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Ask Dr. Andrea is a series from The Lily with Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and advice columnist. She will be answering questions about relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Bonior, please send us an email.

Dear Dr. Andrea,

My husband and I have been married for four years, together for nine, and have two very young children. My family is caring and warm but never made a big deal of holidays. My husband’s family, however, is very formal and although not overly religious, very structured and traditional in how they celebrate Christmas. They have always expected us to be there Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, even though we live a plane flight away. My mother-in-law runs a tight ship, and they have very specific ways they do things, from tree decorations to silverware to menus to which Advent calendar they use and the rules for the big gift exchange.

At some point, my husband inherited a box of Precious Moments Christmas figurines that my mother-in-law expects him to display every December, even though they are neither of our styles, but he does it anyway. There are a million other little traditions that she and my father-in-law fully expect us to keep up, including specific Santa stories (which I’m not even sure I’m on board with) and particular cookies to bake (she’s sent the recipe a million times even though I am more a cook than a baker).

Our kids are their first grandchildren (no sign of his siblings having any, anytime soon) so I feel like basically the holiday is theirs, and I’m just along for the ride. That’s not the way I want things. I always envisioned starting new traditions with the family I created, making things special in their own way for our kids. Instead, I feel like I stepped in as an extra to a scene that has already been created. I don’t think my husband really loves these things, but is intent on keeping his mother happy, and he’s a creature of habit. It makes me want to opt out of Christmas altogether. How do I find a new way for us here?

— Trapped in someone else’s holiday

I do think there is a middle ground here, a sweet spot between ditching Christmas altogether and being a cog in the wheel of your in-law’s high-speed Christmas train. There’s also a sweet spot between starting totally new with none of your husband’s family’s traditions (which even if he doesn’t “really love,” still may have meaning to him) versus feeling the pressure to replicate every single one of them.

(Courtesy of Andrea Bonior)
(Courtesy of Andrea Bonior)

The work begins with a more in-depth conversation with your husband. It’s not enough to make assumptions about why he does or doesn’t do things, or what he’d eventually be okay with. As a family just beginning to raise children, it’s important to articulate, together, your vision for the holidays — taking into account your personalities, priorities and the realistic logistics of getting young children onto airplanes. You need not plan out every December for decades, of course, but you must see how much your preferences, willingness and motivation match, and how much adjustment is possible. You can do this best by thinking about your deeper values.

The values focus is very important for figuring out the in-law interaction as well. What do you think, ultimately, they are after — with the cookie zealotry and regimented gift exchange? So many holiday stressors revolve around logistics, and yet logistics represent just the outer appearance of what really, more internally, drives people. It could be that so much of this hullabaloo for your in-laws is really about the deeper desire to have continuity between generations, to honor and remember our pasts and those came before us, and to instill a sense of responsibility and generosity to each other. And maybe you share those values too, and are willing to find additional ways to honor them. (Maybe you can also incorporate you and your husband’s additional values — doing good for the community, rejecting consumerism, showing gratitude, finding ways to bring light in darkness are all particularly healthy contenders.) Maybe some traditions are kept but with less pressure (does your husband want to bake the cookies?), others are altered and rebuilt (perhaps joining the Christmas Eve merriment by Zoom from your own home), or your kids’ reactions mean you surprisingly decide to keep something as is (perhaps the figurines become their style.)

The more you can zoom out to the bigger picture, the deeper a connection between past and future you can cultivate, building a foundation for your children going forward. And when you and your husband decide that maybe certain specific traditions don’t make the cut, then find ways to still honor that larger value. And be respectful and gentle, but firm and clear, in conveying your new boundaries to the in-laws.

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