De-stressing the holidays: Ditching traffic, fake smiles, and our parents

Guest post by Redd

This turkey is all MINE this year.
This turkey is all MINE this year.
I love the holidays. I love the food, the family, and the general festive atmosphere. The beginning of October typically marks the start of the Big Three to me, and each month is symbolic of its respective holiday (putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving is a special kind of blasphemy in my household).

I hate the stress, though.

Every year I start planning the holidays somewhere around the beginning of August. No one seems to understand or care why. But if they took a little time to look at my situation they’d realize that, between my husband and myself, we have four different pairs of parents, three siblings, and a battalion of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

When I last did the Christmas card count, our relatives alone accounted for 42 separate addresses. About half of those people live on the other side of the country and we see them maybe (MAYBE) every five years or so. A quarter of those people are so wrapped up in their own propriety that I feel like I have to put on my “server face” just to make it out alive when I see them. All of them are scattered so far and wide that it’s virtually impossible for us to see any of them on a regular basis.

Add to this that my career choice primarily involves dealing with difficult people and that the holiday season is THE busiest time of year for those kinds of jobs (read: retail and waiting tables), the stress of the holidays is almost more than I can handle.

For a while my husband and I had a nomadic approach to the holidays: we’d rotate between our four sets of parents for Thanksgiving and Christmas so that each set of our parents would get to see us every two years. That quickly turned into “let’s shove as many hours on the road as we can so we can see as many people as we can during the busiest travel periods of the year.” In 2012 it took us EIGHT HOURS to get from my dad’s house to my mother-in-law’s house, which during not-horrible traffic would be a three hour trip… and I was pregnant.

This year I wanted everyone to just come to us. After my in-laws bailed last minute, and my mother tried to convince us to spend it with her side of the family, my husband put his foot down. He told me he wanted to spend Thanksgiving at home, just us and our son, and that he wasn’t going to attend Thanksgiving with my mother’s side of the family.

At first I was upset — if I had to go, he had to go too, right? Then I started thinking about what the holidays meant when I was growing up. On the holidays I didn’t have to travel to my mother’s, my dad and I would typically spend them together, just us. Sure, there was the odd girlfriend here or there, and sometimes my friends would come over, or sometimes a close friend of the family would invite us to spend Thanksgiving with them. On two separate occasions we actually ended up spending a holiday camping. It all boiled down to the same thing though: we did what we wanted to do, together, instead of stressing out doing what we felt obligated to do.

That’s exactly what my husband wants — to spend the holidays with his family, stress-free. And you know something, that’s exactly how I want to spend the holidays too.

Simply acknowledging this desire has already lifted the weight off my soul. I’m not stressing it anymore. I want my holidays to mean more than stress and travel again, and this year is the year I’m going to honor that “just us” tradition my dad and I forged so many years ago — the tradition of stress-free, fun-filled, family-oriented holidays.

Comments on De-stressing the holidays: Ditching traffic, fake smiles, and our parents

  1. Love it, after buying our first home together and my exhaustion over years of nomadic divorced family see everyone trapeze acts I decided to cook our own turkey and stay home too. It was a fantastic decision for us 🙂

  2. Embracing this outlook on the holidays has been a major relief for myself and my husband. He works in a retail adjacent industry so the holidays are a living hell for him. We hate Thanksgiving. Christmas is still being negotiated but I imagine it will be a fairly short commute if anything. It’s been difficult for my father to accept the idea that I just want to do things on my terms but he’ll get it eventually.

  3. GO YOU! That sounds like a lovely holiday. It’s really good to stop and double check that traditions are still working. It’s just too easy to get sucked into a mindset of having to do it because you’ve always done it, without even noticing that it’s causing more stress than joy.

    I stopped doing Christmas with my dad and step family after a big blow-up 6 years ago with my (at the time, fairly new) step mom (things are fine now, but there was a huge clash of expectations, especially Christmas expectations, to start with). Since they were the only ones who celebrated it, they live on the opposite coast, and I don’t get the whole week off like I used to in school, I’ve gone back to treating December 25 like a normal day that I happen to get off of work. It’s so much better than doing more hectic travel–I travel for Thanksgiving, and it’s pretty crazy already.

    Instead, last year I hung out with my boyfriend and roommates and we got Chinese takeout. The year before that I went over to a friend’s place for a fancy potluck. I even have the option of going in to work and earning back the vacation time to spend elsewhere, which I may do this year.

  4. This year will be the first time I have not traveled with my parents (we go every other year) to see my extended family 14 hours away. Most of my family’s reaction has been, ‘Oh, but you’ll be alone on Christmas’ and I’ve had to gently remind them that I have my own family now (A very happy family of two people and two fur babies) and that while I will miss seeing them, I am really looking forward to spending the holiday with my little family and starting our own traditions. That thought has helped me a lot. The idea that now I get to forge my own traditions!

    • Telling my mother that we wouldn’t do Thanksgiving with her family was a special kind of hell. The trick was to be polite yet firm. I also offered her a chance to come over is she wanted, but without the type of pressure she was putting on me. When she came over with my step-dad and half-brother, my husband, son, and I were still in our pajamas and our smiles were genuine. Best Thanksgiving EVER.

  5. Totally agree! Having kids has really clarified this issue for us. The running hither and yon with kids wears thin rather quickly and it only takes one Christmas Eve and Day stranded in an airport to set priorities straight.

    We have so much more fun visiting family other times of the year when the only stress is the trip itself. We also find we all have more time to really pay attention to each other and enjoy each other’s company when we are together without the stress of the holiday.

  6. One of the reasons I was looking forward to getting married was that I would be “allowed” to spend Christmas alone with my husband! It’s the best feeling in the world to be able to plan Christmas your way – keep the traditions you like, dump the ones you don’t, eat tasty food and watch loads of Christmas movies.

    This year is our first year as threesome – puppy’s first Christmas 🙂

  7. Ever since I started dating my fella, Christmas has been a stressful time. Last year we attended 5 Christmas meals (family, family-in-law, extended family, stepfamily) in a row, drove a lot between each of them and ended up really stuffed and frustrated on the 5th one.

    This year we live so far away (like, one ocean away) we’re not even trying to come home. Our moms suggested they come instead, but I was strongly against that. This is our one chance to celebrate Christmas alone and maybe, create a precedent. There was various steps in my life which I saw as participating in my becoming a full-fledge adult, and celebrating Christmas on our own (with our furbaby) is definitely a big one.

  8. When people with big, spread-out families tell me their wild travel plans for the holidays, my first reaction is to be like BUH?! I always forget that I was just raised with a high priority put on relaxed holidays. Part of it was family dynamics, part of it was my parents just deciding what holidays would look like for us. I’m really lucky!

    • I feel like my family was a little bit of both – the weekend before Christmas was designated the “stress out and see EVERYONE” weekend, which was kind of a fun whirlwind thing, and then the rest of Christmas week (including the holidays themselves) were pretty much just immediate family and hanging out. That way everyone got to see each other and celebrate together at some point, but not necessarily ON christmas, which was perfectly okay.

      That gif made me very happy, btw. 🙂

  9. This is now the fourth year I’ve done Thanksgiving with my husband. The past three years were fantastic (in my opinion) because due to his job he had to work on the actual day. So I went to my family Thanksgiving and then hosted anyone and everyone from his family on Friday or Saturday (whichever he had off). Last year we had 15 people crammed in my small house and it was perfect. This year was an anomaly and he was able to have 9 (!!!) days off in a row over Thanksgiving week. We packed up the dogs and drove for almost 7 hours (with lots of potty breaks because I’m in my 3rd trimester) to his mom’s house. It was an OK time, but honestly I didn’t enjoy it as much as hosting, and I think his mom was not so comfortable hosting. I’m outgoing busy body extrovert and she’s an introvert who would rather quietly read. So the role reversal wasn’t so great. I think next year we are going to go back to anyone and everyone is welcome at our house, we have a guest room and I’ll feed you as many meals as you can eat, but I’m not leaving my house.

    Christmas is a different story. My family is fairly religious. Christmas is a very special time for us we do midnight church services, light candles, read stories, its very TRADITION. Our agreement is, that at least until my grandparents are no longer with us, we go to my side for Christmas. Hands down. I get to have the same religious meaningful Christmas I had growing up, and he gets to enjoy it as much as his work schedule allows. My family is a much closer drive than his, so he can come when he gets off work. Sometimes I feel selfish, because I’m 29, and have NEVER spent a Christmas away from my grandmother. But as my hubs points out, he’s not Christian….so it’s just not as big of a thing for him. I’m sure once the kidlet is here he will get more into the secular side of things (presents, santa etc) but for now, midnight mass with my family is the priority on that day.

    It will be interesting to see how holidays evolve as we become a family of 3, the new addition ages, and parents and grandparents age. But so far hosting a big Thanksgiving for his family and attending a very religious Christmas for mine just feels right and has been working.

    While we both have rather large families of origin, we have cut out a lot of the “obligatory stuff” aunts uncles cousins that we haven’t seen….you get a card, but we aren’t going to go out of our way to see you. Non-blood family has also become a higher priority. The friends who are brothers and sisters we make special dinner plans with and do extra things with.

    • Thanksgiving is my Grandpa’s big holiday, and frequently the only time in a year I see him. Husband’s family seems to do something different for Thanksgiving every year. We established back when we were dating that Thanksgiving would always be with my Grandpa as long as he was around and we’d do husband’s family’s Christmas (since my family does a “pretend Christmas” on another date due to a long history of scheduling conflicts on Christmas proper). Of course, thirteen years into our relationship, and this will probably be the last year of that default arrangement. My mother is less than pleased with the idea of us renegotiating Thanksgiving, but we have enough scheduling problems that I’m just not willing to accept the six hour drive and two day turnaround as default once my Grandpa passes. Plus, having been raised on HUGE Thanksgivings, it’s kinda sad when it’s just six people around the table. I would much rather host all our extended families (including the paramours and theirs) at our house. But my Aunt won’t travel so we will see. We’ve got a whole year to figure it out.

  10. I don’t know how we managed to do it, but sometime soon after we married, my husband & I convinced our three sets of parents (my mom & stepdad, his dad & stepmom, his mom & stepdad; they all get along fine, whew) to come to our house for xmas morning. We exchange gifts, & I make brunch; sometimes it’s a brunch potluck, depending on how I feel. Sometimes, I complain about us having to clean our house & cook, but the fact that we don’t have to GO anywhere is such a relief that it wins over the other hassles.

    There’s still an extended-family gathering w/my hubby’s side (plus all our parents, incld. mine) on xmas eve that we have to drive thru rush-hour traffic to, & that’s not great. And some years we squabble over which parents’ house to go to for Thanksgiving (my mom’s house usually wins, & his mom & stepdad join us there). But to have one of the big holidays done, settled, & relatively easy? Such a relief!

    Another thing is that I ditch any supposed tradition that doesn’t thrill me. Like holiday cards. I hate sending them, & I really don’t care if I receive them, so I just stopped years ago. We also convinced a lot of our family to either do charitable gift-giving or homemade gifts only. The homemade part adds some stress (omg, what will I make this year??? <– starts in August), but at least it's not buying plastic crap from China or ugly sweaters 'n stuff. Of course, the best is when we just donate to charities in each other's names.

    Many random holiday events, we skip or only do every few years. Like seeing holiday lights or going to holiday shows. It feels more special if they’re rare. And while everyone seems to throw a holiday party, we’re selective, & only go to one or two. I think the annual SF Dickens Chirstmas Fair (in costume, natch) is our only must-do holiday event other than the xmas eve/day with family 🙂

    • Holiday gifting has always been super stressful for us because of the mass amounts of people in our family. I love your idea of charitable or home-made gifting! It totally trumps ours, which is “unless you’re actually here Christmas morning, you’re getting a card and a hand-written note”.

      As far as events go, we only have one “must do” event. There’s a historical museum house in our area that hosts two open houses every year, one on the 4th of July and one in December. Volunteers dress up in period garb and do period things. My husband is a blacksmith, so he’s forging away while I’m looking pretty and answering questions. All other holiday events are very much so optional to us.

      • My husband’s family solved the massive number of people to buy gifts for thing with a gift exchange for everyone over 18. You bring one, gender neutral, wrapped gift and then we go around selecting and stealing (and even swapping once it’s all over). It lets everyone go home with cooler stuff, because buying just one gift means getting to spend a bit more on it.


    My husband and I run the marathon for both holidays every year. My aunts house(my ailing grandmother lives with them) hosts dinner both holidays where all of my huge Italian family gathers, and then my husbands parents are divorced so we have to stop to see his dad and then drive out to his mother’s big family event.
    The problem is none of them seem to understand that driving around and portioning out the day really sucks. They’re all across town so it’s not like a huge trek but it isn’t just a 15 minute ride either especially with traffic. Also, no one is willing to come to our decent sized apartment if we offered to host anyway(this sadly goes for normal visiting, too).

    So, how do you deal with family who feels personally insulted if you (god forbid) don’t want to run the holiday marathon?? It stresses me out so badly every year I end up physically ill sometimes.

    • Depending on the dynamics of your family, I would start discussing it NOW with them, saying you’d like to host Thanksgiving (or Christmas or whatever) next year. Say you have a home now and a family (even if it’s only two people!) and that you want to partake in the hosting and it would mean a lot to you. Give them a full year to get used to the idea. Then come Thanksgiving, tell everyone it’s at your house, and if they argue say that’s sad but you’re doing it at your house anyway and you hope you get to see them. I don’t feel like any of that is offensive, but again, it will depend on your family. 🙂

    • Once again, I start planning my holidays in August for this very reason. Planning now for the 2015 holidays is even better. Simply refuse to go. Be polite yet firm, tell them you’re doing the holidays at your own place, and explain why. The truth is always prefferable to lies, especially in this instance. I’d also extend an invitation to them, let them know that they are welcome to be part of your holidays, but it’s not fair of them to insist that YOU do the holiday marathon every year and you’d like to actually enjoy your holidays without any stress.

      If they get mad at you or feel insulted, that’s their perogative, not yours. You deserve a chance to enjoy the holidays without the stress, and if they can’t understand that, even after you’ve explained it to them, then that’s their problem.

    • The first time you do something different will be hard and won’t go down well but they will get used to it. It may be that this is what your family has “always done” but that won’t actually be true, at some point there will have been a different plan and which changed to the current arrangement (it will have been hosted somewhere else and in some other way before your Aunt started doing it). They survived the change then, they’ll survive it again!

      I think the key is to work out what you want to do, be it alternate each year between your family and your partners or stay at home completely, and tell them what is going happen rather than ask if it’s ok. We all want to be polite but asking instead of telling doesn’t make it more polite, it just gives them power to say no which leads to confusion because of course they won’t understand why you gave them a choice and are now arguing against what they chose. If you don’t want them to say no don’t offer a choice. This is totally possible to do without being rude but it is scary.

      If you’d like to host, perhaps for the first year don’t try and do it on the actual holiday, that may be too much change too fast and requires them to change what they do straight off. You not attending Christmas Day (and them doing what they always do) but you hosting them another event at some point during the season and thereby starting a new tradition that doesn’t clash with theirs is much more achievable, you change not them and you all get an extra thing added. Once that has run a few times and you’ve all survived then they may become open a bit more to changing what they do on the actual Christmas day. Be firm about what YOU are doing, but tread gently and go slowly about what you expect them to do.

      Finally, not sure if you are after switching to alternating between families or doing your own Christmas but the alternating thing can really take the pressure off. It may go over better as an argument, don’t get me wrong I think Christmas on your own is more than reasonable and requires no argument, but with people with really really fixed ideas it can sometimes be worth starting with a smaller change before the full scale revolution. Also the thing here is that it’s unfair for them to take attendance on Christmas Day as test of your love for them, it’s no more fair to set up a test for them either but it’s an easy trap to fall into. Good luck!!!

  12. My family rarely traveled for holidays as a kid. Now that I’m an adult and married, staying home versus travelling seems like the only sane course of action.
    Love this piece, it really captures that feeling of holiday stress.

  13. For years I’ve had a fantasy about a “big family Christmas” (note – I’m an only child), but after trying to accomplish that with my and my partner’s family, I realized that that fantasy involved a different family; clearly not ours. So after a stressful holiday last year (with the extended family) we’ve made a pact that no one has to travel for the holidays. We will see our families at various other times and work to establish our own traditions, including celebrating Solstice. I’m hoping it will allow us to enjoy the season.

  14. One thing that helps me a lot is that my family celebrates Christmas in a very religious, traditional way, which means that Christmas BEGINS on the night of the 24th, and goes on for 12 days. Most of my family is totally fine with spread out get-togethers over the next two weeks. I love that it makes the celebration go on longer, and takes the urgency out of it.

    Another is that my dad always talked about how he hated waking up Christmas morning, opening all the exciting new presents … and then having to leave to go to his grandparents. He was determined that when he grew up he was not leaving his house on Christmas Day, so that’s how I grew up! And he insists that we do the same thing with our families if we want to.

  15. For now, we’re doing Thanksgiving with my hubby’s dad’s family, and Christmas with my family. My father-in-law is very passionate about Thanksgiving, and I can’t imagine not celebrating Christmas with my parents, so it wasn’t a difficult decision how to arrange things. Unfortunately this leaves my mother-in-law’s family out of the equation. Luckily this year we were able to have dinner with them a couple days after Thanksgiving, and hopefully we’ll be able to make time to see them around Christmas as well. I think once we have kids, especially once they’re old enough to understand and look forward to Christmas, we’ll just do our own thing for Christmas day.

  16. So we’re poly. It’s important to us to spend the holidays (in some shape or form) with our paramours and their children. Christmas has, thankfully, kind of fallen into place. My parents would come to town and stay at our place while we drove out to the paramours’ on Christmas Eve. We would do Christmas morning with the kids all together and then we would meet my parents over at the husband’s family’s big get together while the paramour’s went to my Girlfriend-in-Law’s parents’ (my partner’s family does their Christmas stuff on an off week).

    This year, our house and the paramours’ is the SAME HOUSE so my folks will be here with us Christmas morning as well. I’m excited!

  17. Growing up, I did not spend a single Christmas at home. In fact, the first time my family didn’t travel for the Christmas Holiday was my freshman year of college, specifically because I insisted that I wanted to stay home after spending a semester away from home. My family, on both my mom and dad’s sides, live all over the country, and we would convene at one or another of their houses every year. But not once did any relatives come to our house. Because our house was “too small” (1.5 baths, no guest bedroom available), or some other excuse. So we always traveled to them. I actually had no idea what Christmas at home with just my parents and sister was like until I was a young adult. In some ways, I think that’s kind of sad. On the other hand, we also spent Christmas in Santos, Brasil on three separate occasions due to family connections there. Trade-offs I guess?

    Anyway, these days, my parents almost always spend Christmas at home, and since I still live in the same city, I spend the morning with them also, along with my finance. His family lives in the same city as well, so we will usually spend the afternoon with them. Dinner is a bit of a toss-up as to where that happens.

    Even so, things are still basically bananas. Fiance’s birthday is Dec. 20. His brother’s birthday is also Dec. 20. Mine is Dec. 24. So needless to say, we have all sorts of parties and celebrations for a variety of things around the holidays. I guess I’m just kind of used to the madness at this point.

  18. This year all my Christmas avoidance fell down.

    I have survived the last few by hiding behind the “Someone has to babysit the clinic, and its the only time of year the doctors get to have a break (literally the only two weeks of the year we can get them to stop working!)” to avoid my family (the doctors) and my in-laws. Husband would alternate years between them and hanging out with me, some mud crabs, beers and the only washing up would be the mallet!

    They are ALL coming to us this year! The current passive-aggressive statements from my FIL include “But we ALWAYS eat a hot roast for lunch” and “But you HAVE to put decorations up its festive!”. I’m not cooking that in 40C 80%+ humidity with no aircon. It should be interesting to see how it turns out. Oh, and we only arrive home ourselves 3 days before!

  19. Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugggggggggggggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
    Hubby and I both have divorced parents, and we both have one married sibling each. The holidays are the worst. The parents are so demanding I can’t think of the last time I got to see my brother at a holiday, or his sister. We both used to work retail in college and basically only got *just* Christmas and *just* (the latter half of) Thanksgiving day off. It was hell.

    This year we decided to LIE to everyone and say we were going to “the in-laws” for Thanksgiving. We actually sat on our asses in our PJ’s, at home, and cooked a ham for ourselves (and the cats). It was wonderful. It was relaxing.

  20. Ever since I married my husband, we’ve mostly gone to his side’s GIANT Thanksgiving family blowout–it’s 2+ days, endless amounts of relatives and friends crammed into a too-small house, and a huge amount of Black Friday shopping (despite there not actually being any good Black Friday shopping to DO anymore). It’s kinda awful–, especially for an introvert. We end up going, hating 95% of our time there, getting asked the same effing questions over and over (when are you two going to stop living on opposite ends of the country, where are you living next, etc), and usually end up running away to hide in a Starbucks for hours.

    I convinced him not to go once or twice in the last 7 years, but he’s still pretty set on it. I’m bothered because we end up wasting 90% of the precious little time we have together crammed in a car on a long trip and doing stuff we hate (although we love the people).

    I was so thrilled when we’ve made alternate plans in the past (home alone, home alone but shared a friendsgiving potluck for a few hours only, home alone but out with my side of the family for a super low-key couple of hours affair).

    I’m really tired of going, but he also doesn’t get to see his family as much as I get to see mine, so it feels selfish if I say “no, let’s not go”. This year we’ve just seen his side multiple times in the last month and a half, so I’m hoping I can find some kind of compromise.

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