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December 15, 2005

Holiday Tug o' Wars

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Does it matter where you go to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other family-centric holidays? Does it matter who shows up if you're doing the hosting?

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, holiday visiting can be crisis-inducing. Husbands and wives fight over whose family is being favored or slighted. Others fret over feelings of the various hosts if children or grandchildren go elsewhere.

This aspect of holiday stress is probably widespread. But, due to a set of historical accidents, I've pretty well dodged that bullet most of my life.

What about you?

2Blowhards has lots of smart, aware readers with interesting life-experiences. I'm pretty sure you can come up with eye-popping anecdotes and shrewd analyses.

To start the conversation (if any -- this will be posted right before the last pre-Christmas shopping weekend), let me tell why I managed to escape the tug-of-war scene.

There were no problems when I was a child because my mom's parents were dead before my first birthday. My dad's parents were still alive, but lived in Spokane, nearly 300 miles to the east of Seattle. World War 2 and then the combination of age and distance meant that few Christmases were shared. On Christmas afternoon, either we drove across town to visit an aunt, uncle and cousins or they drove to our house. Thanksgivngs were nuclear-family only.

After my children were born, we went to my parents' house in Seattle for Christmas; their other grandparents lived on the western edge of the Catskills in New York and were visited only in summertime. Thanksgivings were divvied up amongst us, my sister, my parents and, later, my sister's oldest daughter the Boeing engineer. After my parents moved to an "assisted living" apartment, my sister took over Christmas hosting and my parents dropped out of the Thanksgiving loop.

Nowadays, I'm entering the tug-of-war gravitational pull via The Fiancée. She has a son with a family in the Bay Area and another son in the Puget Sound area who is married, but has no children. Causing more complications is the fact that the Bay Area son's wife is extremely tight with her nearby parents.

In a nutshell: TF first has to choose whether to travel to Washington or stay in California. If she stays in California there is the question of where in California Christmas will be celebrated -- (a) at her house, (b) at her son's in-law's house, or (c) at her son's place. (If TF does not host at her house Christmas Day due to one of the other options prevailing or by going to Washington, she'll have her son's family and maybe the in-laws down to her house a week or so early. That's what's happening this year.) No real pattern here, but the grandchildren tend to weight Christmas to California rather than Washington.

And Thanksgiving? Since we've been dating, TF and I have gone to her Las Vegas timeshare for that week. This year we celebrated with my daughter who teaches in Vegas and with a good friend of TF whose son tagged along.

No nuclear war so far.

So, to repeat: What about you?



posted by Donald at December 15, 2005


The simplest solution is not to HAVE any extended family! It's just my mom and me, and we are THRILLED not to have to participate in family holiday-making. Indeed, we find the dutiful annual exodus and ingress of all these relatives an anthropologically fascinating and slightly distasteful ritual! Americans are absolutely tradition-obsessed. They behave like "sheeple" or lemmings to the sea around holiday time.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on December 15, 2005 08:56 PM

We do the nuclear-family routine. My wife's parents are dead, as is my father. My mother lives in Florida and spends Thanksgiving and Christmas with her friends there. I suppose she could come up to see us in New York, or less conveniently the four of us could traipse down there, but we've never actually discussed the idea. Until two years ago she lived in Connecticut and spent Christmas with us.
I have no siblings; my wife has a brother and a sister in other parts of the country but once again, it seems excessive to travel 2,000+ miles just for a one-day event. Finally, to complicate travel further, my wife works 3-to-11 on either Thanksgiving or Christmas each year (which means an early dinner).

Posted by: Peter on December 15, 2005 08:57 PM

I hope this'll pass as an answer.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 15, 2005 09:06 PM

My wife and I made a very clear statement on our first Christmas. Instead of visiting family, we went to London. We had a fabulous time, and also sent the message that our Christmas wasn't going to be held hostage by our families. Now occasionally we visit her family (in Pullman, WA) and occasionally we visit mine (mostly in Seattle), but often, we stay home (in North Carolina). If no one comes to visit us, fine. It's worked out quite well.

Posted by: Dave Munger on December 16, 2005 08:34 AM

When I was a kid, it was a tug-of-war between the two sets of grandparents. Maternals in Detroit, paternals in Cleveland, and us all over the place.

Nowadays "tug-of-war" is way too simple a concept. My parents (6500 air miles away) are always up for a visit; a couple times we've done it and it was a great but expensive way to avoid the local wars, though hurt feelings ensued.

Said wars rage between my mother-in-law, who lives north of town, and my father-in-law, who lives south of town with his new wife, the woman he deceived my mother-in-law with. Luckily, they all love each other.

Just kidding.

The solution is usually Christmas Eve here with the m-i-l, and Christmas there with the f-i-l.

The wild card is my hulking 15 year old son from a previous marriage, who lives several hundred miles away in another country and gets dealt into our hand every other year.

My favorite Christmas was the one the wife and I spent on a Hindu/Muslim island the year before our oldest joint child was born.

Posted by: robert on December 16, 2005 09:12 AM

Since we are local, we are saddled with my inlaws every year.

Everyone year they destroy something. One year it was our downstairs bathroom floor (grandpa died his hair during the visit), the next is was the tile on our kitchen island (grandpa took it upon himself to mash the potatoes without asking; we discovered him grinding away, essentially sanding the tile with the bottom of the metal pan). Thankfully, Thanksgiving saw only the death of a non-stick pan. When grandma went to make gravy, she grabbed a big metal spoon and went at the non-stick pan. I gently replaced it with a wooden spoon, only to return a moment later to discover her vigorously using a wire whisk to break up the lumps. The scratches on the pan resemble a spirograph pattern. Alas.

They are annoying, but then it's only for one day, and my daughter of course loves her grandparents, so we endure for her sake and their sake.

Glass half full viewpoint: My father-in-law has an unbelievable amount of opera trivia bottled in his brain, which he will uncork at the slightest provocation. I loathe opera and gansta rap in most of their forms, with the odd Puccini or Will Smith tune breaking through the firewall. But having to listen to him detail the kind of knife handle they used for a prop for Figaro or something has made me kinder to others in my dispensation of useless rock and pop trivia. In other words, I don't offer unless asked, and even then I only provide the answer they're looking for and do not go all Cliff Claven on them like I used to. I think my blog has also helped me with that, since I get to gas on about it there.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 16, 2005 10:45 AM

My own particular challenge is less where to spend Tgiving and Xmas, and more how to get through the end of the year generally. All the parties and social obligations ... The way the work schedule often goes haywire ... Colds and flus ... Unexpected work absences ... Lots of money-spending and necessary tipping ... Chores chores chores ... And all the while, the amount of daylight grows shorter and shorter every day. It's a lot. It's too much.

So some years back The Wife and I made a policy decision: we have vowed that, from November 10 thru about January 5, all we're even going to try to do is hold on, get done what needs to be done (and no more), and hope to emerge at the end of the stretch in reasonably good shape.

Is this true for anyone else too? Man, the end of the year can be exhausting ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 16, 2005 10:47 AM

Hope springs eternal every Thanksgiving and Christmas. And then Hope gets trampled on by rolling guilt balls of "I may not be around much more, you know!"'s and "Christmas for me isn't on Dec 23rd; I can't celebrate that way." This year, it'll be an imediate family Christmas morning, followed by splitting of the family as I head north to Jersey and the ever-loving wife stays in Delaware with her parental unit.
I really enjoyed the holidays before I was married. I love being married. The holidays are just a time of general malaise slowly turning into ill will. If we had the green and the jobs where we could take 2 weeks off in December, we'd opt to get out of Dodge, ASAP. We don't, so my wife and I and the kids smile at each other each Christmas. Then we press on the gas.

Posted by: DarkoV on December 16, 2005 11:03 AM

I've never had any problem with family tug-of-war because my extended family is scattered all over the place--so it's somewhat impractical to, say, fly half-way around the world just for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Besides, a lot of relatives are Bhuddist so they don't celebrate Christmas...

Posted by: sya on December 16, 2005 12:27 PM

We always spent both holidays with my mother's family, which was vast, noisy, devout and amusing. By the time I got towards high school we dropped out for Christmas, but kept up with the T-Day Hadj. That installed a love for Thanksgiving in me that surpasses all other holidays. That and the fact that there are no Thanksgiving songs or (yet) cards.

These days I always want as many people around for Thanksgiving as I can get, even though I do all the cooking.

This year, for the very first time in my life, Christmas will be just the wife, the daughter and me. Not only that, we're going to borrow a friend's house in Southampton for the weekend.

I'm getting teary just thinking about it.

Posted by: Sluggo on December 16, 2005 02:14 PM

After ten years in the ministry, Christmas lost its charm. It was a working season and not always a fortunate one, even for Unitarians who whistled their way past the Nativity.

But much earlier in 1970 on the Blackfeet Reservation, Bob Scriver had just divorced me, so of course we wanted nothing more than to be together and also to pick up the things we'd meant to do but hadn't. One was going to the Christmas pow wow in Starr School and the other was going to midnight mass at the Browning Catholic church. It was twenty below and there was plenty of snow, but we fired up the pickup without a worry. Bob at sixty had done this all his life. Myself at thirty -- I thought he knew everything.

Starr School is a little community where the town was named for George Starr's school so the newer school there is properly called Starr School School. The pow-wow was in a round house, really an octagonal log building that has since been torn down. The heat in those days was a stove made from an oil drum and so stoked up that it was glowing cherry red -- one didn't want to even get close, much less bump into it. The dancers in those days were a modest bunch who mostly wore long underwear under their regalia. The cold felt good to them after dancing inside, so they'd stand around the pickups smoking and steaming in the dark. When cars came and went, the headlights made diaphanous flares and the bright ends of the cigarettes glowed orange. The dancers' bells jingled as they kept moving their feet so they wouldn't cramp.

The mass was crowded and we were a little late. A Blackfeet Vietnam soldier sat next to us in the last pew and told us he knew what to do, so just follow his example. But he was too drunk to remember the ritual, so it was a good thing we were almost at the back wall, leaping to our feet at all the wrong times.

Now? I like it dark, quiet, music -- I like to wait for the sun to turn, though it's really we who turn. The Paul Winter Consort at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine -- I sure would like to see that big gong go up into the ceiling. I listen to the Solstice Concert on NPR.

It's twenty below. I didn't plug in the heater on the little pickup but I'm not going anyplace.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 17, 2005 09:13 PM

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