Happy Holidays? Dealing with Family Obligations

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…kinda. As Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, it’s time to face the same dilemma I’ve faced the last few years. I’ll admit up front, it isn’t the end of the world. Most people will tell me I’m being a big baby and that I need to grow up and face reality. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m sick of going to gargantuan family gatherings where I see people for the first (and last) time all year and am expected to exchange gifts with cousins who I’ve long since lost touch with.

When I was a kid, going to Thanksgiving or Christmas at Grandpa’s house was a blast. We played with the cousins, had our own table while the grownups did their thing, and got to exchange a gift with another cousin after names had been drawn. Of course, our parents bought these gifts and it was just another reason to get one more present. But now, things are much, much, different.

Now, as many as fifty-plus people can show up to my grandparents. There are literally six or seven (or more) tables spread throughout their large home – in bedrooms, the basement, the kitchen, dining room, etc. My wife and I are paired off with the cousins and their spouses whom I usually manage to see once or twice a year. They’re nice people, but it’s not the intimate, enjoyable setting I’d like to think the holidays are all about. Part of the problem is my personality; I’m just not a big group kind of guy. I enjoy smaller settings with just a handful of people.

In some ways, the annual Christmas eve gathering is worse. Not only am I expected to exchange a gift with cousins who have moved out of state with spouses I’ve met once or twice, but my own children are expected to exchange gifts with one of their children. It’s not uncommon to draw a name and wonder "Who the heck is this?" only to find out from my mother that my cousin had another baby I didn’t even know about. But apparently, I’m buying the kid a present when I struggle to buy my own kids everything I’d like to get them.

Of course, when I mention to my mom that maybe we just ought to do our own thing I hear the same argument: It means a lot to Grandpa and Grandma and they won’t be with us forever. The guilt keeps me coming; the last thing I’d want is to hurt them. But when these holidays are one of my few days off work and school to share with my own family, I’d like to at least be able to sit with my kids at Thanksgiving (they’re sent away to another room and another table somewhere). Here’s my question: Where does the obligation lie? Is it my job to suck it up and do this with a smile on my face for grandparents who have been there for me and loved me throughout my life? Or is it their responsibility to realize we all have our own families now, and that perhaps it’s time to shake the normal traditions up a bit – even if not eliminating the large gatherings entirely?


  1. Door # 2.

    We went through that stage with my family, and it wasn’t as painful as we feared, and now everyone likes it better anyway.

  2. Maybe you could start “alternating” years and/or Holidays. One year, go small, the next year go big.

    My husband and I alternate holidays/years with our families. One year: Thanksgiving with his family, Christmas with ours; next year, Thanksgiving with mine, Christmas with his, etc. Of course, I’ve noticed that this is made easier since his family and mine are in different states. People who have both families residing within driving distance seem to always have more expectations (having to go see both the husbands and wife’s families for both thanksgiving and christmas–makes for hectic celebrations).

  3. I am going to have to agree with Kayla. I come from a big family, my father has 9 brothers and sisters and on average they each have about 5 children. Anyhow my family is spread out so we decided the best thing for us is to see our whole family every other year. It is like a big family reunion. In fact this year we are all meeting in Arizona for Thanksgiving.

    Dont get me wrong I love my family, when we were growing up we were close but since all of my cousins are grown and have started there own families I am a bit disconnected from them. I suppose that is because I am still single. However maybe you can suggest a family reunion.

    Good luck.

  4. john scherer says:

    I’m in the same situation you are John. Every year I dread the large get together with all of my cousins. Many have married and I don’t know their spouses and to be honest there are some aunts and cousins that I don’t even care for. Nevermind the mandatory gift giving which eats into my budget for my own kids’ presents. The fact that much of my family drinks heavily and has no regard for where they smoke or who else is near makes it worse. I suspect my alegiance to this event will last as long as my grandmother, as I live far from home and only see her on occasion. Oh well, here’s to standing outside in the cold in order to gasp for fresh air.
    Note: I am well aware that i’ve added nothing of value to the discussion, but thoroughly enjoyed the ranting opportunity.

  5. There’s no solution like moving across the country. Leaving Utah in 1977 and never looking back has been a great blessing in our lives. Sure, we visit regularly (but seldom at Christmas and never at Thanksgiving–it’s too far), and we don’t have to deal with the problems you mention.

    Time to get out of Dodge.

  6. I do what’s best for my family, meaning my wife and kids. That means some years we spend Thanksgiving and/or Christmas in our own home without guests, other years we travel for one or both holidays to see one or the other extended family, and some years we stay home and invite people to see us. My parents and siblings live in various parts of the country and none have complained about this arrangement. OTOH, we were the first to adopt this method among my wife’s family and the complaints and grumbling don’t cease. The system is not perfect — after all, I will be spending Thanksgiving with the in-laws — but it does maximize happiness — I haven’t been to the in-laws since last Thanksgiving.

  7. I can relate, though after we got married, my wife was the only one of her nine siblings to not live in Utah valley. Being away as made me appreciate what it means to be together. I pretty much loathe big get togethers. However, at the same time, there is something special about giving old people those moments to preside over their posterity. Goofy, I know, but I think it is often worth it as a gift.

  8. This isn’t an issue if your entire family on both sides isn’t concentrated within a 3 hr drive, like my wife’s extended family is.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had Christmas with my grandparents and extended family, that I can remember.

  9. I’m in a similar boat as Ben S. My wife’s family lives within driving distance while we would have to fly to see mine. Therefore, we have to spend every Thanksgiving and Christmas with her family. I once suggested we stay home and have our own Christmas and was greeted with a blank stare.

  10. Ned, maybe it will be different if you and Maude have kids.

    We used to “do Christmas” with the family, but lately we all have kids, or older kids, and most of them see each other all the time and Mom doesn’t like to cook. So, we stay home, and maybe go to Florida the week between Christmas and New Year if we can.

    I don’t see why you’d be obligated to do BOTH holidays. I really like the idea of alternating years.

  11. Personally I would bail out on the whole thing, celebrate as your own famliy. You need to start making your own traditions. Tell Grandma and Grandpa that you will come visit them at another time when you can actually have more time to visit with just them.

    The money side of things is outrageous too. I bet if you suggested not exchanging gifts at all many people would sigh a big sigh of relief.

    However, I still say do it how you want to do it. You can make other plans to visit them, and other members of the family, at other times of the year. They will probably be even more enjoyable anyway.

  12. Ditch the gifts for sure. In a big family, it’s probably hard to institute change, I realize, but in our own smaller families (I have 4 siblings, my wife has 6), we’re almost at the no gift phase — we’re on the hook for a sibling and in-law on my wife’s side, and one adult on my side. Kids and cousins are out of luck.

    Now that we have four kids, we’re never traveling for Christmas or Thanksgiving again. Ever. Maybe after Christmas occasionally. It’s just not worth it. Having Christmas with just your spouse and your children is a wonderful experience.

  13. Seth Rogers says:

    Responding only to the original post:

    That’s why you move out-of-state. Then you have a reason to limit things.

    When your family is still young, you’re probably going to end up going “home for Christmas.” But as the family grows up a bit, it’s time to keep Christmas at your own home.

    Visit the grandfolks once each summer for a week and leave it at that (with lots of letters and phone calls of course). You can increase or decrease the amount of visits if you wish. But realize that they have an obligation to come visit you too if they want to see more of their grandkids.

    It’s even in the scriptures for Pete’s sake! Thus shall a man leave mom and dad and cleave unto his wife …” you know the drill.

    You’ve got your own family to take care of. Grandma and Grandpa deserve your respect, but they don’t have the right to dictate how you run your own house.

    Of course, by going along with this all these years, you’ve probably dug yourself into a hole of expectations. But … time to be the man of the house.

  14. For the third Christmas of our married life, my wife and I decided to have Christmas by ourselves. We had done the alternating thing for the previous two years. We only lived 30 minutes from her family and neither family liked that we weren’t visiting them.

    This established with each of our families not to have expectations of us coming (every year, alternating years, etc.). We decide each year, what we’d like to do. Our families each respect this now.

    When it comes to family gatherings, I go because I want to go and not because I feel like I have to.

    I really like how Seth put it, “Grandma and Grandpa deserve your respect, but they don’t have the right to dictate how you run your own house.”

  15. I’m with those who suggest visiting at other less hectic times and building your own holiday traditions on the Big Days.

    I would imagine that with such a crowd at the holidays, the opportunity to create real lasting memories is less than that during a visit at some other time when your parents and grandparents could spend more one-on-one time with you and your kids.

    I hope this year works out better for you!

  16. My husband doesn’t have family to speak of and my sisters all live in different states, so we don’t do that get-together.

    I dread Thanksgiving every year, I think it’s the lonliest holiday ever and I’m always afraid we will be alone. This year we’re having a houseful with tables all over with people I love dearly, but I probably won’t enjoy it. I will be too worried that everyone is enjoying themselves or think we’re lame.

    Bill and I are going away by ourselves for Christmas.

    We were so poor when I was a kid that the holidays didn’t mean much and I guess I have that leftover feeling. Cheiko Okazaki writes in one of her books about generosity of spirit. I think that’s a good way to look at it.

  17. Tanya Spackman says:

    I grew up with the opposite situation. My relatives on both sides of the family are scattered across the U.S. and Canada, so we rarely see each other, let along all get together for the holidays. Thus, our holidays were just our immediate family. It was nice. That said, I think it would have been fun to sometimes have some big mega-family holidays. But an emphasis on the sometimes. Not every year.

    Thus, I would say you would be best doing some sort of alternating thing. One year with your own family traditions and more peaceful, less stressful celebrations, and the next year with the everybody/chaos holidays.

  18. John, I know exactly what you mean. It’s hard to argue with “It means a lot to Grandpa and Grandma and they won’t be with us forever.” That doesn’t make it any more enjoyable. One one side, my grandparents died just a few years ago. (Not to be happy they’re gone, but. . .) The one good thing about that is that our ritual Thanksgiving get together with the huge extended family (like only Mormon extended families can be) finally ended. At first it was even a bit weird without set-in-stone Thanksgiving plans, but by about 10:00 am Thursday morning I was over it. By the time we had dinner as a smaller family, it was amazing how much more enjoyable it was.

    On the other side, we get together for Christmas. And my Grandpa loves it. And I don’t know if there’s much you can do about it. So we go, and try to have a good time. I’ve considered suggesting it’s time to be done. But then I remember how my Grandpa bent over backwards when I mentioned that I’d been given the same person for the third year in a row to buy a gift-exchange present for. (We don’t draw names — he keeps track and rotates it every year.) He took it so seriously and was so apologetic about this teensie thing that I don’t dare drop something bigger on him.

    So I’m back where I started, just trying to put up with all the weird rituals because it makes my grandparents happy. I don’t know that there’s anything else that can be done.

  19. Grrr.

    Another example of why I typically *hate* Christmas. I wish I could just hibernate through it rather than go through all the ritualistic madness and token gratitude for the “holiday season”- all under the microscope of family.

    Luckily, we have chosen (partially on purpose) to live far away from family, so the chances of having to see them on that holiday are thankfully slim. Unthankfully, however, my wife is big on “holiday traditions,” so I guess I’m still going to be stuck forcing lots of oozing holiday cheer.

    Merry Christmas!!

  20. Having Christmas with just your spouse and your children is a wonderful experience.

    I beg to differ. Christmas is ALWAYS miserable and full of unattainable expectations, the MAJORITY of which come from spouse and children.

  21. Jordan: Christmas is ALWAYS miserable and full of unattainable expectations

    In a stunning coup, Jordan attempts in one comment to unseat the Chief-Curmudgeon-For-Life of the Bloggernacle.

    Seriously, man? You *hate* Christmas?

    (And is anyone else frustrated that Christmas posts seem to be appearing earlier and earlier every year? I mean, it’s not even Hallowe’en yet!)

  22. I really like Christmas music (the good stuff, not what they play in the mall). I start it in September. Chanticleer’s “Christmas” cd gets played year-round, but several things on it just sound medieval, not Christmas-y. (Tracks 4 & 7 in particular)

    When I was in the MTC in July/August, whenever it was my turn to pick the hymn, we did a Christmas carol.

  23. I like holiday music. I like holiday treats. But I hate the fake holiday cheer so prevalent during the season. And I think the activities associated with Christmas are always a waste of time.

    Don’t worry- I’ll go along and fake holiday cheer along with the best of them (there are the kids to consider- they like Christmas for some reason)- all the while gritting my teeth and hoping for it to pass speedily.

    I like celebrating the birth of Christ, but I don’t like the expectation that I do so during a random window of time between November 1 and December 25 being imposed on me by society.

    Here is my non-exclusive list of all the things I hate about Christmas: Ward parties, school parties, work parties, family gatherings, gatherings with friends, HOLIDAY STRESS from all the obligations of cheer and forcing a cheerful face the whole time so that the kids have a good time, making sure you do everything just right so nobody gets hurt or offended, trying to figure out what the heck to get everyone, oozing holiday cheer because that’s what people want to see, putting up Christmas lights, completely re-arranging the house for the holiday paraphernalia (only to have to take it all down again), having the inconvenience of everyone being gone on vacation with businesses closed because “it’s Christmas”, having to talk to every single family member who I purposely moved over a thousand miles away from to avoid contact with as much as possible, and all of this repeated every single year for the rest of my life until I die. Fun.

    I’m not curmudgeonly (though my online persona certainly would indicate otherwise…lol), but there are some things that I really do not like about our culture. Christmas is one of them. Of course, having said that, if you know me personally you will see me celebrating happily along with the rest of them, because nobody likes a grinch.

    Summing up- John Hatch’s comments really resonated with me because it is one of the many reasons I find the holidays so annoying. That said, looking down the barrel at the start of the holidays each year is a little like jumping in your pool for the first swim of the season- you’re nervous that the water will be too cold, your toes tell you it will be too cold, so you hesitate to jump in and hem and haw about it for a while. But, once you jump in, after the initial shock, you get used to the water and the swim is quite refreshing. Hence, you’ll have to take me with a grain of salt since I’m at the “I’m-not-so-sure-I-really-want-to-dive-in” stage. Once we actually jump into the Christmas season in all its “fun” festivities, I may actually find myself enjoying the season a little bit despite all the eye-rolling.

  24. Jordan,

    I used to feel similarly about holidays (I noticed on Karen’s post that you hate Halloween in addition to those specified in this thread). Then I married Logan and experienced Christmas with his family. Now it’s something I look forward to every year.

    I’ve realized that my feelings about the holidays were tied up with a whole bunch of family baggage. For me, it seems that my reactions to the holidays are a litmus test as to how my family relationships are doing. Which means that if things are good, Christmas can be wonderful, but if not, it can be hell.

  25. Decide if you are really unhappy about it or not. If you’d like a Thanksgiving dinner at home, go ahead and do it. When someone calls to say “Dinner’s at 2pm, you are bringing pies” tell them, “Oh, we aren’t going to be there for dinner, but we’ll be there at 5.”
    Nothing wrong with skipping dinner, but still dropping by to say hi to family & grandparents. If you do this, maybe some of your cousins with follow your lead.

  26. Random comments:

    1. Christmas bothers me. Mostly because it’s become SO IMPORTANT TO EVERYONE (sarcastic CAPS emphasized). And it encroaches on Thanksgiving. And because it’s about friggin’ St. Nick and not about any remote Christlike characteristics. Easter is the same way.

    2. I love living in the state I do, 1200 miles away from my parents and her parents (1200 miles each in the same direction). I love Christmas Day being 50 degrees. I love the fact that *I* (and my wife) control when our families will see us (because they hate to visit where we live). I love feeling in control over the family relationships.

    3. My favorite holidays are Thanksgiving, because I remember playing Monopoly with my dad, and Indepedence Day, because of the fireworks over the lake as a youth.

  27. It is just a big nightmare ridden with guilt, control, judgment, manipulations. Couples fight. Kids are stressed.

    If you don’t want to go. Don’t go. It is all a big phoney baloney experience that puts you in the poor house.

    All I want to do is spend time with my daughter and my mother and father. These big gatherings are nothing more than a complete drag. You have to haul all these useless presents, destined to be re-gifted or put into landfill. It is not about love that is for sure. Guilt, control, stress and manipulation…that is what Christmas is all about.

    I hate it and next year I won’t go.

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