This Thanksgiving, in the middle of our epic surprise roadtrip, I realized that partway into our third holiday season as a married couple, we had started to figure out the holidays. I don’t mean figure out like it’s easy now (it’s probably never going to be easy for us, on a million levels), or even figure out like we now have a fixed set of traditions (that also might never happen). But we started to figure out the holidays this year in that they finally feel like they are ours.
Around this time of year, we tend to talk on APW a bit about the process of splitting holidays because it can be one of the first real trials you go through as a new family. For some of us, getting married means going through an emotionally transformative moment on our wedding day. For others of us, nothing much changes, at least at first. And then you hit your first set of holidays. Since a wedding is, on it’s most fundamental level, about forming a new family in the eyes of your community, the holidays tend to hit like a ton of bricks. The fact that long standing holiday traditions have to shift to accommodate a new family can be painful and confusing. The fact that everything can’t stay exactly the same can flat out suck. How can we honor the traditions and family we grew up with, while supporting and caring for our new family? How do we develop new traditions as we form and shape our baby family? Why is it all so hard?
But (surprise reversal!) this particular post isn’t about splitting holidays, it’s about owning holidays. As a Jewish household with an interfaith family, we don’t have holidays to split, really. Christian holidays are generally with my family, Jewish holidays are either with David’s family or on our own. And over the course of three years, we’ve decided that non-religious holidays are up to us. Nothing about this setup is particularly easy, but within the last year, we’ve started to make a home in it.
First, let’s be frank. There are endless downsides to being interfaith and not having holidays to split. Christmas was always my favorite time of the year (and a religious time of the year at that), and for obvious reasons, when I decided to convert my relationship with Christmas shifted. When I hear people talking about splitting Christmas, I tend to want to curl up into a little ball, pound my head with tiny balled up hands and whimper, “Two whole families that want to have Christmas with you, lucky, lucky, lucky.” Which is of course, totally unfair, but really, who is in a fair and balanced mood around the holidays? Certainly not me.
However, it turns out that there are surprising upsides to not splitting the holidays. In short, when you’re not splitting them, in theory all the holidays are yours. Because we never have had to ask, “Whose family is getting Christmas this year,” we got a jumpstart on the idea that our family is always getting Christmas, and it’s up to us what we do with it. And that jumpstart has lead us to some important lessons.
Not Asking Permission
What I realized in the middle of the Arizona desert this Thanksgiving is that, particularly with Thanksgiving, a totally non-religious holiday, we’d stopped even pretending to ask our families permission or approval of our plans. Or in other words, God bless being an adult. This year, we decided that we wanted to visit my Grandmother. So we did. We told our families, asked them how they felt about us not being with them for the holiday, listened, and then went to visit my Grandmother. It was the right thing to do, it was fun, and I think we’re both very glad we did (and that’s not even counting the bonus Las Vegas trip that got squeezed in there). Realizing that as fully grown adults, with a family of our own, we don’t have to ask permission from our parents anymore is ground breaking stuff. I’m not saying it’s easy (on any level), but when you start to get it sorted out it’s powerful. You can listen to your family, hear and validate their feelings, but still do what you need to do. Hard, but worth it (particularly when it ends with craps in Vegas the day after Thanksgiving).
One of the upsides (that comes with the downsides) of being an interfaith family, is that it allows you to not be shy when asking for changes in long standing traditions that don’t work for you. For David and me, Christmas is fine as long as it’s mostly a religious holiday (being part of an interfaith family is like one big cultural exchange). Secular Christmas, however, blurs the lines in a way that doesn’t work well for us. Going to Christmas Eve services? Fine! Santa coming down the chimney? Uh-oh. So because of this, we asked my family to cut the Santa stuff. My family is awesome, so they did this without any complaints. (In fact, apparently my father has always hated the “Santa nonsense” and was profoundly delighted that we asked.) Not all of shifting of traditions has been as easy, but the process of tweaking traditions to make them inclusive of our new family has been a good one. It doesn’t feel like our new family is simply visiting my family’s Christmas, but that we’re participating in it, and helping to make it everyone’s Christmas.
If changing traditions is hard, introducing new traditions is fun. Think of this as the carrot to the stick of asking people to change. As we’ve worked to shape Christmas into something that works for everyone (my Jewish born and raised husband has a deep seated existential dread of Christmas that we had to work through), we’ve introduced new traditions. David and I started cooking a big Christmas breakfast, as a low key and festive way to lead into the holiday. Everyone loves it. On David’s first Christmas, I bought a huge imported box of holiday crackers from England with the theory that if I could make Christmas seem more like Hogwarts I could trick him into enjoying it. Turns out, Christmas Crackers are the very best part of Christmas. They’ve turned into one of the whole family’s favorite bits, so now David and I order them every year.
Figuring out how our family could have ownership of the holidays has been hard. There have been plenty of tears, lots of discussion, and constant negotiation. Every year, things shake out a little differently, because every year what works for us is a little different. But even though it’s been hard, it’s also been good (funny how life always works like that). Figuring out the holidays has allowed us to figure out what we want our new family to look like, and it has forced us to sort through our new family’s relationships with our families of origin.
But the real reward is obviously Christmas Crackers. Because they go bang and produce a crown, a prize, and a joke. Perfect.
Photo: By me for A Practical Wedding