The thought expressed by the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is as likely to give someone a knot in the stomach as a longing in the heart. The issue of how to handle family expectations for holiday gatherings probably came up early in your marriage, if not before. Where and how you celebrate may cause culture shock.

Barbara and I had to deal with this because both families have wonderful holiday traditions. We adopted a common solution; one year we celebrated Christmas with Barbara’s family, then went later to my folks. Next year, the schedule reversed.

But during my first Christmas visit to Barbara’s family, I was shocked that they did not open presents in the “correct” way! To me, the orthodox approach was for one person at a time to open a gift. Everyone focused on the person receiving the present and smiled when the gift was opened; the recipient dutifully looked surprised and pleased, and then came the next person’s turn. At Barbara’s house, they distributed all the presents, and then chaos erupted. The race was on to see who could open presents first. I thought, This isn’t right!

We’ve all experienced the discomfort of being used to one custom and then having to adapt to another. However, the challenge of the Christmas holidays is mild until the first child comes along. Now your parents are grandparents, and the stakes jump dramatically. When our children arrived, we realized that we needed to establish our own holiday traditions.

Every family is truly unique. What we do will not apply in every situation, but we’ve learned some principles that can help you negotiate the challenge of managing holidays.

Honoring your parents

How can you possibly honor your parents’ wishes but establish your own family traditions? Jesus reminds us of the command found in Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Scripture also commands us to: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12). These two commands are not in competition with one another.

I can’t offer an ironclad set of rules on what honors or dishonors parents concerning holiday visits. Frankly, the Holy Spirit is much better qualified to help you because He knows your specific circumstances and relationships. Yet what could honor your parents more than building an enduring, love-filled, God-honoring marriage that creates a safe nest for the grandchildren? Establishing holiday traditions in your family cements your marriage and family identity. What parent could oppose that?

Your response might be, Oh, yeah? You don’t know my mom, dad, in-laws, and stepparents. Like anyone else, parents are sinful; they may want you at home for selfish reasons. Some parents are manipulative. Ultimately, honoring your parents doesn’t mean giving in to immature attitudes. You need to do what is right, long-term, for your marriage and family. And there is a way to do that and still honor your parents.

Letting a child go is one of the most difficult challenges of parenting. Don’t be surprised that something as innocent as a holiday visit may reopen the “separation wound.” If a mom or dad struggles with letting go, irritation over holiday plans may indicate that this is the case. This issue may help you appropriately sever the ties and better establish both your marriage and your family’s holiday traditions.

You and your spouse need to establish your own holiday traditions. They include what you do in your own home, with your spouse and children, before and through Christmas Day. Of course, part of your traditions may involve activities with your parents. However, the focus needs to shift to your home.

Going-home guidelines

As part of honoring your parents, you will likely visit their home. Here are some ideas on how to do this without violating your emerging traditions:

  • Be flexible. Perhaps occasionally, you will celebrate your family’s Christmas a day or more early, then head to Grandma and Grandpa’s.
  • Be proactive. Address possible hurt feelings early. For example, call your parents and say, “We won’t be coming home for Christmas this year because we want to establish our own family traditions. But we want to come home the weekend of Mom’s birthday and have a tremendous celebration!” If parents know you aren’t abandoning them, they will more easily accept potentially disappointing decisions.
  • Be brief. We’ve found this rule to be helpful for any home visit (and we have a great relationship with all our parents): Never plan on staying more than three days on a family visit. A short visit that ends on a positive note is better than a long stay that rubs someone the wrong way.
  • Be firm. Don’t let nostalgia, the holiday spirit, or guilt-inducing comments sway you from doing what’s right for your family.
  • Be kind. Afterward, don’t overanalyze or criticize your parents for mistakes. Parents need children to be compassionate to them too.
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What if our family is dysfunctional?

You may be asking, “What if our family of origin is an ugly mess? What do we do if parents mistreat my spouse? Me? Or overindulge or hurt our children?”

You as a couple must establish guidelines and limits that protect you, your spouse, your relationship, and your family. In other words, if you go back home to an abusive parent or an alcoholic parent who ruins the time for everyone, you must decide in advance on your limits. Gently but firmly communicate those limits to your parents. Let them know what will happen if they behave in a certain way; then do exactly what you said.

Watch out for resentment. While visiting under difficult circumstances, you inevitably will see the unkind way your spouse is treated, or you will feel it. Practice forgiveness.

Holiday tradition tips for your family

As you establish your own family traditions, try these ideas:

  • Keep Christ central. Continually ask yourself: What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus during the Christmas season? For starters, consider giving to those in need, inviting people without families to share your holiday joy, or especially emphasizing spiritual things in your home.
  • Deal proactively with holiday stress. The season of peace and goodwill is the most stressful time of the entire year for many people. If you get uptight during the holidays, plan accordingly. Do you have too many holiday traditions? Has your focus shifted too much toward gift-giving?
  • Confront your memories. Holiday memories generally come in two varieties—good and bad. Both types can wreak havoc with your appreciation for Christmas’s real meaning. If you have good memories, your expectations may rise so high that you end up disappointed with the state of your current experience. If your memories are bad, almost everything that happens around Christmas will renew your pain. Either way, it’s better to deal honestly, openly, and prayerfully with your expectations about Christmas ahead of time.
  • Set and keep a budget. Too many people get carried away with spending around Christmas. It often starts with a sincere desire to make children happy and then gets out of hand. Exchange gifts on a preplanned budget. Don’t run up a large credit card bill to finance Christmas gifts.
  • Keep it simple. Christmas traditions don’t have to be elaborate, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy the season sincerely. Ultimately, love is all that is necessary.
  • Make it special. Although the holiday season may bring problems, it is a fantastic time. With God’s help, make Christmas memorable. Take your cues from Scripture, and use your common sense and creativity.

These are just a few ideas. The ones you come up with for your family will be better—the raw material of your own traditions and memories.

Excerpted from Starting Your Marriage Right by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers. Copyright © 2000 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used with permission.