Both experts in family issues and members of local families recommend certain things to make sure the holidays go well: setting boundaries; respecting other members’ choices to maintain, abandon or compromise on traditions; and engaging with other people – whether biological family members or not.
“I think holidays are a great time to look at traditions, because they help us to feel connected, valued, part of something – and they identify a family as ‘This is who we are,'” says family relationship educator Mary Pepper, 59.
Pepper’s daughter-in-law is from Argentina. One of the first times she spent the holidays away from her large extended family there, the Peppers wanted her to feel at home.
“We do Christmas day – we have the big dinner, open presents Christmas morning. In Argentina, they have a big meal on Christmas Eve, and a special toast at midnight,” says Pepper.
They compromised by opening some presents, but not all of them, on Christmas Eve, when her daughter-in-law also made a traditional toast. “She said it was nice to have a taste of her Argentine customs here in the United States.”
Pepper says that the best way to merge different ideas – be they cultural traditions or expectations from an older generation to a younger one – is to have boundaries. “At the holidays, if you are the host or hostess, and it’s your home, people who walk through the door need to know what the boundaries are,” she says.
That often involves mom and/or dad setting rules regarding their own kids that the grandparents need to live by.
That was the case of Noelani Clough, 43, a former Albuquerque public school science teacher who lives in Southeast Albuquerque.
When she was about 12, she and her parents visited her grandparents in Kentucky for Christmas, and her grandmother wanted Noelani to go to church with her on Christmas Eve, which Noelani had done in the past but didn’t enjoy.
“I didn’t know those people, and I felt like a stranger in a strange land. When I told my mother, she went to my grandmother and explained I didn’t want to go, and that she wasn’t going to make me go,” she says. “I never had to participate anymore, and I was still able to go and be with my family. If it had gone differently, it may have changed how I experience the holidays.”
Now, she loves sharing family time during the holidays, which includes making gravy and biscuits, baking Christmas cookies and listening to Christmas music – traditions she now shares with her 18-year-old daughter as well. “My daughter loves Christmas so much,” she says. “She would love to celebrate most of the year.”
Celebrating the holidays with his extended family has been smooth for Mauro Walden-Montoya, 56, of Albuquerque. He got married last summer to his longtime partner, Andy. During the time they’ve been together, they’ve sometimes spent holidays with their respective families of origin, but in recent years they’ve spent holidays at Mauro’s brother’s home with their other siblings and their families.
“We open presents together on Christmas Eve, then on Christmas day, each family would do their own thing during the day and then meet again for dinner.”
Alicia Carter, 30, outreach director of Albuquerque-based Methodist Children’s Home, says this will be the first year she and her husband will share Christmas with four generations. That will include their 9-month-old son and her parents and grandparents. “There’s almost 50 of us at this point and we’re growing every year,” she says. Her grandfather reads a Christmas story from Scripture, and they all open gifts together. “It’s pretty chaotic … I’m just so excited for my son to be part of that this year.”
She’s confident her mother and grandmother won’t spoil him with sugary holiday treats against her wishes. “There’s a trust and connection enough where I would say, ‘I would appreciate your not doing that,’ and my hope is that they would respect me as a mother and do according to my wishes.”
At MCH, she works with families struggling with addiction, homelessness and mental health issues, for whom holidays are not easy. “One of the big issues these families have is the pressure from society to make Christmas huge and exciting for their children, and generally they don’t have the finances to support that,” she says.
She recommends clients avoid being alone too much, even if that means being with people who aren’t relatives.
“Sometimes those folks need to go outside their family,” she says. “Family can be whatever you need it to be.”
Mary Pepper agrees. Besides having welcomed her Argentine daughter-in-law into her family, she says, she’s concluded that creating traditions across generations makes the holidays more memorable, even when some traditions fall to the wayside. When her kids were growing up, she used to bake a birthday cake every year and sing “Happy Birthday” to baby Jesus.
“Two of the kids carried that on; one doesn’t have children yet, and one let it go,” she says.