Some young families are getting tired of traveling to see the grandparents over Christmas. Kelli Biller and her little boy, pictured, say this year will be their last to make the trek.
Coming home for the holidays isn’t always all reindeer and candy canes. One year Meagan Francis and her husband drove 20 hours — each way — from Tennessee to Michigan to New York with a toddler and a newborn in tow, just to stick to their family’s longstanding Christmas tradition.
"At the time, my youngest was a baby and hated to be in the car. He wanted to stop every half hour and eat," Francis, 35, told TODAY.com. "The car had a faulty heating system and we were all cold. It’s a long time and there are a lot of mountains in Tennessee."
Francis now spends Christmas at home with her husband and children in their pajamas, like many young families who have decided that the trek back to Grandma’s house is just too grueling. Instead, they've opted to start their own traditions.
But Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in the Boston area, warns that changing holiday rituals shouldn’t be taken lightly.
"Anytime families deviate in any manner from a long-standing family tradition, they’re bound to generate emotional responses from some family members, and they range from puzzlement, confusion and disappointment to heated anger and opposition and outright resentment," said Kendrick, author of "Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s."
Meagan Francis and her brood of five are done with grueling trips to see the grandparents.
Year after year, Kelli Biller from DeKalb, Ill., and her husband motored through the Midwest’s winter weather to reunite with both sides of their family for the holidays. Then their family grew: First came a beagle and then a baby boy, who joined the holiday road adventures for his first Christmas last year.
Amid loading and unloading the family vehicle, the sounds of their son’s wails, and their nervous dog whining and pacing during the seven-hour car ride, they started to wonder whether trekking to Grandma’s was dampening their holiday cheer. Biller, co-founder of the Chicagoland Moms Blog, also worried about messing with her son’s routine, the lack of baby-proofing at their parents’ houses, and the logistics of lugging presents back home.
“They got him a race track and a kitchen set. We’re going to have to rent a U-Haul! How do you bring it back?” Biller said. “Oh — thanks for getting him something, but the dog’s going to have to be strapped to the roof!”
Now that she and her husband are hoping for another bun in the oven soon, Biller says this may be the last year they travel for the holidays. They’re excited about starting their own holiday traditions, such as the ornament exchange they’ve done for years, in which they create a decoration for their tree to commemorate something that happened that year.
The Billers have started an ornament exchange tradition.
While she feels guilty about changing her holiday plans, Biller plans to open her home to extended family, and says so far her relatives have been understanding. “When the Band-Aid gets ripped off, there will be some grumbles, but no family feuds. Nothing we can’t come to a solution about,” she said. “We’re very blessed to have two supportive families.”
Many families initially try to stick to the Christmas they grew up with. But if it gets too hard and you opt to spend the holidays at home, experts say it helps to break the news early.
“Begin the conversation and re-enter it over time,” counsels New Jersey-based therapist Jacqueline Hudak, who offers more tips on her blog. “Expect they’re going to have a reaction, but don’t engage.”
Kendrick suggests being sensitive to traditions that are sacred to family members and brainstorming what traditions old or new the extended family could carry on together, as opposed to just announcing that Christmas is canceled. “You’re giving to yourself relaxation. You’re giving to yourself no more long drives,” he said. “What can you give them?”
Biller and her family have started their own traditions.
His cautious approach comes from 37 years as a therapist, during which he's seen families splintered by changes in holiday plans. That’s because traditions are emotional, not logical, Kendrick says. Holidays can also pose unique challenges after divorce or the loss of a loved one.
For Francis, who grew up enjoying quiet Christmases at home, it was hard at first to switch to the traditions of her husband’s family, where relatives gathered every year for raucous parties at his uncle’s house.
“It was so different from what I’m used to. It almost didn’t feel like Christmas,” she said. “They didn’t do stockings…I was crying about it, and my husband ran to the store and bought me one.”
But after making the trek for years, her family has decided to spend the holidays at home. Her relatives have been understanding.
Now Christmases are quiet once more for Francis, who writes a blog called “The Happiest Mom." Her holiday celebrations even include stockings again, often stuffed with magazines. “We lounge in our Christmas pajamas, reading,” she said.
A mother of five, Francis has accepted that her newfound Christmas traditions may also change down the line, but she’s trying to cherish these holidays while they last.
“I kind of like the idea that it won’t be this way forever,” she said. “It makes what we have now more special.”
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