Holiday Traditions, An Outsider’s Perspective

Growing up, my family had a very simple set of family traditions. If it was a holiday, we went to my Grandmother’s house, bringing the entirety of my mother’s smallish side of the family together. It was simple and got the job done and there were never any questions as to what we would be doing for any given holiday except for whether or not there would be peas. When Maddie and I first started dating, I began to catch glimpses of a much more hectic and disorganized mash-up of family traditions. She would spend her holidays running from one relative’s house to another, trying to see every one while trying to sort through, what seemed like, an ever changing compilation of traditions that could crop up at a moment’s notice.


Now, as many people are aware, Maddie has quite the colorful family tree, which leads to this chaotic array of families all trying to spend quality time with each other. Over the years I have slowly joined Maddie in this mad dash from place to place and family to family. Through it all I have begun to see the small traditions that take place no matter how crazy the holiday schedule becomes. One of those traditions was something that stood out as really special, but which at first I didn’t quite get.

Maddie had a younger sister who passed away from cancer before we met. This was, of course, devastating to the whole family. I wasn’t around when it happened and never knew Stephie, but shortly after Maddie and I began dating, I became included in a family tradition that revolved around her.


It was always hard for me to grasp the gravity of the loss because I had never gone through anything that even approached such an event in my own family.

So I felt doubly the outsider, being new to the family and also new to what seemed to be a deeply emotional and personal tradition. But here’s the thing—this isn’t a sad tradition. It is extremely upbeat, where everyone gathers together not just to remember but, more so, to spend time together and appreciate everything they still have and the people who are still here. Christmas Eve morning starts off at McDonalds, and then on to the cemetery to decorate the two pine trees growing next to Stephie’s grave.


There is usually a lot of laughter and catching up, with the dogs running around and the kids usually throwing a football. At some point everyone is wrangled together and gets to share something they are thankful for. There usually are some ducks that are accosted by either children or dogs at some point too.


I can’t really express how much I have come to appreciate this little tradition, which before understanding I had been reluctant to attend. It solidifies all the things I love about my in-laws and has helped to bring me closer to them in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But this is what building your new family foundation is all about, isn’t it? It can be confusing, hard to navigate, and sometimes you might feel like an outsider, but in the end it’s so worth it for the things you gain—for the things I’ve gained.

Photos by: Maddie’s Personal Collection

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  • wonderful, michael! it’s so important and awesome to be reminded of the fact that sometimes when we ask our SOs to events which maybe wouldn’t be their number on choice, it can turn out to be something really special for them.

    • On the flip side, as a person coming into some events that are very foreign, or socially different from my own comfort zone, it’s very lovely to hear how those events can grow to be meaningful and special over time, even if our relationship with the tradition is that of coming in after things are already established.

  • mimi

    “It can be confusing, hard to navigate, and sometimes you might feel like an outsider, but in the end it’s so worth it for the things you gain”

    Read more:

    Seems like this idea should be at the heart of every baby family. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective!

  • Chris Bergstrom

    I love that you both shared your side of this tradition. You and Maddie are an inspiration to me!

  • Nice story! On Christmas Eve in chilly Wisconsin, my inlaws have us all put on swim suits and go down water slides with the nieces and nephew at an indoor waterpark. The first time I was like, “You have GOT to be kidding me!” Twice now, I have dreaded this, and each time it’s ended up being really fun.

    Since getting married, now my Christmas preparations include wrapping presents and a flurry of last-minute leg-shaving :).

  • It’s awesome that we got this from both perspectives. Other families traditions almost always seem a little strange from the outside, I think.

  • I’m not sure why I cried at this post and not Maddie’s, but I loved hearing both sides of this.

    • Kinzie Kangaroo

      It’s the same for me. I definitely teared up, but maybe it’s because Michael’s post reminded me of what Donnie must go through every time we go to dive in to one of my family’s insane traditions… It made me appreciate so much more what he goes through because of me, and for me. What a special post.

  • I know Mike and I have looooooong discussions every holiday season about how we need to honor each other and our family traditions. It’s hard. I think it’s this willingness to just try is what makes our baby family work during the holidays. Plus, to be really frank, the holidays cause serious anxiety and borderline PTSD for me, so just making it through them seems like a victory. I’m consciously making the decision to redefine what the holidays mean now that the Honey Duncan is around. Thanks to you and Maddie sharing your perspectives, I believe it’s possible more than ever now.

  • Wow, this conversation just brought memories if reading this blog last year and thinking about holiday traditions.

    And… so far (first married Christmas; second Christmas we’ve actually done together), it’s still really hard. This year will be much easier for me, because we’re pretty much doing all of my family things (talk about a flurry of running around to all sorts of relatives’ houses), but I still get really anxious and almost panicky when I start thinking about what will happen in the future.

    My own family traditions, which are pretty much all Christmas ones, are all so important to me, and I still can’t imagine missing them, even though I did miss half of them last year already.

    Ok, leaving now so I can calm down and get back to work.

  • I should have said heartachingly beautiful *pair* of posts in my comment on Maddie’s.

  • Savychacha

    You know what just dawned on me? The fact that my husband has no holiday traditions. I mean, unless you count drinking, which isn’t so much a tradition as an addition. His mother passed away when he was 15, and he grew up being shuffled around from the CT to NY to FL and back again. We have created our own holiday traditions together, but on Christmas eve we always attend the huge Italian feast at my Aunt and Uncles house. I never really thought about what it must be like for him to attend something so foreign. Although, truth be told, even I still feel somewhat foreign there on occassion.

    These two posts have given me a new perspective on what it may have felt like for him at first. Last year he was telling me that he’s only ever had to worry about getting a present for his dad, and now he has to worry about my mom, brother, father and random other family members. I told him he wasn’t going to just be marrying me, but marrying into a bigger family too. He’s gotten more comfortable though. Recently he asked my mom to crochet him a blanket so he could be warm while we sit on the couch. It means a lot to me that he feels close enough to her to do this.

    Thank you both for your wonderful stories. It made me think about things differently, and that in itself, is something special.

  • carrie

    I love hearing from both sides, and love especially that this tradition now has a special place in your heart. My husband’s older brother passed away before I met him and every year, he and his parents go to the cemetery briefly. I was worried that I would be intruding at first when I was asked to join, and while our cemetery experience is much different, I was ultimately honored and felt closer to the family because of it. It also just underlines how important we are to our partners and vice versa. Gives me the warm fuzzies. :-)

  • Oh, this was lovely to read. Thank you for writing, Michael!

  • Elle T.

    These posts make great bookends. I also need to remind myself to see through the other person’s eyes too. While I may feel like I need something from my fiance, I need to be aware of what my need costs him – and vice versa, what his needs cost me. Great post. Thanks for sharing, Mike!! Happy Holidays

  • Beautiful posts, both of them. Thank you for writing from your perspective, too. I brought my now husband (then boyfriend) home for Christmas the first year we were dating, and every year since. I’m sure it was all overwhelming for him, and I’ve caught snippets of his thoughts on our traditions. (My youngest sister is a strict enforcer of traditions, such as the three sisters sitting on the stairs in pajamas until we’re allowed to come down for the stockings. It’s… silly. But she loves it.)
    His family has been amazing at incorporating me in to their traditions, too. I went to my first Passover seder at their house and was so nervous about everything, especially reading Hebrew, but everything was fun.
    Getting to spend that time with each other’s families has been amazing and so important for both of us. Plus, I think my family knew it was serious when I brought a boyfriend home for Christmas.
    I’m not sure when the holidays will be time we take to spend with our own, baby family, but for now I love how things are.

  • Anna

    Thanks so much for sharing Michael! I’m glad you two have found a way to experience your seperate traditions together…

    Goodluck this year beginning new traditions together! Merry Christmas!

  • Thank you so much for sharing, Michael!

    I, too, have a giant cloud of a family, though more due to Irish Catholic goodness than multiple marriages. I can imagine this is what my SO feels like when entering the insanity. Thanks for reporting back from the other side. It’s good to know it can be really rewarding to open yourself up to the possibilities and new traditions.

    Merry Christmas!

  • Sez

    Actually, THIS is the one that made me cry… thank you both for sharing your stories. This is so helpful as I continue to navigate the mashed-up crazy traditions of old with the new. You are so right, it is a gain – plus being supportive of your partner with his/her family – no matter how chaotic! Thanks for such a good reminder at a really opportune time.

  • Alyssa

    I laughed out loud when you explained Maddie’s traditions as, “running from one relative’s house to another, trying to see every one while trying to sort through, what seemed like, an ever changing compilation of traditions that could crop up at a moment’s notice.”

    Oh man, do I understand you there! That is exactly how my family operates, and my fiance has had his share of navigating the chaos with confusion and with grace.

    Your post gives me hope that the two of us can struggle and build and celebrate with eachother despite our differing traditions. I’m so thankful for that!

  • So beautiful the two of their posts. Makes me thankful for love and family.

  • Class of 1980

    A win-win. Love the tradition. And those ducks are beautiful.

  • AmErika

    Oh man I’m not sure who made me sniffle and tear up more. And thanks for writing this….we APW ladies LOVE hearing the male perspective. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!