Breaking from Holiday Family Traditions

During the holidays, family traditions are sacred. Are you making a change? Whatever your reasons, it's tough – and can cause hurt feelings or even feuds. Here's how to do right by your kids while keeping peace.

Breaking from Holiday Family Traditions

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.”

Need some extra advice on dealing with the stress of the holiday season? Read these pointers.

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 2016. Illustration by Christian Barr.


  • My husbands family for decades expected my husband to allow other people to have he holidays off work and him work, The tradition was set soon after my husbands return home from the military as my husband being childless had no right to force those with less seniority to work instead of him, Over the decades my husband became resentful that the only tradition or consideration he received was a couple of sandwiches delivered to the gate were he worked form the holiday meal as the rest of us went out for after dinner drinks and dancing while he went back to work, He always got told the firrst 16 years that next year he will be able to start having vacations days off on weekends and be able to have the holidays off as he wanted, but for now just shut up and look to the needs of everyone else, I even had to leave him in a none home life roll in the bedroom to ensure his cooperation if he would just consider looking to the needs of others instead of his own. Since 2001 his cooperation has totally evaporated, he family traditios formed over three decades he has destroyed in the last two years by forcing his inclusion far before we were going to try and ease him into them. H decided last year to drop like a bomb right in the middle of them. In the 30 years since his return any thing I or my husbands father has tried to input into the way my husband should try to get himself included again into traditions he had no part in making, as a very slow process has been met with total defiance and destruction of those traditions without regard for family and friends feelings on the matter. My feelings he expresly ground into the dirt, and his fathers feelings in any thing were on even ground in to the dirt when my husband has nearly put him in his grave over his taking the rights he felt his three times. My husband is more than willing to make sure people hurt now when they try and deny what he feels are his rights, After two years ago when, he dropped any try to cooperate with any of us two years ago by first, forcing me to be the wife he wanted in the bedroom and home and then telling his father when he told my husband he had to leave his own home for a memorial day cookout. Until he was called home the next morning, First my husband told his father what was going to be allowed by his and my guests in my husbands house that evening, my husband told his father, my house, my equipment and my food. if he did not like his decision find his own place to have the cookout, Then latter he told his father he was escorting his wife me to after dinner drinks he was taking the escort his father arrange reservation for himself. Things devolved into violence from my husband twice that evening, First with his father slapping my husband for his defiance about his friend taking me to the club instead of my husband and my husband returning the slap with a full fisted backhand piling his father up in the corner of our kitchen, Then the poor doorman at the club when he was called and told not to admit my husband, as all my and his fathers friends arrived everyone saw my husband slamming his face into the pavement on the street Nobody was willing to try and cross my husband again after that night in fact there is only fear when any one has to deal with my husband. The holidays were the first tradition my husband destroyed, Then this years tri annual vacation trip, My husband again decided he was going this time, Got his passport after his father tried every thing he could to keep that from happening just got his father in trouble for perjuing himself to a federal agency, he did not realize the freedom of information act would not allow unfounded allegations to be made against another person in confidence, the government is required to tell the person who said what to them about him, and the informant had to be able to offer proof, his father and friends letter written in 1985 has now been pulled from my husbands folder at the state department and a passport issued, the letter was added to a conspiracy to deny civil rights charge being built against his father, myself and our friends. My husband does not only use physical means to hurt everyone, He has enlisted the help of state and federal courts. He intends to remove freedoms enjoyed for as long as his were denied.
    Since my husband took my right of marital refusal from me. I have gone to the woman’s advocate to have my husbands legal representative turn his and my journals over from the last 35 years. She just about cursed me saying if they were placed in evidence my husband would be hailed as a hero by a jury because through blackmail and force he was kept from any life but work for 33 years. in that time the only things his life knew was either the inside of a submarine or the inside of a transmission plant until five years ago now when he developed MRSA in his spine and then it was a medical facility for three years, every one we have talked to asked why we felt we had a right to do this for 33 years, to the rest of use we did not perceive the passage of time as my husband did, Even his father said tit cant have been since 1978 since he had an actual vacation, but it has.
    This vacation we tried to asked my husband to wait just 3 more years until the next time, just to get used to the idea he was coming the next time. There was no compromise reached, again things came to blowes being exchanged and this time his father nearly was killed with a broken neck.
    ow everyone is at a loss at how to handle my husband, he is sueiung the cruise line for not allowing us to board and their representation is asking my husband to please accept the apology of the line. and they in turn will pay for any vacation for two my husbands wishes over the next five years, that’s everywhere my husband wants to go.
    I asked what about my friends and his father and the rest of the family, They get nothing because its felt they started everything.

  • I understand why your husband is angry. Did his dad ever take his place so that he could enjoy the festivities. Your husband must be about 50 years old, and finally he gets to enjoy the holidays because he had to force himself onto the family, and instead of you standing with him, you chose to stand with his family?
    Can I ask you this? How is three years going to hel your husband ease into a vacation? He is so resentful now, he very well could have a heart attack and due to all the stress of being excluded by his own family. I feel sad for your husband.
    Your husband feels betrayed by EVERYONE in the family. He was the outsider looking in on his very own and there you were as his wife betraying him as well. Can you not see this?
    I pray that your husband found resolution and that your father-in-law becomes fair with who he works over the holidays instead of holding his son prisoner.
    I’m sorry I cannot be more sympathetic to your plight. Why didn’t you insist on taking an entire meal to him, why just two sandwiches. Surely someone could have taken a plate to him.
    Be nicer to your husband ad he will be nicer to you


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