Not-So-Newlyweds: How to Keep the “Happy” in the Holidays

Remember being a kid and the only holiday stress you had was convincing your parents you were asleep while secretly plotting your position for attempting to catch Santa swooping down your chimney (well, that, and if you’re like me, wondering whether he would come at all, given that you didn’t have that all-important brick structure in your living room)? In those days, turkey magically appeared on the table, along with pumpkin pie and that gelatinous cranberry stuff. Grandma and Grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins came over, and joy abounded right there in your dining room.

Then you became an adult. Maybe you got married and realized that the inner workings of such a magical day involved more than you had been led to believe. You became aware of the conspiracy to hide from children the dark side of the holidays, the one in which Grandma and Uncle So-and-So argued for half an hour about whether the turkey was really done, and you were spared from witnessing that car ride with your cousins in which they were threatened within an inch of their lives to not to torture the dog—like they did last year—or to face the direst of consequences at home. Not to mention the whole decision process of where Thanksgiving was going to be and who to spend Christmas with. (“Your family again? We always spend the holidays with your family.” Yes, that discussion). For many years, I too was protected from this less-glamorous side of the holiday season, but now, having been married for a few years, I have learned a few lessons about avoiding holiday disasters and keeping that “happily married” thing going into the New Year.

You can’t force anyone else to use a calendar. Luke’s family are big calendar users. They know their Thanksgiving plans weeks or months in advance. My family (not all, but in general) are a bit more “free-spirited” in their planning and often don’t announce holiday plans until a few days beforehand. This becomes a bit of an issue when Luke and I, both the oldest and only married children in our immediate families, attempt to make plans for the special days. It’s easy to schedule with the side that has plans and accidentally neglect the other side. Luke’s parents have a system in which they trade off holidays between the two sets of grandparents. This tried and true method has worked for years, and I envy it. With my side, although I only have one living grandparent, my parents are divorced, and my mom is remarried. Needless to say, things get tricky. Sometimes, though, I have to be more flexible with my calendaring tendencies and let the fun happen when it happens.

Let go of if-onlys. Growing up, my dad’s parents were divorced and my grandfather remarried, but we would still all spend holidays together. Grandma would come with the rest of us to the house that Grandpa shared with his wife. I admire that they were able to do that for the sake of the kids because it allowed less stressful times for us to spend with each other. However, I can’t expect my parents to make my holiday decisions easier by doing the same. Thinking, “If only they could be friends one day a year” won’t get me very far, so I’ve had to let go of that expectation and determine to make the day good anyway. I know that all of these concerns will become magnified when or if we ever have children, so I hope to keep a realistic perspective on what does and doesn’t define a happy holiday.

Teleportation has not yet been perfected, or even invented, so you can’t be everywhere at once. We tried really hard the Christmas we were engaged. We did Christmas Eve day with my mom, Christmas eve evening with my dad, Christmas morning with Luke’s family, Christmas lunch with Luke’s mom’s side, Christmas dinner with my dad’s side, and I think I’ve forgotten a couple of others. All counted, we had seven Christmases in two days. We felt double failure at the end because we knew everyone we had visited was left disappointed that we hadn’t stayed longer, and we were stressed and disconcerted we didn’t get to relax on what was supposed to be the happiest day of the year. At the end of that whirlwind, we realized that fairness was not all that fair and that we needed to put a bit more emphasis on protecting our relationship in the process of upholding family traditions. This leads to the idea that you have to…

Remember who you’re driving home with. This goes along with the infinite wisdom of that saying, “Dance with the one that brung ya.” If you’re going to worry about how someone is feeling and if you’ve disappointed anyone, let it be the one who will still be with you when you go to sleep on Christmas night. It is possible to grow closer and be more connected through this season, but it requires refusing to let anything come between…to be in it together. The mission of holidays is to remember why we’re celebrating, not to let the celebration itself get in the way of the blessings.

Define your own traditions. We decided early on that to combat “the dark side” of the holidays, we needed to establish our own traditions. Early on, this took the form of collecting items for our own Thanksgiving dinner: a Cornish hen (because a turkey is too big for two people), a box of Stovetop, and two pre-made miniature pecan pies from Wal-Mart. It turned out ok, but I think that hen’s picture is somewhere in the Facebook world with a comment asking, “What is that thing?” We’ve stuck to a very traditional pizza since then.

To kick off the Christmas side of the season, we always attend Oklahoma Baptist University’s Hanging of the Green and the Oklahoma State Madrigal the first weekend in December. In fact, our first real date was to the Madrigal, and we’ve gone ever year since. Our first year of marriage, we spent most of our budget on a giant artificial tree that grazed the ceiling of our apartment. Now, we tear ourselves away from family after Thanksgiving and rush home to Christmas-ify house well into the night. We eat junk food and take pictures and watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and put considerable thought into our annual ornament, the one that seems to best symbolize the year.

We decided that with all the temptation to focus on our own wish lists at the holidays, we wanted to adopt a Salvation Army Angel each year. The first time, we adopted a 4-year-old girl who, according to the listed sizes, could have almost shared clothing with me. Only by Divine Intervention did we run into a friend who actually had a four-year-old girl and advised us about intricacies of the toddler world, such as where to find The Littlest Petshop figurines. We’ve kind of stuck to boys since that experience.

Other staple events include Christmas music starting in July, watching Christmas movies, and a new one: wearing homemade Christmas sweatshirts to the annual cookie decorating party. With every late night egg nog run, we love the holidays more. We don’t have all the answers for how to best share time among our relatives, but we are grateful to be surrounded by people who love us and to get to be in this adventure together.

How about you? Do you have any creative traditions that have stemmed from your own holiday lessons?



4 thoughts on “Not-So-Newlyweds: How to Keep the “Happy” in the Holidays”

  1. Julianna and Luke,
    I’m glad you’ve made your own traditions for the holidays. My holidays were spent between the 2 sets of grandparents and 2 sets of great grandparents until they were gone. Going from place to place was fun but I think we missed the relaxing times of REALLY enjoying being together as a family. Of course, Joe & I didn’t have to worry about which family we would spend the holidays with every year since sometimes we were stationed across the country from everyone and couldn’t get back. That’s one way to solve the “family” problem. And when we did go home to Oklahoma or Ohio, we only had one side of the family to visit so it wasn’t too bad. We learned to make our own traditions. I’m glad you’re making yours. Have a Happy Thanksgiving and a Merry Christmas. Love, Aunt Pat

    1. Thank you for sharing your memories! I would love to hear more stories of your holidays all over the country 🙂

  2. This is a terrific post and a great list! My husband and I got off to a rocky start combining our holidays, trying to please everyone, etc. We now have some new traditions, such as having my parents and brother over for Christmas morning brunch, because we now have a baby and it is better to still be together but ask them to travel to us instead. My Mom brings a fruit salad, we fry up bacon and eggs, my Dad does dishes. Everyone is happy and together without having to try to get a little one out the door early on a holiday morning.

    This year I am starting advent as a tradition in our home. I am so excited.

    Again…terrific post!

    1. Thanks, Krista! I can’t WAIT until we have a place big enough to host a holiday! I hope your Thanksgiving goes well this year!

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