relatives.
  • De-stress the day – Wake up, grab the mug of coffee, relax and open gifts, and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Ask visitors to drop in after 12:00 (or at a time designated by you), and ask them to bring a covered dish like a brunch casserole, a crock pot of chili, or a pan of lasagna or enchiladas. And why not use paper plates? You are de-stressing your holiday – don’t ratchet it back up by having to cook and clean up all day. If you must cook the big turkey, do just that and ask everyone else to bring the extras.
  • Recession adjustment – Are you feeling the pinch from recession or a lost income? Perhaps it’s time to start a tradition of having a family gift-giving pool or purchase gifts only for family members under a certain age.
  • Use this time to teach children charity – Collect the money usually used for extraneous gifts and make a contribution to a local charity. Take a portion of the day and help out at a shelter. Have your kids clean out toys no longer used and donate them to a women’s shelter.

Gloomy gus – Do you have a family member who sulks when he or she doesn’t get their own way on a certain holiday? You are not responsible for that person’s feelings. If it’s necessary to spend part of a day with that sulky person, have an out. Plan to go for a walk or to the park for an hour or plan a visit to the local science center or museum (check ahead for holiday hours!).

After a divorce – You need to be even more flexible. Add to that a new blended family or additional in-laws. I celebrated many holidays and birthdays a week before or a few days after the actual date on the calendar. Don’t push and pull your children or relatives into knots just so you can have the same Christmas morning that you’ve had for the last twenty years.

Communication and a little forethought is all you need to plan a dreamy holiday. And may all your holiday dreams come true.


“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” ~G.K. Chesterton

“On Hanukkah, the first dark night,
Light yourself a candle bright.
I’ll you, if you will me invite
To dance within that gentle light.”
~Nicholas Gordon,

Photo credit – Frank Ceravalo, Vista Landscapes

Kimberly Leatherdale, MA, LPC, ATR-BC, NCC, at Creating Rewarding Relationships and see Family Feuds and Holidays

Elizabeth R. Lombardo, PhD, MS, PT at Control Stress for Good

See also The Art Group for lovely artwork, photography, pottery, and jewelry.


Filed under Personal Articles, Special Events

18 responses to “Bring peace to the holiday tug of war

  1. What fabulous advice, Karen — these are sensible, meaningful ways that small shifts in perspective and yield powerful results in our enjoyment of the holidays. Thank you, too, for the promotion of The Art Group in Mt. Jackson, VA, and for featuring one of its artists, Frank Ceravalo, with his featured photograph.

  2. A really good post! Thanks so much for sharing. I just love the picture you used – how peaceful. Have a great weekend! ~Janet~

  3. Thank you for sharing this article before the holidays. So impornt for families with children. Loved your points followed by expert advice. We worked this out years ago in our family, so that we could remain home. It also helped living out of town and having a pastor husband.. We didn’t travel on Christmas Eve or Day. Held family Christmas exchanges before that day.

  4. Wonderful advice, Karen! I traveled to my parents and in-laws before moving to Texas. It is easier now that we are out of town and by ourselves, though I miss seeing my family. Thanks for sharing!

    • I’m rather fortunate of late … my son and his wife are both a thousand miles or more away from their families … so I get them mostly to myself! And who wants to travel to North Dakota in December?

  5. I appreciate this. We’ve been trying to travel to be with family. I’m sending this to Hubby to read. I’ve been talking about maybe we need to visit family at other times. Toddler is just 1.5 years, so it’s easy now, but this could get complicated fast! We’re on the road in December, but heading in a southern direction or we would stop by!

    • In my long-ago days, I loved when I could wake up in my own home, with my own child, and have a little alone time with my core family. Too bad you’re going south – the weather is just peachy up here!

  6. I loved all the helpful tips and suggestions in this post. This is the biggest time of year for people to forget it’s okay to have boundaries – and that at this time of year, boundaries are even more important than ever!
    We did something different last year and went to an 11pm Christmas Eve service and agreed everyone could open just one present before going to bed when we got home, as it was after midnight and already Christmas Day. We all decided we loved it so much, that it should become ‘tradition’.
    I’m fortunate to have great family who understand boundaries and a little family that loves being together and starting new things, even though some of them are all grown up.
    I love Christmas!!

  7. Boundaries – that’s an excellent word for this. And your new tradition sounds lovely!

  8. This is GREAT–and I can totally relate to the run run run mentality–whew!

  9. This has to be one of the best things I have ever read. EVER! I hate the holidays. I hate running everywhere. I want to relax and enjoy time with my family, but I hate making people mad. Ugh! You totally hit the nail on the head. Thanks for this.

  10. niamhclune

    Thank Goodness for some sensible, creative advice for the holiday season…Bring back the magic of simplicity. I can’t bear how every house-front replicates tinsel town and every tree is burgeoned with winking lights and plastic fairies…Bah Humbug! What about the cost to the environment? A simple hearth, family laughter because it has not succumbed to the stress of expectancy, nice food eaten in gratitude, simple, thoughtful presents given from one heart to another, the awe in a child’s eyes as the magic unfolds…what could be better?

  11. Thank you Niamh. I prefer simplicity. Don’t like the commercialization of Christmas and how it’s so manic so much of the time. Give me a cuppa with a splash of Bailey’s, a Christmas movie, some quiet time with family. Bliss.

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