On The Traditions That Matter


It is Christmas Eve and I am in my car on the phone with Michael, pleading with him to please, just this once, stop being so stubborn and spend some damn time with my family. This is not the first time we’ve had this conversation. But I can’t really blame him. I’m calling him from where I’m parked, in the local cemetery, and I’m asking him to come down here.

But this is my tradition. So this is what I need.


Since my sister passed away more than a decade ago, it has been our family tradition to spend Christmas Eve at McDonald’s (for breakfast, obvs) and then the cemetery. Gathering like this is the only way that my whole family can come together anymore, and as a result, this tradition has become something sacred to me. More than the holiday itself, our time at the cemetery is what Christmas means to me. And I need Michael there.


Still, I understood his hesitation. We’d been together a few years by this point (Three years, four? I don’t remember. He’ll tell you it was sooner.), but somehow, despite what we shared, it still felt too personal for him. While we were looking forward to a future together, my family was commemorating a history that precluded him, and therefore (maybe?) excluded him (or so he felt). How could he intrude on something so intimate? Moreover, how could he join in?

But still, the shrill pleading of my voice can be persuasive, and Michael buckled, driving the handful of miles from his mother’s house to the cemetery in our town and joining in on the festivities.

Together we tossed the football (ok, he tossed and I dropped), decorated the two small trees flanking my sister’s site, and fed the ducks with my grandmother (I think she just throws a loaf of bread in their direction and has them do the rest of the work).


I don’t remember if he enjoyed himself that day. But what I do remember is that the difference for me was palpable.

It wasn’t so much that I needed him there for the support. I needed him there because this tradition says, without words, so much about who I am that I didn’t think he could possibly understand the whole me without it. The same way that Christmas at his grandmother’s house speaks volumes about the man I’ve married. (They open their presents one at a time, in assembly line fashion. What is that?)


The traditions that Michael and I partake in each year are our own, but whether you spend your holidays at a cemetery, or painstakingly waiting your turn to open presents, the struggle is universal. During a time so often dominated by our families of origin, we are all working hard to navigate the waters of sharing events, creating new traditions, and building up the strength of our baby family. And while it is important that we use this precious time to strengthen the foundation that will eventually become our own set of traditions, I urge everyone to take a minute to appreciate the places our partners come from. I know it’s not always easy to understand why certain traditions mean so much to the people we love, but sometimes there is a comfort in the familiar that can’t be explained. And if it’s hard for us to explain the importance of the event itself, believe me, it is even harder to explain why we so desperately need you to be there for it. (But trust me when I say, we do.)


The stronger our baby family grows, and the more scattered my family becomes, the more important it is for me to hold on tight to these weathered practices. And the more important it is that Michael is there for them, if only for the brief glimpses into a life that belongs to me apart from him.


This is the first year that I’ll miss our trip to the cemetery, and I’m already mourning the loss a little bit. For me, the holidays are my family, and no amount of tree decorating or eggnog swigging can come close to replacing their presence. But I think that for this reason it is absolutely imperative that I carry out our quirky traditions in any small way I can. I’ll probably drag Michael to McDonald’s at 9am for breakfast, and then maybe we’ll buy a loaf of stale bread to feed to the ducks that live on our new property. This way, despite the separation, it’s almost like we’re still all together. Because being parted by insurmountable distances never stopped us before, now did it?

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  • Aileen

    This post is so perfect for this time of year. My husband and I are going into celebrating our fourth Christmas together, and we’re still figuring out our own traditions… it’s been a little different every year. I like to keep an open mind about it. Each year, it’s like a new adventure we get to go on together.

    And what is that opening one present at a time?!? His family does that and it takes FOREVER. ;)

    • kayakgirl73

      We open one present at a time. At least once we were teenagers and it has continued. It might change now that my sister has little kids. It allows the giver to see the recipient’s reaction. Also allows for pictures if you want.

      P.S. My APW book arrived yesterday. I’m a Amazon prime member.

      • That’s how my family has always done it, and I love it. It’s probably the only time of the year when I am really really good at being patient.

    • Edelweiss

      On the flip side – I grew up opening one present at a time! It wasn’t until I spent Christmas with my partner’s family that I realized there was another way.

      We’ve sorta merged traditions – I like having a moment to appreciate the giver of each present individually, but also the assembly line fashion really draws it out. So we do the one-off presents slowly throughout the evening on Christmas Eve (where a person is only getting one gift from a certain giver) and the bulk presents (where his parents have about 10 gifts per person) as a mad opening rush Christmas Day.

    • I thought everyone opened their presents one at a time! That way you get to see and appreciate everyone’s gifts. Both my family and my partner’s family does that.

      • Me too! I wouldn’t like a free for all.

        • Dea-chan

          We always opened ours one at a time… why would you just dive into a mess of paper like an animal? Not very respectful. (Also I hope this will not come out in italics, but that’s how it’s appearing on my screen…)

      • Me too! We have an additional tradition to that where the youngest person of the family (for a long time it was me) selects the next present to be opened and delivers it around the room. Of course I got to a point where I hated it, but it’s so fun/interesting seeing my younger cousin go through the different phases like I did.

    • Kess

      Ah, we do sort of a combination. We can all open our stockings at the same time (we’ve got large stockings, so there are actually a decent number of small things in there) but everything else is one at a time.

      Oh, except for the gifts that everyone gets and that we can tell what it is. Basically, my parents have been giving us a few ‘practical’ things each Christmas since I can remember – tools, kitchen supplies, etc. Whatever my mom finds on sale that year that we don’t have yet, we each get one. Last year it was spring forms and a mesh strainer (we’ve pretty much got everything we really need now!) and the mesh strainer was really easy to figure out, so we just opened them all at the same time.

      Oh, if you’re going to have kids, I really suggest doing that. While it kind of sucks when you’re 5 to get a set of measuring cups, your kids will love it when they move out – it’s a lot less of a burden to you and them because it’s spread out. I pretty much had a fully furnished apartment by the time I graduated high school.

    • My family always had 2 traditions: First, you can open your stocking presents whenever you get up. This was a way to placate my brothers and me when we were little, so we wouldn’t wake our parents up as early. Later in life it worked well when my niece and nephew were little for a similar reason. Second, no opening presents (ANY presents) until everyone is there. This became difficult in my first marriage as my ex-husband was a farmer who refused to take off morning milking, putting our arrival at my parents house at about noon on a good year and putting my little nephew in fits waiting for presents. Once everyone was there, open one at a time so that Mom could see what everyone got and how they liked it. Again, poor E had a hard time but learned to deal.

      • ANDREA

        I think maybe the solution here (generally) is to cut back on total number of presents :P.

        • We’re not doing presents this year and haven’t for two years now (unless they’re home made or from a charity shop.) SUCH A RELIEF!!!!! I HIGHLY recommend to anyone.
          Although that may change when children/grandchildren come on the scene. But don’t babies just like the boxes and wrapping paper best? That will be an easy Christmas for a couple of years then!

          p.s. (we have so much fun at Christmas though, games and music and laughter and food = all you need!)

      • This is EXACTLY how we do it!! From the opening stockings as soon as you wake, the waiting, the one at a time, all of it. :)

        We also are allowed to open ONE, small present on Christmas Eve (usually an ornament).

        We’re also awesome because we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas… not so much now that we’re grown but when I have kids I’m totally doing it. We’d move the wise men and then get a little gift each day, like a pencil or a dollar store toy or a candy bar. So while other kids were having their trees and lights taken down, we got to celebrate Christmas in a little way until January 6th.

    • meg

      We open one present at a time! The whole point of Christmas is to see people’s face when they open your thing!

      • Maddie

        All right, all right! I concede, I’m the weird one here. :)

        But *you* try telling 5 kids under the age of 10 that they’ll have to wait their turn to open presents. I would have almost pitied my parents for trying.

        • It would certainly be hard if it went one person at a time opening all their presents at once! If you rotate though and do one present at a time, but everyone gets a turn fairly equally its not so hard, in my experience.

        • LZ

          We always handed out 1 present to each person, and everyone opened that one present together — a combination of both, I suppose?

          Hubbie’s Family opens presents 1 at a time.

    • I kind of like that it takes forever. You’ve been waiting for this moment all year–why not make it last?

    • Mai

      We grew up with one at a time – but spread the presents over two days.
      Growing up, Christmas Eve was the day to open presents from one another (after dinner, with popcorn and a real fire in the fireplace). Christmas Day was reserved for the presents left by Santa, the reindeer, and the elves. Yes, even the reindeer gave presents. We reserved the name “Santa” for the biggest present of the day. Taking a cue from the story of Rudolph, the elves gave the majority of the gifts (they’re the ones that make them!).

      Being in a family with two elementary school teachers, our Christmas tradition couldn’t be as simple as the summary above. My mom would wrap every present on Christmas Eve (or the day before) while dad read the dictionary to pick out words and labeling the presents “To: Mai, From: The Sardonic Elf.” Christmas morning drug on (and on and on) as each of us would be forced to look up the word in the dictionary, read the definition, open the gift, and then describe why that particular elf gave us that present. Never was there any intended correlation, it was up to all of us kids (as well as mom and dad) to BS some sort of relationship. The threat was, if you couldn’t come up with a relationship, you didn’t get you keep your present.

      Our tradition has morphed a bit over the years, mostly due to distance (we celebrate Christmas 1-4 times in the course of 3 weeks depending on when we’re mostly together) and all of us kids getting older – but I’m sure the dictionary will be resurrected with the next generation – despite the “newcomers” objections to our “silly” game.

    • elisa

      Tradition should be kept and nurture just as the history of wedding dresses with sleeves and the christmas we celebrating every year.

  • R

    This is a beautiful piece, and what a beautiful family tradition.

    It’s also comforting to know we’re not the only people who have an annual ‘celebration’ of sorts at a cemetary, although for us, it’s at Hallowe’en.

    My parents are good friends with another couple in our town. Many, many years ago (probably nearly 20 now) on a summer evening, the mom in the couple’s parents were down visiting and decided to take said couples two young children (who were about 7 and 9 at the time) out for icecream. We live in a rural area, and railroad crossings aren’t well-marked. The grandfather, who was driving, didn’t hear the train coming and pulled onto the tracks just as it was coming around the bend. Both of this woman’s parents and both of her children were killed in the accident. The kid’s favourite holiday was Hallowe’en, and as a result, in the years following their death it became tradition to go down to the cemetary every Halloween with lots of pumpkins and snacks, and gather to carve jack-o-lanterns and celebrate the holiday with them. Lots of people always came, family and friends, and it was a huge part of the healing process. 20 years later, we still bring jack-o-lanterns down every Hallowe’en.

    • kayakgirl73

      Heartbreaking story.

  • Moz

    What a beautiful post. Thank you.

    My immediate family and I open presents in assembly line fashion – I think it’s because my parents like us to say thank you to everyone properly and see what everyone got, not in a material way but I guess because it draws out the process a bit. I didn’t even realise it was an odd thing. I’ll be interested to see if anyone else does this too!

    • Amy

      We go from youngest to oldest for gift opening, with the oldest playing “santa” to hand out the gifts. The person opening the gift is then expected to say who its from, and to open the gifts one at a time. We always did this as kids – my family on my mom’s side is far away and it gave my mom the chance to take pictures of us opening each of her family’s gifts individually to share with them.

    • We’ve always done one gift at a time, going around taking turns. I love it – I think it is important to thank the gift giver, and it draws out the process. I would be sad if all the planning and shopping and effort was over in a few minutes instead of, say, the 30 min it takes us. However, I’ve heard of family gatherings where it takes HOURS to open the presents, requiring a break for a meal. THAT would probably drive me crazy.

      • Class of 1980

        OMG, my ex brother-in-law and sister-in-law were super rich, and they used to do this … and videotape the whole thing. I must admit I have bad memories of this. Christmas with them was very very very materialistic and very expensive, and it took HOURS to open everything for only 6 people.

        Some people would eventually get so tired and cranky, we had to stop to eat. I suppose it could be a good tradition in different hands. ;)

      • My family never made it the aim to open them at one sitting. We’d open stockings, eat brunch, open a couple of presents, play cards, open another present, go out to the family dinner, open another present on boxing day… They dragged it out, which was really nice because it meant Christmas lasted a week and not an hour. Sure, sometimes it sucked – the day were you’d open a pair of pants or something, but it allowed very few presents to equal very many days of gifts.

    • Jennifer

      How does the one-at-a-time thing work when you have multiple people getting identical gifts? (Like siblings each getting a scarf-hat-mittens set from Aunt Susan or both sets of grandparents getting the same photos.) Or does that not happen in families that do it this way?

      I’m tempted to borrow this idea since for Christmas this year we’ll just have five adults with a couple of presents each, making the present-opening a super-quick process if we go with our usual everybody-opens-one-gift rounds, but it seems like if my mother-in-law opens her gift from us first and it’s properly admired, it kind of spoils it for my parents when they open the same thing from us.

      • Elsie

        We’ve always done one-at-a-time presents, but would make an exception if two people were getting the same thing– telling them to both open at the same time.

      • mimi

        We open like Elsie. If everyone has an identical envelope from an aunt & uncle, we open that all together.

      • Kess

        In our family, we totally joke about it. One Christmas, we all got (fugly) sweaters from our grandma. So we just turned it into a sort of game. Even though we knew what was in each (identical) box, we would guess outlandish things (watermelon is always one – some day I’m going to get one of those square watermelons and wrap it) just to make it a bit more interesting.

        • We do this too, except everything is a basketball. Always. Square present? DEFINITELY a basketball.

      • That’s basically what happens with our stockings, which (like everything else) we do one at a time.

        We all just pretend to be surprised by the things we pull out, that we’re all expecting. Stockings from my mom are also 90% practical (underthings/shampoo/bath stuff etc) with a few individual fun things thrown in. All of us still pretend that we are surprised to see a toothbrust in our stockings, even the last person to open. It’s part of the fun.

        I have to say though – it was super cute last year when Bunny got his first stocking from my mom. The rest of us all knew what is always in them, so we made him open first.

        • Amanda

          Oh Sheryl, your “All of us still pretend that we are surprised to see a toothbrush in our stockings” made me lol and almost lose my lunch! All of us (adult) children pretend to act surprised about a mandarin orange in our stocking, the way you do about toothbrushes!

      • Kat

        We’re definitely one at a time gift openers – it makes it last longer! (As in maybe 45 minutes instead of 10). We usually have each gift giver there hand out the gifts to the recipients (or when I was little I was the gift giving “fairy”), then the next person gives out their presents. That way if you’re giving people the same thing you can give those out both at once.

        Stockings on the other hand you can open as soon as you wake up, in bed.

        • Jennifer

          Ah, maybe I was taking this one-present-at-a-time thing too literally. I was picturing strictly one present being opened by one person, and then after everyone has admired it, another present being opened by one person, and so on. It sounds like for some people are one-at-a-time just means not diving in and opening everything all at once. We always did it so nobody was opening more than one present at a time, and nobody got another present to open until all currently distributed presents were opened and had been shown and admired, and (especially since there were frequently paired gifts for siblings or sets of grandparents) there were quite a few rounds of “everybody open your present from X now.”

      • ness


        When you have multiples of one gift for different people, you let whoever is handing out gifts know that X and Y should receive at the same time and instruct them to open together. Both sets of recipients will enjoy the gift at the same time, rather than it being old when the second set gets to it on their turn. It works really well, I promise :)

    • Yes, we do one at a time, and I always thought it was so that everyone got to see what the gifts were, the gifter could appreciate the giftee’s reaction, and there could be proper gratitude expressed before the next person’s turn. Maybe this is why I love giving gifts so much — I love the gratification of seeing the happy reaction of my giftee.

      Plus, when you have a small family who give few gifts, this draws out the gift giving a little bit and this makes the process feel a little more grand and special, rather than wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

  • Edelweiss

    I grew up without traditions – I bounced around from a few families to foster care situations to living on my own. So some holidays were spent with family and some not, everything switching.* In contrast my partner’s family highly valued their time together on every holiday from Thanksgiving to 4th of July.

    I struggled with over-respecting his family habits as traditions, and some of his traditions as closed to me. It was hard to realize I was wanted there and belonged. It’s been even harder to feel comfortable with them adapting their traditions to incorporate me.

    It’s one of the hardest, but most beautiful things about forming our baby family.

    * With two exceptions – in every situation people did the assembly line mode for gifts. Also every Memorial Day weekend since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 my cousins gather at my grandfather’s grave, drink champagne and recite Casey at the Bat.

    • Champage & Casey at the Bat and I’m totally crying in my cubicle now. God, I miss Boston. And my grandparents.

    • I’m chiming in with Kelly, here. I miss Boston. And my grandparents. It’s funny how very much.

  • Anna

    Thank you for sharing Maddie. This is such a beautiful way to share Christmas with your sister. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    On a lighter note- the pic with the ducks is so so funny. Your Grandmother really does just throw a loaf of bread at the ducks! You must do the same this Christmas, with her or not.

    Merry Christmas!

    • Maddie

      We have a dozen geese and ducks at our new house. They don’t even know what’s coming. :)

  • Jen

    We have always opened our presents one at a time on Christmas morning. Further than that, we also take our time opening them, carefully peeling off the tape so that we can keep the beautiful wrapping paper and use it again in years to come (I’m serious here, there is even some wrapping paper that has been used for over twenty years!). There is always someone (usually my mother, eventually being passed on to me) in charge of rolling the paper on to empty cardboard rolls. I’m sure there was a time when I was a troublemaking rugrat that I just ripped the paper off, but for most of my life I have treasured taking the time to carefully unwrap each present and discover the gift inside. It’s such a nice way to see what everyone is receiving and to see how much thought and love went into the purchase or creating of each gift. We basically go around the room, each opening one present at a time, until all that’s left under the tree is a huge pile of presents for my grandmother (she always gets the most, and rightfully so!). We started going to my grandmother’s house for Christmas when my dad died when I was in elementary school.
    My financé started coming to my Grandmother’s with me after we had been dating for almost a year. It meant so much to me that he wanted to come, and that he got along with my family so well. It really is a whole piece of myself, that if he hadn’t come, maybe he wouldn’t know or understand. This year is the first year that he won’t be coming, and it’s also the first year that I’m not actually going to be there on Christmas day (I’ll be there over New Years, and we’ll have a mini-Christmas when I get there). It’s strange, and I don’t think it’s fully sunk in yet, but I too am starting to mourn our “normal” Christmas traditions. At lease I’m still going to get some family time :)

    • christmas mouse

      My family saves and reuses wrapping paper too! I thought we were the only ones! My husband’s family thinks I’m crazy when I get presents from them and I carefully pack away the wrapping. But my MIL has caught on and is now using real ribbon that holds up and can be properly reused.

    • mimi

      I open my gifts this way, but it started as a means to annoy my three younger, impatient brothers. We save all of our boxes, but not usually the paper (unless it’s particularly nice).

  • “It wasn’t so much that I needed him there for the support. I needed him there because this tradition says, without words, so much about who I am that I didn’t think he could possibly understand the whole me without it.”

    Oh, Maddie. So true and beautifully stated. There’s not a lot of traditions in our family but there are plenty of things I’ve forced my husband to participate in just so he could understand me a little better. I make him watch musicals with me and take me to ballets. When he comes home, I make him listen to some new song I’ve downloaded or to parts of This American Life. All so he can know what stirs my heart. The only thing I keep from him is my writing before it’s finished and even that is something I’m slowly becoming more open about. It’s scary and fun and so peaceful sometimes to fold into one another inch by inch. I’m excited to make our own traditions as time goes on.

  • APW: You need a NSFC label on posts: “Not Suitable For Coffeeshops”.

    Because I end up crying in them all too often.

    The strangers near me thank you, as do I.


  • jessie

    We have a very large family, and opening gifts one at a time isn’t practical – it would take hours (we actually do Christmas Day in 3 stages because of the number of people coming and going). For my partner with his family of 3 – sometimes 4 if his grandmother is there – where gifts are opened in an orderly fashion, my Christmas dinners of 40 people were more than a little overwhelming at first. But as I get older, I realize: those giant dinners are who I am. I *am* a big Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter dinner at my mom’s house; it’s where I’m happy and feel like myself. Bringing him into that was so important to me that we have spent the last 8 years struggling to make a system work, where ultimately I feel resentful at having to “give up” one of MY 3 stages of Christmas Day to sit in awkward, civilized silence at his mom’s house (this is not just because of gifts in stages, but I will say: if you aren’t used to opening gifts like that, it’s a receipe for a boatload of stage fright. My Christmases have a lot more ruckus).

    However, now that we are engaged (and that my mom has moved to a new church that celebrates Christmas services during the day and not on Christmas eve), I’m trying very hard to carve out a tradition that keeps our family (him and I) together, and that can be sustained. Even thought we’ve been together for years, now seems as good a time as any to create the new traditions that will shape who we are.

    Thanks for such a timely and thought-provoking post – I’m looking forward to Michael’s later on!

    • Kim

      I’m also from a large family that celebrates together on Christmas! There’s nothing like the rush of passing presents out and opening them en masse, or lining tables up and having 37 people sit down for dinner, or singing carols after dinner…it’s what I know, it’s what I love. Or, on Christmas morning, sitting at the top of the steps and waiting for my mom to go downstairs to turn the Christmas Tree lights on and get her camera ready…my family has very systematic, fun Christmas traditions. We’re organized, expectations are clear, and we’re happy!

      The first time I celebrated Christmas morning at my now husband’s house, I sat in our bedroom wide awake for 3 hours before anyone woke up. They don’t have a Christmas morning plan. They don’t wake up at a specific time. They never do things the same way twice. As my dad would say, they’re burning daylight. It was so confusing, so far far different from my family’s Hyper Christmas, that I broke down in tears before the day had even begun.

      I assumed everyone opened presents first, then found candy in their stockings, and then ate breakfast (not office supplies and baseball cards). In that order. Done before 9am. (I assume that all people eat breakfast, but that apparently doesn’t happen regularly at my in-laws, so now I bring an emergency stash of granola bars with me every time we visit.)

      Maddie – thank for this post. It’s helping me understand – through the post and the comments – that while waiting my turn to open a present makes no sense to me, it will help me understand my husband’s family better. And it’s what he knows. It helps me realize that my Hyper Christmas may overwhelm him (although he seems to love it, once he’s had a cup of coffee). And it makes me believe it’s ok for me to insist that we celebrate how we want to celebrate.

      This year, we’re trying something new. We’re spending Christmas Eve day together – just me and my hubs…before we pick up where we normally do and spend Hyper Christmas with my fam, and then Unplanned Day after Christmas with his fam.

      Good luck to everyone trying to adjust to new holiday traditions. We can do it!!

      • emma

        I can relate. From when we were little we had a Christmas routine – we could not go downstairs until our parents said so (aka the coffee is made and fire started). My sister and I have many memories sitting at the top of our steps anxiously waiting to run down the stairs to see a beautiful tree full of presents. My sister actually broke down in her maid of honor speech as she mentioned things will change and this may not be an annual tradition any more.

        I haven’t been home for christmas in two years – you can imagine how excited I am to wake up and sit on those steps this year! This year for the first time my Mr. will be there and my sister’s bf so it will be a very special moment. In fact it was the first thing my Mr. said when we figured we’d be at my house for Christmas morning – “Does this mean we’ll sit on the steps?!”. His family has no routine and when we were there for Christmas I found it very hard to deal with. I still feel empty thinking about it. Some traditions are irreplaceable. I’m still learning how to cope with that.

        We also do this on Easter (with a Jelly Bean trail). And we open presents one by one, I love a long Christmas morning!

        • Kim

          Jelly Bean trail…I could get into that!

          I think the speed of our Christmas was because we had a long list of plans for Christmas, especially when we were little: wake up > race to open presents > eat a hot, delicious breakfast > get dressed and get to church early enough to get a seat > go straight from church to my dad’s parents and eat dinner #1 (mushy and overcooked, by my grandma with dentures) > head to dinner #2 at my mom’s sister’s rip open presents (it’s impossible for each person to take turns opening presents with 25-35 people waiting to open/clean up the presents so the tables and chairs for dinner can be spread from wall to wall) and eat all the homemade Italian meatballs, 12-layer jello, we could stomach > head to the bonus room to play silly board games with all the cousins or join the grown-ups when they start caroling in 5 part harmony until we were so sleepy we couldn’t stay awake anymore. :)

          Last year was a treat – my then 5-year-old niece joined me and my 20- and 30-something cousins when we pulled out the old-school “Dream Phone” board game and called our favorite crushes on the Zach Morris-like phone!

          While we don’t go through all these steps anymore, I still love the pace, the feeling of people wanting to see you all on one magical day, etc. It’s one of the main reasons I want to ultimately live closer to my family. Seeing everyone on holidays is important to me. My husband’s family didn’t live close to any of their relatives, so they spent it together. Totally different take on things. Both good, but different.

          After reading Maddie and Michael’s posts, and all the comments, I get it much better. Yay.

  • I just wanted to say what a beautifully written post this was. My husband and I are still trying to figure out our own new traditions and it can be a struggle at times. We’ve spent the last 4 years with the husband’s family over the holidays (partly because for some of those years we simply couldn’t afford to travel to see mine), but this year I put my foot down. We can’t fly to see my family for Christmas, but we’re not spending our entire weekend with his family (and the drama) again either. I told him we can do Christmas Eve, but Christmas Day is ours… the last with just the two of us as next year everything will be different (new baby, and moving to be near my sister). In the meantime, though, we are sticking with one Christmas tradition, which is to video conference with my family Christmas morning. The funny thing is that neither my husband or I come from families with strong Christmas traditions… unless you count drama as tradition because his family has that covered. :p I’m kind of envious of everyone who has these great family holiday traditions, and I’m looking forward to creating some good ones of our own.

  • Thank you so much for this. I’ve been struggling to find the words to talk about this with my fiance and I think you have just given them to me. I just forwarded this post to him. I want him to know that while it means so much to me and my family to have him there at our holidays, I don’t in any way want to devalue his family traditions that are smaller and less formalized.

  • Lovely post. You are so right that it is critical to appreciate where your partner’s traditions are coming from. My family doesn’t really have any outside of hurting each other’s feelings on the holidays. That’s a tradition I’ll pass on. Mike’s family is all about Christmas and the traditions start a couple weeks before Christmas and go on until what seems like the next year (ha). The first year it was really, really hard for me to participate. It was just so uncomfortable. I’m staying open-minded and open-hearted this year, because I know it’s important to hime. And when you factor in how Duncan will experience the holidays, it’s very important for me to suck it up and enjoy.

    For our family baby, I’m starting the tradition of Christmas Eve jammies! Yay traditions!

    • I grew up getting new pajamas to wear on Christmas Eve and I LOVED it! Totally carrying it over to my baby family, too!

      • Maddie

        Oh man, the year my family gave PJs as presents was PRICELESS. My grandmother gifted me a leopard bodysuit (yes, yes she did) and someone gave Michael velour Santa boxers. I wouldn’t trade that memory (or the pictures, yikes) for anything.

        • Leapard bodysuit for the win!

          When I was 14 my Nanna had one piece, velvet leopard print pajamas with feet made for me and I STILL get a kick out of them.

  • Nicole

    This was really intense to read, but in the best way. Thanks for sharing this, Maddie. While the story is certainly uniquely your own, it’s relatable for so many of us.

  • Jennifer

    This made me cry on the train. Among the many reasons I continue to read this blog more than a year after my wedding….

    This idea of sharing family traditions with your partner so they can see where you came from is so beautiful, and I’m realizing now this is one of the reasons I’ve been a little flummoxed about the holidays. My husband is an only child with very little extended family, and apparently their major holidays were all pretty much just the nuclear family, so he doesn’t feel like he’s missing anything when it’s just the two of us and our parents, and presumably doesn’t feel like I’m missing seeing a part of his experience.

    I had a fairly large and boisterous extended family, and a grandfather born on December 26th, so our family holidays always extended past Christmas Day, and involved multiple meals, lots of people, presents at different houses… and there is no way to share that with him now. Partly because of the timing of my grandfather’s birthday, that side of the family’s celebrations were very much gatherings around the patriarch, and have pretty much dissolved with his passing. I think it actually would be great for him if he could see me in that context, but there’s not much of an option for it.

  • G

    My family-of-origin opens presents one at a time. Growing up it was annoying but now it involves Baileys in our coffee and a long, slow morning of relatives and laughter. As I get older I’ve grown to cherish it.

  • Brenda F

    We do this too – youngest to oldest, my Dad being the one who does most of the gift passing and always ALWAYS cracking a joke about being younger than my Mom (as my Mom protests that it’s only 6 months difference). With my brother-in-law there last year we had an interesting addition though – since everyone is passed a gift so things go faster he made a game of seeing how much he could unwrap of his gift without anyone but those sitting on the couch with him catching on.

  • The crying at my desk always sneaks up on me. Maddie, thank you for this beautiful post. You put into words things that I always have a hard time figuring out how to say about traditions with my family and why they’re so important to me, especially after my parent’s divorced. Thank you agian.

  • Class of 1980

    Maddie, I LOVE your family’s tradition for so many reasons. As hesitant as your fiance felt, I hope he also knew being invited was an honor.

    • Maddie

      He loves it now. Wouldn’t trade it for anything. I *do* have to give him credit too. I think he was like, 21-years-old at the time.

  • Kaitlin

    I took a break for some goal planning and visioning to read this.

    Maddie, this totally solidified me on the importance of new traditions for my baby family. Thank you!

  • mimi

    It’s so interesting and fun to hear about everyone’s family holiday traditions. My boyfriend and I are very lucky that our families are only about 45 minutes apart and don’t have conflicting traditions. My family has very strong Christmas Day traditions, but Christmas Eve is typically reserved for celebrating my brother’s birthday and then church in the evening. My boyfriend’s family celebrates Christmas Eve with a nice dinner and midnight church service. Starting last year, all of us siblings went to our significant other’s family on Christmas Eve, and then everyone met up at my parents’ house on Christmas morning for our usual gift opening and Christmas dinner. His family goes to a movie on Christmas Day evening, and last year invited my family to join them. We’re doing the same this year, but still need to figure out a little time for ourselves in between the family stuff.

    Oh, and I’m completely in favor of “assembly line” gift opening. I like to make Christmas last as long as possible and would be so sad if all the gifts were done within just a few minutes. My family even started doing an extra Secret Santa gift exchange a few years ago, so that we would have something else to open in the evening.

  • Well I wasn’t really expecting tears as I went through my unread posts on Google Reader this morning, but that’s what I got.

    The meshing of families is so tricky, and when it involves traditions as important and personal as yours, I can imagine it gets even trickier. As much as Michael might have felt out of place or like an intruder, I’m sure he felt loved to have been wanted there. This post was a good reminder that as I come together with my fiance and his family, not everything can be about me and my family anymore. I am dreading the day that he requests that we not spend Christmas in our home, but in Tennessee with his family, but I know that it is a sacrifice that me, and my family, will have to make.

  • Class of 1980

    A young woman in my close circle got married this past October. Her uncle sat her down months ahead of time and gave her the following advice. He told her to sit down with her fiance and make separate lists of everything that is important to them – things they like to do, things they don’t like … and compare their lists. He wanted them to negotiate their married life ahead of time and avoid bad surprises.

    His second piece of advice was to decide ahead of time what they were going to do at the holidays. What family would they be with and when … and then to switch it perhaps every other year. He said to make sure they were dealing with each family evenly because they would resent it otherwise. He told her to avoid having each other’s family hold hard feelings for their new inlaw just because the holidays weren’t managed from the beginning.

    So, yeah … Holidays. Critical.

    • Kim

      This is a very smart man, your friend’s uncle. Note to self – at every future opportunity (bridal showers, notes to engaged friends), pass along your friend’s uncle’s piece of advice about the holidays!

    • Danielle

      Can we get a guest post from this uncle? I want to hear more from his perspective.

      • Class of 1980

        Probably not. Ha! You pretty much got the gist of the speech. ;)

        He is in his early seventies and has been married four times, the fourth time being the charm because it’s been almost 25 happy years. He speaks from bitter experience. His first wife acted like she loved everything he liked prior to the wedding. The day after, she told him she really didn’t like the things he loved and would no longer be participating in them.

        I think one wife may have resented his golfing and he is a golf pro! How do you drop your livelihood and your passion?

        He is a decorated veteran of the Family Holiday Wars.

        And he is the poster child for “Forewarned is Forearmed.”

  • April

    Such a lovely, moving post – thank you for sharing your heart and traditions with us.

    My husband and I have our own little holiday traditions that have always felt especially sweet because they are ours, and we don’t share the holidays with anyone except the two of us (my immediate family is Jehovah’s Witness and don’t celebrate; his family is spread out all over the states). But this year, as the days slip by and we inch closer to the 25th, we’re both feeling a bit lonely. We chatted about this just last night as we were opening up cards from his family, and later, as we were decorating our tree… it’s a bit sad at times that it is always just the two of us.

    I have dreamy notions of a giant gathering of family, friends, neighbors ~ the Norman Rockwell version of the holidays. Yep. Ridiculous, but there it is.

    For reasons mainly geographical, we’ve either not had the opportunity or vacation time at the holidays to travel to his family’s homes (sister in Montana, mother in Nevada, uncle, aunt and cousins in New York). As we discussed our feelings we realized we’ve been a bit selfish, keeping the holiday just to ourselves. Of course we send gifts, call loved ones on the holiday, mail cards, etc. But that doesn’t really take the place of BEING TOGETHER… sharing traditions. And the older I get, the more I want to strengthen the connections with the family we do have.

    My husband and I have already made a promise that next year – be it for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or both – we will travel to be with our extended family and start sharing their traditions, and ours. We’re excited about it!

  • Maddie, that tradition is such a beautiful way to honour your sister and to celebrate your family. I’m not a crier, but this has me tearing up a little.

  • I’m so glad you shared such a personal story. I’m struggling with missing some of my family’s traditions to share in my “other” family’s traditions, and it’s hard. But it’s a road we are navigating together, and discovering that with each holiday, it gets a little bit easier.

  • this is exactly it. And I will be showing it to my husband when the opportunity arises. This says exactly what I fail to explain to him when he asks why Christmas is so important to me.

    “And while it is important that we use this precious time to strengthen the foundation that will eventually become our own set of traditions, I urge everyone to take a minute to appreciate the places our partners come from. I know it’s not always easy to understand why certain traditions mean so much to the people we love, but sometimes there is a comfort in the familiar that can’t be explained. And if it’s hard for us to explain the importance of the event itself, believe me, it is even harder to explain why we so desperately need you to be there for it. (But trust me when I say, we do.)”

    Read more: http://apracticalwedding.com/2011/12/holiday-traditions-sharing-and-appropriation/#ixzz1gcoZ3wSn

  • This was absolutely gorgeous and thank you so much for sharing it. I’m going to be spending my first christmas with my boyfriend and I’m tremendously excited and also very scared – what if he finds it weird that we gather around the piano and sing christmas carols with vulgar lyrics? What if he doesn’t enjoy Tortierre, a traditional French Canadian Meat pie, my absolute favourite food and our Christmas Eve meal? But no matter how much I manage to scare myself and drive myself crazy over it, I can’t help but being in awe that this man loves me enough to put up with coming to visit my family during his christmas break.

    We’re so lucky, aren’t we.

  • ))))Maddie(((( You’re such a beautiful writer girl. & Christmas away from family is hard I know, yet it holds it’s simple pleasures if you put the effort into making the day special for the two of you. My advice is don’t give up on it just because there aren’t a lot of people around. Go whole hog and make it super romantic. More hugging my Maddie. <3

    • Maddie

      I love your virtual hugs. :)

      But I think you’re right. I might just go buy matching PJ’s for Michael, Juno, our roomie and myself. And then make them wear them while we drink Christmas booze and chase the geese around.

  • Kathryn

    Thanks for this post Maddie. My family doesn’t have a tradition necessarily, but usually a few of us sneak out to the cemetery at some point during the day to say hi to Dad. My fiance has never been (only because there hasn’t been a good opportunity), but maybe I’ll take him this Christmas.

  • “I needed him there because this tradition says, without words, so much about who I am that I didn’t think he could possibly understand the whole me without it. The same way that Christmas at his grandmother’s house speaks volumes about the man I’ve married …”

    THIS. Ohhh this. Forrest spent the first two Christmases we were together with my family. I don’t think he particularly enjoys it (yet?) but I need him to be there and be a part of the giant Christmas with my family because he’s part of my family now too.

    For us, things are complicated by the fact that he/his family don’t have traditions for him to insist on. His traditions are the traditions we are building together which creates an inherent imbalance when I have things I insist upon carrying over from my family but it’s getting better as we get more comfortable with what we’re doing together.

    Beautiful post Maddie.

    • Maddie

      I have a secret to tell you. I still don’t totally enjoy Michael’s Christmas. But I know that it means the world to him for me to be there. So I’m learning to enjoy it. I’m sure Forrest is too.

      Thanks for the love. <3.

  • maura

    tears! tears!
    this is the first holiday i’m spending without my family of origin, and man, it’s feeling a doozy.
    even while spending time with my mom and sister isn’t always enjoyable, i’m still sad it’s not happening.

    also, reminds me that i won’t see my dad this year. he is buried down the street from my stepgrandparents, and while i don’t always stop at his grave, at least he’s just down the street.
    man. tears. i need to hide in the bathroom.

    • Maddie


  • This is the most beautiful piece and I was not prepared for it to be a tear jerker, but I should have heeded Meg’s warning on facebook (why do I never heed the warnings?). So well said, beautifully done, I just read it over again to let it all sink in. I am so sorry for the loss of your sister but love your family’s tradition, and am so glad that Michael experienced it with you now that you won’t be there this year. He’ll be able to know what that is because he was there, and that means so much.

    I have been with my Mike for nearly ten years and we have started our own traditions, but I grew up with some firm family holiday traditions that letting some of them go after my parents divorced and letting more of them go when I started celebrating with his family has been so hard for me. Sad even. But this is perfect, thank you for writing such a wonderful piece. This, whew:
    “And while it is important that we use this precious time to strengthen the foundation that will eventually become our own set of traditions, I urge everyone to take a minute to appreciate the places our partners come from. I know it’s not always easy to understand why certain traditions mean so much to the people we love, but sometimes there is a comfort in the familiar that can’t be explained. And if it’s hard for us to explain the importance of the event itself, believe me, it is even harder to explain why we so desperately need you to be there for it. (But trust me when I say, we do.)”

  • “I know it’s not always easy to understand why certain traditions mean so much to the people we love, but sometimes there is a comfort in the familiar that can’t be explained. And if it’s hard for us to explain the importance of the event itself, believe me, it is even harder to explain why we so desperately need you to be there for it. (But trust me when I say, we do.)”

    This. THIS. This is why I was crying in the Home Depot parking lot last night. I couldn’t put into words WHY we needed a tree, we just needed one. I really didn’t care that it was shaped badly, or cost more than he wanted to spend, but having a tree was one of those traditions that I couldn’t explain.

    Thank you Maddie….I needed this today.

  • Beautiful post, Maddie. How true that we need to share our family traditions with our partners & respect their traditions as well. It’s taken us a looooong time to figure this out. This is our first holiday season as husband & wife (yay!) & I feel like we’ve finally have a firm handle on family traditions (phew!). We have a few traditions that are ours which I love the most, then we’ll celebrate holiday traditions with his family on Christmas Eve, mine on Christmas. I hope it pans out as well as we’ve planned.

    Happy Holidays~

  • Heartachingly beautiful, both your family’s tradition and this post. And as someone who’s been there, a Christmas alone with your tiny new family has a beautiful poignancy of its own. May your new Christmas traditions fulfill you as much as the old ones did.

  • maura

    i’d love to have a conversation about what people do for traditions, especially in their new baby families. we’ve been able to share the holidays with all of our families for the past 3 years we’ve been together, but this year christmas it’s just one family. or how to combine elements to make your own thing..

    but, in terms of what we are doing together for traditions- i don’t think anything special. which is fine, i think i get caught up with Let’s Make New Traditions when i think it should happen organically. or maybe not this year, or not at all. It just doesn’t seem authentic to say “we are going to do this and this will be our new Christmas tradition till the end of days….”

  • I’d love to hear what happens for others when the baby family has a baby and what happens to Christmas traditions then. We’re not (quite) at that point and this year is pretty easy. (His parents are mid-reno, so they’ll spend Christmas at our house, and my mom’s in town, and we think it should work okay.) But next year? When you try to set up traditions with the baby and juggling our families of origins and their traditions? And of course Skipper will be the first grandchild on both sides, so everyone will of course want as much face time as possible, and I’m sure we’ll have to regfigure everytthing out almost from scratch.

    • maura

      when we get to that point, i plan on saying, everyone come to us! have baby, won’t travel….

      • Maddie

        My mother and I had a long talk this past holiday and she told me that I *must* do just this. Sit tight and make people come to you. Because they will. You’ve got the goods!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this post!! I have a different yet similar situation only with me as the outsider learning to share in my husband’s (and when I first did this, boyfriend’s) traditions regarding the loss of a loved one. My husband was engaged before me to his college sweetheart, who died before they were married from complications from a condition she had from birth. My husband remains close to her family and attends two annual events in her memory, which I now attend with him every year. In addition to feeling like an outsider, I also had huge feelings of guilt the first few years, even though he always thanked me for supporting him by being there with him. And in time I’ve grown very close to her family, and am always so grateful to them and awed by their ability to love and accept me despite what my presence in his life represents.
    Like I said, different situation, but your post really reminded me of the first time I attended an event with him for his first fiancé, and being able to put aside the akwardness in order to support him. Thank you for sharing your story, and I am sending loving thoughts to you and your family of origin!

    • Oh, wow. That’s such a lovely story, and I can imagine the first couple of events must have been emotionally very hard on you.

      • Anonymous

        Definitely. It took a while into our relationship to stop feeling at the back of my mind that I had stolen somebody’s husband (irrational, but definitely how I felt at the time). But her mother attended our wedding and we all attended her sister’s wedding a year ago and her sister and I communicate on fb. They miss their family member, of course, but are happy to see my husband find happiness again, and have been so gracious and loving toward me. Over the past 7 years her family (along with hubby’s family) has become my family too. It really is amazing the types of connections we can make and all of the different ways people create family outside our family of origin!

  • “I know it’s not always easy to understand why certain traditions mean so much to the people we love, but sometimes there is a comfort in the familiar that can’t be explained.”

    Beautifully written… and I feel like there is this peaceful acceptance for the Way Life Is. Like, a release. Brilliant.

  • I’m sorry to go so horribly off-topic (these two pieces were really beautiful, by the way), but I just have to know. What kind of dog is the white/cream one in that picture? My mutt has the exact same coloration, with the stripes and the face marking — her ears stand up, but other than that they look identical, and I’m dying for clues as to what she might be!

    • Maddie

      Haha it’s ok! She’s a yellow lab (and the other one is an English Mastiff).

  • JoAnna

    So I read Michael’s post at work and knew there was absolutely no way I could read your post at work without the waterworks…

    Thank you! I have always felt a little funny that I invited my fiancee to the cemetery to meet my brother. We absolutely do not have such a lovely holiday tradition at the cemetery, usually we all gather, place flowers on all the family graves say howdy to everyone that is no longer living with us and head to the beach (the bonus of a coastal town)…

    For the fun of opening Christmas presents, the children play elves and make sure everyone has 1 present and then we open them together, seems to be a nice happy medium. The stockings are saved for the very end and are treasured, a good stocking must have underwear in it (and my first Christmas with my fiancee I shared the underwear tradition to set the bar). Knowing how we celebrate holidays is so important we determined them from the beginning, Thanksgiving with one family and Christmas with the other and we alternate them the next year.

    A big giant warm fuzzy for that beautiful tradition…

  • MDBethann

    I’ve really enjoyed reading the holiday traditions posts over the last few days and reading everyone’s comments and experiences. My fiance and I are getting married in May, but this will be our third Christmas together. We’re lucky in that our families live about an hour from each other and for now, we’ve found a way to see everyone that works for us, especially since we live about 3 hours from our families. My family is more religious than his (my dad is a pastor) so we go to church on Christmas Eve with my family, then drive to his sister’s so we can be awakened by his niece and nephew on Christmas morning and watch them open presents. His parents join us all for lunch, and then we head to my parents for dinner. We get to see everyone and it works.

    That said, we both agree that once we have kids of our own, Christmas Day is at our house. The whole Christmas morning thing is the most fun with kids, so whomever has the youngest kids is where we spend Christmas morning. The rest of the family will be welcome at our house on Christmas if they want to; otherwise, we’ll drive up to see them the day afterward. We were both lucky enough to have Christmas in our own homes growing up, so we want to give that to our kids some day too.

    I have watched some of my girlfriends and co-workers struggle with juggling the holidays, as we live near DC and most people come from everywhere but here. It makes for a great melting pot, but it also makes life complicated some times, especially at holidays. Good luck to those of you still working to figure out how to juggle your families. I advocate the alternating holiday days and, if you’re able, spending New Year’s with the other family. We used to do that with my one aunt and her kids and it was like having 2 Christmases when I was little.

    (This is my first APW post but I LOVE reading what everyone writes and have found this site to be a refreshing change from all the WIC everywhere else – Thank you!!)

    Happy Holidays!!

  • brendalynn

    This was a lovely post! Family traditions are so incomprehensible sometimes and still so important.

    Last year we had our first just-the-two-of-us Christmas, and I swear it has made a real difference this year. Even though we’ve shared our holidays together for several years, this year feels like we’re on much more steady ground — like we have a better, stronger sense of “we” to face down (& enjoy) the holidays.

    Our parents live basically in the same town, so we’ve generally split each major holiday, trying to strike a balance each time. And while that can be a nice thing, it also means we tend to show up just in time for the feasts and the gift-opening and then it feels like we run to the next house. This year, I lobbied for an imbalance, in part because my side had extended family coming that I see rarely — and because I missed some of our lesser traditions that are generally sacrificed for the good of the half.

    Cue the difficult conversations.

    We’re working on not tallying points for whose family we’re spending time with — it really shouldn’t be yours or mine, with points in need of balancing. We need to make our holiday plans as our own unit, rather than as a sub-unit of our greater families.

    I actually think that the more time we end up NOT splitting things down the middle, the more we will be treated like the adult couple we are, with our own needs & traditions. Maybe that’s obvious to everyone else? But it’s taken us a while to get here!

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