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For the first decade we were together, the holidays were a (literal) drag. In fact, we dragged ourselves all over the state and the country, working to fulfill everyone else’s holiday dreams and traditions. (Spoiler alert: most holiday seasons ended in exhaustion and tears, feeling like we’d met everyone’s needs but our own.) For us, having our second kid was our impetus to toss caution to the wind, tell our family that if they wanted to hang with us at the holidays, well, they knew where we were. And as part of that process we started slowly building up our own traditions, testing out things that worked, discarding things that didn’t.
I firmly believe that nobody should wait as long as we did to start building their own holiday plans. But regardless of how long it took us to get there, it’s turned out that I’ve loved creating family rituals. And even more than that, I’ve enjoyed the ability to kick anything I don’t like to the curb, without any guilt. And that means at this time of year, I always spend some quality time thinking about what rituals I love and want to keep doing, and what traditions are no longer serving me.
Luckily for me, since David and I started the long process of merging our Jewish and Protestant holiday traditions, I have had the habit of obsessively documenting what worked and what didn’t in any given year. (TL;DR: He hates Christmas with burning passion; it was once my favorite holiday.) Think of it as my ongoing interfaith science experiment, with the internet as my log.
I know what works: Our multi-year project of minimizing presents and maximizing activities. More joy, less stress.
For us that means one small present for every night of Hanukkah, matching pajama’s on Christmas Eve, and a few small presents on Christmas day. On the activity front, this year I booked Nutcracker tickets and fancy lunch in the city for my ballet-obsessed three-year-old (while leaving my wiggly six year old behind). We had a winter wonderland trip to Colorado to see family before Thanksgiving. Plus we have our standard fare of silver tree trimming with the collection of ornaments I inherited from my Grandmother, a latke and dreidel party, and a god-sibling Boxing Day celebration. I’ve learned the hard way that in order to make all of this work smoothly, everything needs to be scheduled by Halloween so I don’t have to worry about it during the rush of the holidays.
And beyond that we keep Christmas a low-key, semi-Jewish affair. We wake up, do quick morning presents, have a delightful holiday breakfast, and then head off to take advantage of a day where everyone but the non-Christians is staying home. Sometimes it’s a museum, sometimes it’s an empty park or beach, but it’s always nice (and low stress).
As for what doesn’t work, well, it never seems to change. In short, we hate the part of the holidays where you slave over a huge meal, and then sit down for a huge formal dinner. The composite parts of it always seem like they’d be perfect: David loves to cook; I love formal dinnerware and entertaining. In reality, it always turns into a stress fest. Everyone has their own list of requirements for what makes a holiday meal a success, the work to prepare is endless, the meal goes by far to fast, and the formality makes it feel un-fun. (Plus our kids are so small that after many hours of cooking, they’re done and bored in ten minutes or less.)
Last year I polled Instagram on better alternatives to the formal dinner, and y’all delivered, with ideas from movie marathons to takeout (with plenty of celebratory cocktails). So I’ll see if this year I can whip the food part of the holidays into shape, and create traditions we like… or at the very least, get rid of traditions we don’t.
How about you? What are your favorite holiday traditions? Which traditions do you feel stuck with, but aren’t working for you? Are you coming up with any new traditions this year? And are you building your own baby-family traditions, or sticking with the same ones you grew up with?