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Breaking from Family Holiday Traditions

Making a change? Whatever your reasons, it's tough – and can cause or hurt feelings or even feuds. Here's how to do right by your kids while keeping peace.

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For years, Debbie Bourgois of St. Clair County, her husband and two children spent holidays with her husband's family. All that changed after her father-in-law passed away.

"For all the years we spent holidays with my in-laws, there was obvious favoritism and clear dislike between my husband and his stepmother," she recalls. "So after my father-in-law passed away, we stopped attending. When it becomes a burden, it is no longer a celebration."

Now Bourgois and her family spend the holidays at home relaxing.

"We get up early to open gifts, get the fireplace going and have a special breakfast," she says. "The rest of the day we nap, watch movies, make a nice dinner and generally relax."

This new arrangement is doubly welcome because Bourgois works in retail.

"I just got tired of being hectic on the 'day' like every other day," she says.

Bourgois' in-laws are not happy about the change, she says, and relations have been strained ever since. As a result, some of her husband's sisters-in-law have stopped sending the family Christmas cards, and Facebook is their only means of communication.

Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., a licensed psychotherapist who has counseled families for 37 years, notes that disrupting family traditions can be much a bigger deal than people think it is or will be.

"When you start to tinker with long-standing evergreen rituals and traditions, you're in sacred territory," notes Kendrick, the author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's. "As such, the chance of offending is greater and potentially more offensive, troublesome and hard to negotiate."

When he counsels families who have moved away from or who are considering breaking from family traditions, he asks them to share their intention behind the change.

"I encourage people to really weigh why they are changing something," he explains. "They better have a good rationale. I say this because there is nothing more powerful than ritual. Even the order of traditions, the literal following of them, can be important to families. We live through symbols and metaphors.

"Tradition is about much more than the tree or dreidel song. It's the blood moving through you."

Family trees merging

Karen Copera, originally of Birmingham and now a Chicago resident, was terrified when, last year, she told her mom and stepfather that she and her husband would not be home in Michigan for Thanksgiving – for the first time ever.

"We have always felt stress in having to fit into other people's plans," she explains. "Since my brother and his family moved to Florida, holidays have revolved around him and whether and when he can come home. The expectation is that because we don't live as far away from home as he does, that we must oblige to whatever schedule he sets."

Now expecting her first child, a baby boy due in February, Copera is relieved that a precedent has been set – and that she and her growing family won't necessarily be expected to fall in line when the holidays roll around each year.

"My husband and I are excited to establish our own traditions," she says. "Last Thanksgiving was so relaxed. We really enjoyed doing our own thing. We wanted to make and eat what wanted to eat, not what someone else made."

While Copera and her husband plan to return to Birmingham for Christmas this year, she thinks that tradition too will change after the baby's arrival.

"I want my kids to wake up in their own beds in their own home," Copera says. "In an ideal world, we would all live in the same place and our kids could wake up at home on Christmas morning, and we could see the rest of the family later in the day. But going forward, my family will just have to be more flexible about Christmas not being celebrated on Christmas Day itself."

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