This week, families around the world officially move into the holiday season. While many of the most magical and meaningful holiday moments involve celebrating with family, it’s the family aspect of the holidays that can often bring tension, stress, and bad feelings.

The who, what, and why of the holidays are easily overtaken by the when and the where. Enjoying time with loved ones seems like a peaceful proposition, but it all too often gets very complicated!

I certainly don’t propose that I have all of the answers, but I think sometimes it helps just to hear how other families navigate the question “Where will we spend the holidays this year?”

1. Establish your boundaries

This is the foundation for all of the decisions you will make for the holiday season. It’s also the most powerful and empowering part of this process because your holiday boundaries may be the only part of the season that you are able to control.

A counselor friend of mine gave me a script to help me self-talk my way through my own feelings as I respond to the feelings of others about our holiday plans:

I am not responsible for <fill-in-the-blank family member/friend’s> happiness.
If _______ is mad, that is his/her feeling, and it doesn’t have to affect me.
I cannot make ___________ happy.
It’s okay that I am happy and he/she is not.
Good boundaries mean that I don’t let his/her attitude ruin my holiday.
Good boundaries also mean that my feelings matter just as much as his/hers, and I might need to call him/her on it.

Whether you are a single or married, have children or don’t, are just starting out in life or are in the twilight years, you get to decide what the boundaries for your holiday season will be! Keeping your feelings about the feelings about the feelings of others in check is pivotal.

2. Be flexible

Photo by cliff1066

This almost seems contradictory to establishing boundaries, doesn’t it? But it’s really quite complementary. Once you have decided for yourself or your family what the non-negotiable parts of the season are, you are free to be flexible with the aspects that are negotiable.

Bear in mind that holiday plans may change from year to year, depending on the circumstances of life. Laura Tremaine of Hollywood Housewife shares:

During our dating and early married life, my husband and I always spent Thanksgiving with his family and Christmas with mine. It worked out perfectly for both of us. But both of those trips required extensive travel, and now that we have little children, the decision is more complicated emotionally and logistically.
We’ll still be spending Thanksgiving with my in-laws, but this will probably be the first Christmas where I awake in my own bed, 1,500 miles from my parents. I’m excited to start my own traditions, but I’m already mourning the end of an era in my life.

Joy Bennett of Joy In This Journey agrees that sometimes things just change through the years, and the best approach is to be open to those changes:

We are fortunate to live less than an hour’s drive from my parents and two hours’ drive from my husband’s. We alternate between families and switch each year. The years that we have Christmas with my family, we sleep in our home and have our Christmas morning celebration before we go to their house for their celebration. The years that we spend Christmas with my in-laws, we have our own family Christmas the day we leave our house.
I have discovered that spreading the holidays out really helps my kids enjoy things more. When they received everything in one day, it all blurred together into a frenzy. This way they receive a few things from us one day and get to enjoy them before we go visit family.

The reality of life is that loved ones get married, loved ones get divorced. People move away or pass away. What works one year may not work the next, and the simplest approach to the holiday season often requires being flexible.

3. Be open-minded

Photo by woodleywonderworks

Again, once you have rooted yourself in your boundaries for this year’s holiday season, it’s fun to explore ways to create new traditions for yourself and your own family. I love this idea from Megan Cobb of Fried Okra:

Distance and circumstances make being with either of our families for the holidays a tricky and fraught proposition at best, so we’ve opted to create our own holiday traditions, just the four of us, for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We plan visits with our families at other, less-chaotic and emotionally-charged times throughout the year.
Now that our kids are older, we’re planning Big City adventures for both holidays. It’s a great time to take advantage of small crowds and lower rates in downtown hotels, restaurants and other attractions and enjoy the holiday decorations and festivities together in a really nice, relaxed atmosphere.

When all of the travel for both holidays got to be too much for Lora Lynn Fanning of Vitafamiliae, she and her husband decided to cut out out the November travels: “We decided to stay home at Thanksgiving and enjoy the holiday with all the other out-of-towners. We had a Thanksgiving club and it was magic.”

Nish Weiseth of Nish Happens notes that living far from family created the opportunity for family members to travel to see them: “Erik and I are grateful to have parents who enjoy traveling to see their kids & grandchildren. So, this has worked out well for everyone while keeping holiday travel with kids to a minimum. It has proven to be the best & most fair option for both sides of the family each year.”

An open-minded approach may look very non-traditional for some families, and that’s okay! The most important thing is to be open to what works for your family at this moment in time.

4. Take tradition with you

Photo by jacreative

As a child, sometimes my family traveled to the home of grandparents’ on the holidays, and sometimes we stayed at home. No matter where we were, we had one long-standing tradition: every Christmas Eve, my father read the story of Jesus’s birth from the Bible, and then all of us were allowed to open one gift from under the tree. This tradition was easily carried to wherever we were celebrating this year.

Find something that is meaningful for you and your family and plan to take it with you if you travel. Sometimes this is the simplest way to tie all of your holidays past, present, and future together.

5. Make peace with reality

Adapting to change always brings a certain level of stress, and there’s something about the holiday season that magnifies the tension. For most of us, changes will come to our holiday plans – small changes and big. Leaning on the boundaries you’ve established might just help you to make peace with the reality of the moment.

car in snow
Photo source

Kelly Gordon of Love Well lives close to her in-laws but far from her own family. She says, “We make an effort to travel to my family as often as we can, but for the holidays we place a higher premium on our immediate family traditions and closeness. Traveling the entire month to see extended or even close relatives would suck away the joy of the season for me.”

If we aren’t careful to be intentional, the joy of the holiday season can quickly be replaced with hard feelings, anger, and disappointment. More than anything, sometimes extending grace to ourselves and others is the simplest way to allow us to experience the most wonderful time of the year.

How does your family navigate the issue of holiday plans and travel?

This post was first published on November 21, 2012.