How to Navigate Family Holiday Traditions with a New Partner

Your first holiday season together! A time to reflect on the past year, eat delicious food, surprise loved ones with gifts… And spend four hours driving back and forth across town?

Logistics are the least fun part of the holidays, and yours just snowballed (pun intended) with the combination of two – or more – family celebrations. The first year especially is a testing ground for how this “new way” looks. The subjects: you, your spouse, and your family. The end goal? Happiness. Hopefully.

Like in a laboratory, not all tests will work. You’ll have to try one plan this year and likely make changes the next. Despite that, you can still approach your first holiday season together with a little wisdom gleaned from couples and marriage counselors who have been here before. 

Accept Change

For the last 20 years, you’ve gone to your aunt’s house during Hanukkah and eaten her homemade latkes. But this year, your partner’s sister just had a baby, and that week is the first opportunity you’ll get to meet the little niblet. You might have to miss the latkes this year. Or have your brother take some to-go for you.

Can you accept it? Can you go with the flow? Once you’re open to the idea, it’s time to hone your priorities.

Figure Out Your Priorities

Not all holidays are created equal to different families. Which can actually be a real saving grace.

Make some time to sit down and talk this out with your partner. You might discover that your wife’s family pulls out all the stops at Thanksgiving in exchange for a chill Christmas – whereas your family doesn’t care as much about Thanksgiving, but your mom would cry if you didn’t help her make eggnog on Christmas Eve.

Once you’ve come up with a game plan together, it’s time to let everyone else know.

Be Honest With Your Families About What You Need

You may want to start the “holiday sharing” conversation months ahead of time in order to minimize stress. If there’s going to be family drama, holiday pressures will only make it worse.

For relatives who love last-minute plans, you might need to “train” them. Remind them that now you’re splitting holidays with your partner’s family. 

If they spring a spontaneous invitation, don’t bend over backwards to accommodate. “We already planned to spend New Year’s with Mara’s family. We’ll miss you! We love you!”

Speaking of bending over backwards – some newly married folks will spend 80% of their first Thanksgiving or Christmas on the road, trying to see all the families in one day. 

Perhaps if you only want a short amount of time with certain parts of the family, it’s a winning strategy. However, if driving across town several times in a day leaves you feeling ragged, you don’t have to do it.

Instead, you can lead with requests that will make your life easier. Are families willing to carry out the same traditions on different dates? If it makes no difference, and both your folks get to see you, you just struck a win-win situation! Don’t be shy. It’s worth checking.

Create New Traditions

Save some time and energy for what you want to do, too. Forming new traditions is part of the beauty, privilege, and fun of a new marriage or long-term partnership.

Talk to your partner about what’s meaningful to each of you. Cooking together? An ornament to commemorate a big moment of each family member’s year? You can use the holidays each year to remind yourselves.

This becomes even more relevant if you have children. What do you want your new family’s Christmas morning tradition to be? Employ and enjoy your clean slate!

Walt Ciecko, Ph. D., BCB
605 Wynyard Rd
Wilmington, DE 19803