Help! We Never Started Family Traditions!

woman and child decorating chrismas tree

A funny thing happened on Christmas Eve.

Nothing. That's what happened.

My husband came home in time for Christmas this year. Awesome, right? Yes. A resounding yes!

But we didn't know what to do. After nearly 12 years of marriage and three children, we realized that we haven't been home and together enough on Christmas to have any traditions.

Six of those years, he's been deployed or away during the holidays, at least three we traveled to see family over Christmas and last year we took advantage of his guaranteed leave days to take a dream vacation. Without children. Also, in the mix of all of that, we moved so the local options for holiday entertainment changed.

All day long on Christmas Eve, we sat and looked at each other, sure that there was something we should be doing, but not sure what it was.

I knew what I would have done if it had just been me and the kids together at Christmas:Wwe would have gone home to see my family in Tennessee.  

Growing up with a large extended family nearby, I never gave any thought to what to do for the holidays. There were at least half a dozen family gatherings to attend. Christmas Eve generally meant attending a big family dinner with my father's family and then another one with my mother's, before going back to our house to open just one present ‑- always matching pajamas -- before going to bed.

But living 400 miles from my family, those traditions weren't an option, and he squashed my matching PJs idea the first year I suggested it.

His family is 900 miles away, so visiting them and repeating his childhood rituals was even less of an option.

As the hours ticked by, we each walked in circles around the house, walking in and outside, no clue what to do with ourselves, the tension between us building. Finally, I decided to address the problem head on:

"What should we do?" I asked. "I have no idea how we're supposed to celebrate this holiday. We -- you and I -- haven't been home together enough on Christmas to have any traditions of our own. It's no one's fault, but the kids are getting older. They need to know what their traditions are."

He agreed, and then we systematically weighed the traditions we'd each enjoyed growing up, discarding the ones we thought were boring or stupid, and considering ones we'd heard friends and relatives say were part of their own holiday celebrations.

Finally, we settled on eating Chinese food and watching a movie at home as our Christmas Eve tradition, a ritual we borrowed from some Jewish friends. It was appealing because we both like Chinese food and it meant no one had to cook on what would likely be a late night. Also, odds are good that any place we ever move to will have a Chinese restaurant.

Then we had a wonderful, calm, stress-free dinner and returned home to sit on the couch with the kids and watch "The Grinch" -- the old, cartoon one, not the Jim Carrey one.

One day down, one tradition established.

Christmas morning was easy enoug. The kids woke super early, and we watched as they tore into their presents. Afterward, I made a big breakfast and most of the day was spent setting up and playing with toys. Not much need for conscious tradition choosing there.

But then the coffee and sugar highs wore off and the remainder of the day and the evening stretched before us, again with neither of us sure what was supposed to come next. From my position cleaning the kitchen, I heard my husband tell the kids straighten the house.

"If you don't pick up your toys, you won't get to watch 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' with me," he said, grinning as he walked into the kitchen, before noticing the expression on my face. "What? You said we can make our own traditions," he protested. "I think ours should be that after we open presents we spend the rest of the day watching old war movies."

"That has nothing to do with Christmas," I told him.  

"You didn't say our traditions had to have anything to do with Christmas," he responded.

"I thought it was implied."

"Chinese food has nothing to do with Christmas," he countered.


Still, he knew he was overreaching. We discussed more Christmas Day traditions, before settling on spending part of the day outside, doing something in nature -- a trail walk or a bike ride, the kind of tradition that can grow and change with us and our children.

How did you figure out your traditions? Did you try anything this year that we should add to our to-do list for next year?

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