The bidding war over where Alysha Rice would spend Christmas in 2020 began more than a month before Christmas in 2019.
Rice’s soon-to-be mother-in-law was the first to ask the question. She raised it casually, mid-conversation, as if the decision would not generate the traditional months of annual family strife.
“So, what holiday do I get next year?”
Rice and her fiance, Luke Clark-Hampleman, always do their best to split the holidays fairly between their two families, who live in Salem, Ind., and Herrin, Ill., a four-hour drive apart. Usually they default to what Rice calls the “obvious solution”: one family gets Thanksgiving, the other gets Christmas. But somehow, it’s never quite that simple. Last year, the couple drove four hours on Christmas, just so each family would get some part of the day. This year, they’ll be spending the holiday apart: Rice with her family, Clark-Hampleman with his.
“Christmas is just the cream of the crop holiday. It is the quality time that everyone wants,” says Rice, a 28 year-old marketing director based in Louisville. They’d been planning to spend Christmas morning this year with her fiance’s family — but then Rice’s sister had a baby, and her mom wanted her home for her niece’s first Christmas. “I’m not going to say there wasn’t a guilt trip. But there’s really nothing we can do,” she says.
It’s a dilemma most couples end up facing once they reach a certain level of commitment: Where do we go for the holidays?
For some, the question can become a delicate, high-stakes negotiation, as the couple attempts to simultaneously please each other and two or more sets of parents — who probably aren’t thrilled to be renouncing their lifelong monopoly over their child’s holiday time.
“Healthy couples” will find a way to compromise, says Los Angeles-based relationship therapist Gary Brown.
But on this question, perhaps there is no good compromise to be had: Any way you do it, Rice says, someone gets offended — or maybe you end up completely stressed-out and exhausted, driving four hours on what, for many, is supposed to be the most joyful day of the year.
Going home together for the holidays — whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali or Kwanzaa — is a significant milestone in any relationship, says Brown, especially when there’s travel involved: A step beyond meeting the parents, it’s a chance for a child to signal the importance of their partner to their family — and for their family to feel out how their partner fits in with everyone else: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, pets. (No pressure.)
The gesture likely used to hold even more weight than it does now, says Beth Bailey, author of “From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in 20th Century America.” If a woman brought a man home for the holidays in the 1950s and ’60s — when the average American woman got married at age 20 — it sent a clear message about the couple’s intentions. The family may have assumed — often correctly — that the boyfriend would use the visit as an opportunity to ask his girlfriend’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
While the act of going home together may have meant more in the 1950s, there is reason to believe it was not nearly as stressful as it is now. The popular etiquette books from the time, which focus on “potential stressors in romantic relationships,” do not mention this issue at all, says Bailey.
“That makes me think that, while this is something we worry about a lot today, they didn’t worry so much about it then,” says Bailey. That could be because couples became traditionally “established,” with weddings and homes and babies, much sooner than they do today, allowing them to host the celebrations — and bring their families together — at a much younger age.
When Nia Moreno, 27, started doing holidays with her boyfriend, she, like Rice, expected their families to split Thanksgiving and Christmas, rotating every year. But their parents, who live just 15 minutes apart in Chicago, didn’t like that solution: Thanksgiving, they said, was absolutely not a substitute for Christmas. So Moreno and her boyfriend agreed to spend part of each holiday with one family, and part of the day with the other. This Thanksgiving, their families staggered their mealtimes, so Moreno and her boyfriend wouldn’t miss dinner at either house.
“I tried to eat a small amount at my house because I feel rude going to another person’s house without eating,” says Moreno.
The whole thing, she says, was extremely stressful. She kept checking her watch, making sure she was splitting her time equally.
“I like everyone to feel like they’re being attended to,” she says. “I’m thinking, ‘This family is going to get two hours less than the other one. They’re going to feel so bad.”
After two years of stressful family holidays, Raven Heckaman, 27, from Mishawaka, Ind., decided to stop trying to make everyone happy. She and her husband both have divorced parents, and while they all live within a 25-minute drive of one another, she was not going to try to see four families on one day. Last year, she invited everyone over for a Christmas brunch at her house. Turkey felt too stressful, so she opted for coffee cake and breakfast casserole instead. Some parents came, some didn’t — and that was just fine with her.
She is doing the same thing this year. To get out ahead of any scheduling conflicts, she sent out a text message in November.
“We’re doing Christmas brunch at our house, you can come if you want. We’re starting our own Christmas traditions,” it read. If they didn’t want to come to brunch, she told them, they could pick a different day in December and schedule their own Christmas with her family. “I was like, ‘You can either hop on board or get off the train.’”
The other “ideal” solution to this problem is to live really far away from your family, says Kathleen Archambeau. Her wife’s parents live in New Zealand, a 16-hour flight from where they live in San Francisco. (Archambeau’s parents have passed away).
“No one gives us any grief about staying in the U.S.,” Archambeau says. Instead, she and her wife spend Christmas Eve every year with close friends, watching the Gay Men’s Chorus at the Castro Theatre.
Still, Archambeau feels lucky that she and her wife are able to visit her in-laws when they want to. Many gay couples aren’t so lucky, she says.
“There are so many queer friends of ours who split up and go separately to two different families for the holidays, because they are in the closet or their families are hostile to their partners.”
Others might have families they don’t want to see for other reasons, says Brown: Maybe the couple’s relationship with one family is toxic, and they choose to spend more time at the home that feels more welcoming.
After a while, maybe the couple reaches for another, completely different, option. Sometimes Rice wishes there was a “third door” that she could walk through on Christmas, she says.
“Part of me just wants to go to the beach.”
“I don’t think the mothers would agree to that.”