What My In-Laws Taught Me About Merging Holiday Traditions

Man and woman holding hands and praying around a dinner table full of merged families during the holidays.

Blending holiday traditions with your S.O. and his/her family is a big step in a relationship and one that a lot of people around the world wrestle with every year.

My husband and I grew up 20 minutes from each other and our families celebrate the “big” holidays on different days, so we had it easy.

But I’ve learned a thing or two watching my siblings-in-law trudge their way through the holiday trenches.

I sat down with two of my sisters-in-law with serious baes to hear how they have (and haven’t) approached merging familial traditions across distances.

And so I present to you the most necessary questions to answer with your S.O. to broach the subject on the right foot.

That way, you can figure this out before your mother asks if she’ll be needing another chair at the dinner table. *fist bump emoji*

The Cast of Characters:

Josie, my sister-in-law from South Bend, Indiana, and Daniel, originally from Guatemala and currently living in West Lafayette, Indiana, have been dating since January 2016. Daniel is finishing his bachelor’s degree in December 2017 from Purdue University, where they met and started dating. Josie graduated in May 2017 and moved to Chicago to start her career in nursing.

Maggie — another sister-in-law of mine — is also from South Bend, Indiana, but currently lives in Dayton, Ohio, with her boyfriend Andy. Maggie and Andy began dating during their senior year at the University of Dayton in 2014. Andy’s family lives in Atlanta, GA.

Main Questions to Consider:

1. Where do both of you draw the line?

Is an engagement ring the determining factor in merging your family traditions? Either way, get on the same page about when you should be having this conversation.

“I think it’s a little different because we’re not engaged or married,” says Andy. “So I think the main days — on Christmas obviously, since that’s a pretty family-oriented holiday — we normally do separately. For New Year’s and stuff we’ll probably do something together, like we did last year. I think it’s kind of a no-brainer on the big ones, which is really just Christmas and Thanksgiving.”

Maggie: “Yeah, I didn’t know that…”

Andy: “My mom doesn’t expect Maggie to do that at the stage we’re in right now. It’s just not really that…”

M: “‘Not that serious’?”

A: “Yeah, not that serious. I think it depends how important it is to your family for you to be home during the holidays.”

M: “There’s a weight to it. Whose family is it more important to? Whose family is going to have their feathers ruffled the most? And if you’re deciding whether or not to do it, even if it might ruffle some feathers, but it will move your relationships forward and it’s a direction you both want to go, I think you should do it.”

A: “I’d say, ‘don’t make Mom upset.’”

2. How often does your S.O. get to see his/her family throughout the year?

Distance can be a big strain on relationships, even familial ones. Make sure you’re keeping in mind how often your S.O. saw his/her family before you came along. If they’re in a different country, traveling home is probably even harder, and potentially more important.

“Daniel doesn’t get to see his family often,” Josie says. “He only goes home [to Guatemala] in the summer and Christmas,” says Josie. “So I was like, ‘Yeah, you should definitely go home for Christmas or go wherever your family is going.’”

“Other than that,” Josie continued, “he usually just stays [at Purdue] and it’s just convenient to say, ‘Oh, why don’t you come home with me for Easter or Thanksgiving or whatever it may be. It was never like, ‘let’s decide what we should do for this holiday.’ When one person’s family is from further away than the other person’s family, you just have to understand that person’s need to see their family.”

Currently living eight hours away from his family, Andy voiced the same concern.

“Since we don’t go home a lot now,” says Andy, “it’s nice to go home and have Thanksgiving cooked the way my mom cooks it. My mom expects me and my brother [Elliott] to come home. We both went to school so far away. [Maggie and I] are eight [hours away] and with my brother being 15 — when my mom can get us all together, that’s kind of a big thing on her end.”

Aerial view of a dining room table full of food from merging family holiday traditions.

3. Would bringing home your S.O. mean meeting the entire fam?

Josie: “The first time Daniel met the family, it was all of my family. Cousins and aunts and uncles — and it was his first time meeting anyone. So I told him we’re having our cousins and our extended family over and he was very hesitant. He almost didn’t come because that was like walking into 30 people he didn’t know, and he didn’t even know my parents.”

Daniel: “You kind of told me [there would be 30 people] but then your cousin told me, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re going to meet the whole gang!’ And I was like, ‘Oh.’”

J: “I didn’t want to pressure him, so I was like, ‘I’d love for you to come, but I know that that’s a lot of people.’”

D: “Well, I was just debating whether I should stay home for Easter…”

J: “Like at [school]?”

D: “Yes… No, it was a lot of people. I don’t know. I just remember being nervous, but kind of excited too to see where Josie came from.”

4. Which holidays or aspects of the season are most important to your S.O.?

Don’t just do what works for other people. A custom solution is better than a one-size-fits-all when it comes to blending holiday plans.

“I know some people do the whole ‘next year, we’ll do your family,’” says Josie, “and then switch off back and forth. But mainly, I would say communicate and be sure to express what’s most important to you.”

As much as you might wish that your S.O. is a mind reader, communication — especially when trying to navigate new waters like these — is key.

“I have no problem telling Daniel what’s the most important thing to me,” says Josie. “And I think he’s comfortable with telling me the same. Definitely be direct about it.”

“The direct thing is all false,” joked Daniel. “The woman is always boss. No, no — I’m kidding. Just be upfront from the beginning.”

Getting to see certain siblings or family members might also factor into the equation. Put in the effort beforehand to sync up expectations about different scenarios and how they play into the holiday season.

“For me, the weight of the tradition is for sure the defining factor,” says Maggie. “I don’t want to miss out on my family’s traditions. Like we always take a family video and a family picture, and I don’t want to not be in that.”

“If all my siblings are going to be there, I don’t want to miss out,” says Maggie. “If two [of the five] are missing, I think, ‘okay, it’s not that big of a deal if I miss it.’”

5. How can you strike a reasonable balance?

Daniel: “Just keep a balance between [both families]. Not to just see one of the families but to make compromises to see both. Keep count! [laughs] No — you develop a feeling for how much time you spend with both of them, right?”

Josie: “Well, we have spent more time with my family. Do you feel like that’s not fair?”

D: “Eh…”

J: “It’s kind of circumstantial.”

D: “Yeah. Circumstantial. If Josie wasn’t here, I couldn’t think of the word. My family just always asks for Josie and Josie’s family always asks for my family—”

J: “Like, ‘asks about.’ Not, ‘can I talk to Josie?’” [laughs]

D: “I know the desire to spend more time together is there, and that’s what counts.”

6. How does your faith factor into the season?

“I feel like the more I’ve matured and am living on my own,” says Maggie, “I’ve had to be held more accountable for my own faith. And yeah, I’ve lapsed a lot. We don’t go to Church every Sunday, and I can say there are days that go by when I don’t pray and I haven’t even thought about God. So me being more accountable and having it on my own plate, it means more to me personally. Like I want to get that out of Christmas. I want to really celebrate the true meaning of it.”

“I think if Andy wasn’t Catholic, I’m sure I wouldn’t [be as willing to go to Atlanta for Christmas],” says Maggie. “If I was just going for gifts and beers and stuff, I think I would feel a little weird about that, because that’s not Christmas to me. Because that’s my upbringing and my Catholic faith. I wouldn’t be as willing to go without a Christmas Mass.”

“[My family] gets into the Hallmark of [Christmas],” continued Maggie, “but my parents make it [about God].…That’s when I feel more like I’m getting something out of it, and I’m really appreciating God and having that Catholic background and being with my family.”

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