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 have started a new family tradition, spending 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 more than 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.”
Leah Ethier, a licensed professional counselor at Perspectives of Troy and herself a mom of two, often sees the holidays as a source of conflict within families – and within marriages in particular.
“I am working with a newly married couple struggling with their first Christmas as husband and wife,” she says. “The wife wants to spend the night with her parents on Christmas Eve as she always has. The husband feels betrayed. He wants to start new traditions.”
Because holiday celebrations and traditions can be such a sore spot in families, Ethier makes it a point to discuss this very topic with every engaged couple with whom she works.
“Marriage represents one family tree coming together with another,” she explains. “The most important, though, is the husband and wife coming together as a new family tree with new branches and traditions.”
To that end, Ethier initiated her own family traditions when she began having kids.
“My family has lots of grandchildren,” she explains. “So now we do our own thing at our own home. We celebrate the holidays with extended family on a different day. My kids are 3 and 5 years old. This is such a magical time for us. These years won’t last forever.”
Communication is key
When breaking the news of holiday tradition changes to family, Ethier encourages open dialogue and honest communication.
“If your family has a basic principle of honesty, you can work through this,” she says. “Yes, people may be hurt. Yes, sometimes it does get heated. My advice is to be assertive without being aggressive – and without ignoring the issue.”
When Copera broke the news to her mom and stepfather about Thanksgiving last year, she explained the rationale very clearly.
“We told them that we had given this a lot of thought and that we felt we needed some down time,” she recalls. “It had been a stressful year, and so we said we were making the executive decision to stay in Chicago.”
But Copera made sure to close her explanation with a positive.
“We told my parents and my mother-in-law that they were welcome to come to us to celebrate the holiday,” she says. “To our surprise, my mom and step dad took us up on that. They were surprisingly flexible.”
Kendrick has some recommendations of his own for families looking to communicate a tradition change. Among them is beginning the conversation with what will remain the same.
“Make the family secure – so lead with what will not change,” he advises. “Then, almost as an afterthought, mention the change. Don’t lead with fear or an apprehensive tone.”
Kendrick also strongly encourages his patients to rehearse their reasons for the change and to present them in a manner that they think the family members who are likely to be most dismayed might understand.
“Additions are viewed with more comfort than deletions,” he says. “If you can, modify, as opposed to deleting. Additions are easier to lob in – especially if they are extensions of existing traditions. As long as you still have the core of the tradition in place, 99 percent of the time, a family won’t frown upon the change.”
Perhaps one exception is when traditions change as a result of a death in the family. Those most impacted may find it too painful to carry on a particular holiday tradition.
“Often people feel they need to talk the grieving person out of what they should or shouldn’t do in order to continue some tradition,” Kendrick notes. “I counsel people to put themselves in the shoes of that person.”
Instead, he recommends the family ask the individual how they would like to celebrate.
“Brainstorm together,” he says. “When someone dies, there is always the debate of whether the family should mention the person who died – or whether it will upset people. My advice is, yes, you should mention that person. Bring out the pictures of him or her. Make the great cookies that grandma may have always made around the holidays. Toast her. Bring her into the mix. This shows others that you are summoning the courage to embrace and enjoy life in the midst of pain.
“But it is delicate,” he adds. “If you have something planned, tell the person most affected in advance. Let that person know your intention to honor the deceased loved one. Usually, through tears, he or she will say yes.”
New family traditions meet old
While Copera and her husband will soon be a family of three, she notes that the impending birth of her son is not necessarily the reason for her family’s desire to change holiday traditions.
“The baby certainly has made me braver in voicing our decision to change some things,” she says. “But other things, like celebrating Christmas with my dad’s side of the family, will not change. I’ll always want to do that, even if not on Christmas itself.”
While the Bourgois family’s decision to start their own holiday traditions have caused some strain in extended family relations, Debbie Bourgois is enjoying the relaxed holidays she and her husband now spend with their nuclear family.
“I think you get to a point where you are the family,” she says.
And as for those contemplating holiday tradition changes, remember: New doesn’t have to mean jettisoning the old.
“No matter what else is going on in the world, we always have family,” Kendrick says, “and part of that is tradition.”
Have you tired breaking away from your family’s holiday traditions? How did it work out for you? Share your story (and tips) in the comments.
This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2015.
Illustration by Christian Barr