I had mixed feelings about Christmas. My wife loved the holiday. After we got married, bringing our different Christmas pasts together created some challenges.
As a young child, I waited impatiently for Christmas morning. In the days before Christmas, boxes wrapped in red and green paper and shiny ribbons appeared under our family Christmas tree. When Mom and Dad weren’t looking, I looked at the names on the tags.
I’d shake the boxes with my name on them. I tried to guess by the sounds inside what gifts I’d find on Christmas day. More than once I got out of bed before sunrise on Christmas morning to see what Santa had put in my stocking that hung on the fireplace mantle. Somehow Mom knew I was awake and sent me back to bed.
Christmas became more complicated after my parents divorced when I was 11. After that, some Christmases I spent with Dad and my paternal grandparents in their homes in Southern Oregon, and some I spent with Mom and my maternal grandparents in their homes in Southern California. Mom always thought I needed new clothes. Struggling to make ends meet, Dad chose not to buy gifts.
Not sure what to get me, my grandparents would just give me money. I missed the joy I felt when I was younger — and I came to dread Christmas.
Christmas carols, decorations, parties, and food were part of the holiday traditions enjoyed by my wife and her family near Portland, Oregon. After we married, she wanted us to share in those traditions together. I felt anxious about what to do. I felt like I should be with at least one of my parents. I especially felt guilty about leaving my dad to celebrate the holiday alone with his aging parents.
“We-ness” is a state of solidarity, where the husband and wife decide to be each other’s strongest allies.
During the early years of our marriage, my wife and I worked out various compromises. We’d spend part of the holiday season with my family, part of it with hers. These arrangements reflected the reality that my wife and I hadn’t bonded as a family unit.
It wasn’t until we decided we were old enough to have our own traditions that it felt right. We decided to make plans for ourselves and our children. We invited our parents to join us if they wished.
That decision didn’t sit well with my mother-in-law. She was used to having things a certain way. When my wife wouldn’t budge, she tried to sway me. I stood together with my wife, committed to what we’d decided to do for our family.
A marriage that arrives at a sense of “we-ness” reaches a significant milestone. “We-ness” is a state of solidarity, in which the husband and wife decide to be each other’s strongest allies. Marriages that achieve this status form a bond that’s very difficult to break. Husband and wife arrive at this point when they realize that their relationship with each other is the most important — and the most valuable relationship they have. They become a family unit of their own. All other family relationships take a back seat.
Once we decided to stand together, we built on that bond by establishing our own family traditions. Some we brought from our Christmases past; others were new for both of us. We enjoyed picking out a tree at a Christmas tree farm, taking our kids to see the Nutcracker ballet, and watching boats decorated with Christmas lights parading down Portland’s river waterfront.
With each Christmas that we followed our own traditions, our sense of “we-ness” grew stronger. Our traditions became part of who we are as a couple and as a family, connecting us to each other and creating a sense of identity.
The traditions married couples follow at Christmastime and throughout the year reflect how they see themselves as a couple in relation to their extended family. During this Christmas season, consider talking with your spouse about how you see yourselves as a couple. Do you see yourselves as a unique unit with a strong sense of “we-ness” — or are you each more closely allied with your families of origin than each other? Discuss how your Christmas traditions have evolved over the years or stayed the same. Share with each other what you like about your current traditions — and what you’d like to change.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”