Creating Your Own Holiday Traditions

Creating Your Own Holiday Traditions as a Multicultural Family

Gizzards and bean soup vs turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy?

These are a couple dishes our family was discussing around the dinner table this Christmas Eve. Amidst my husband’s American traditions, I found an ally in a cousin-in-law, whose grandmother celebrated Christmas in deeply rooted Polish traditions. As the two of us exchanged memories of custom Christmas Eve foods, exchanging holy wafers, and attending Christmas Eve midnight mass, the nostalgia swept through us like a wave. I was excited to not only share my traditions with those who were curious, but also to find someone who could relate. Food is central to Polish culture, so it warmed my heart to see my husband’s family share their culinary stories while asking about my own.

After discussing food, we moved on to other traditions.

What Christmas traditions are you teaching to your daughters and step-daughter?

The question peeked my curiosity and I stopped chasing my two and a half year old toddler to listen to my husband’s cousin respond. She and her husband each have a daughter from a previous relationship, who are similar in age (around 7), and they have a little girl together (2.5). Her response centered around trying to explain Santa Clause to the two older girls, who were getting confused about why Santa comes twice for one of them (once at their house and once at her biological mom’s house). It struck me at that moment, that ever since we became a family with my husband and my three stepsons, we have never approached that subject, rather, we let it figure itself out. My stepsons, who were 3, 8, and 12 when we all moved in as a family, never questioned why Santa came to multiple houses for them…honestly, they just enjoyed the extra gifts.

Here is the difference though. That question was not an issue in our house, because all three boys traveled together from one house to the other, so they all opened gifts at the same time. I can imagine as my 2.5 year old son gets older, he will start asking “mommy, why do my brothers leave to celebrate Christmas somewhere else again, but I only get Santa at our house?” And I will hold my cousin-in-law’s story close to heart to figure out the best answer for that moment.

How do you know what new traditions to start as a blended family?

The short answer is, you don’t know. As you merge your lives, you can teach each other about your traditions and habits, however the first five years as a blended family have taught me that you can’t force new traditions on your family. That will come from trial and error, and lots of it, and most importantly, from the kids, you, and your partner asking lots of questions of each other. Eventually, chaotic holidays will start to look more and more like well-thought out events, and although there will be many compromises, you will find yourself enjoying the season…you just have to continually work together with your spouse or partner.

Start by understanding each other’s traditions, habits, and preferences

The first year we shared Christmas as a family was awkward, frustrating, and ended with a few hurt feelings. Going into the Holidays with the assumption that we all have the same expectations is the first big mistake. Even if you share the same religion, your different cultural backgrounds can have a dramatic effect on how special occasions are celebrated, and what is expected of everyone.

There are fun differences. I grew up with more importance placed on Christmas Eve, and we opened our gifts after Christmas Eve supper. My husband and his sons grew up celebrating and opening gifts on Christmas Day. In the end, we came up with an alternating schedule of house-hopping between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, ultimately resulting in two days of Santa visits. My stepsons don’t complain!

Then, there are more complicated differences, such as food and customary behavior. Coming from different cultures, your traditional foods can wreak havoc on picky eaters’ taste buds. We celebrated our first Christmas Eve at my parents’ house, trying to excitedly share a traditional Polish experience with the boys. My stepsons not only ended up hungry that night, they had a confused and frightened look on their face half the time. My mistake was not explaining ahead of time what would happen and why, so they had time to prepare and ask questions. The following year went a lot better, as we talked about our traditions well ahead of time.

The challenges aren’t limited to food. There are deep differences in expected behavior among different cultures. A cozy breakfast in your PJs is relaxing in the American culture, but coming to the table half-dressed can be seen as disrespectful in another. Other potential eyebrow raisers? Slurping. Belching. Taking the last item off a shared plate without asking if anyone else wants it. Wear shoes in the house. Taking a shower in the morning, instead of before bed. Taking a shower before bed, instead of in the morning. Not saying please. Saying please too much. You get the idea. These are all behaviors that we learn through our culture, and will feel either natural or annoying (or even disrespectful) depending on where you learned them.

When blending traditions, remember that your family comes first

We often want to make everyone in our extended family happy, especially around the Holidays.  It can seem like the only option to avoid hurting feelings and contributing to family feuds.  When celebrating traditions with your blended family, keeping the extended family happy is very important.  However, it’s also as important, if not more so, to understand the needs of your immediate family first. 

BIRTHDAYS  In my husband’s traditions, the kids got themed parties with cake and gifts, while the parents hardly mentioned their own birthdays. In my Polish traditions, birthdays were small and intimate and birthday parties were reserved for milestone years (kids up till 18, then 30, 40, 50…). More importance was placed on celebrating one’s Name Day each year. So if your new family is not used to celebrating grown up birthdays, and you expect birthday wishes each year, communicate that to those you wish to include on your tradition. Never assume they can read your mind and suddenly realize you feel forgotten.

RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS  As with birthdays, talk about your religious traditions and experiences growing up, then discuss your assumptions and expectations as a new family. When someone does something that upsets you, ask yourself first why the behavior upset you? It’s likely not done out of spite, but because of different expectations. Ask yourself also, whether it’s something worth fighting over, and how you can compromise. The important thing is to remain flexible while merging traditions and keep an open mind. If changing your religious practices is out of the question, consider alternating years or even agreeing to celebrate separately. If you and your partner have drastically different religious traditions (and even political or any other customs) and are not willing to compromise, you have to honestly ask each other whether you can handle celebrating separately while keeping full love and respect for each other so you don’t end up resenting each other down the line.

Be patient with each other and yourself

Blending a family together doesn’t happen overnight.  Be patients and with each other, and with yourself, and keep in mind that figuring out a family Holiday tradition that everyone enjoys may take several years.  Start small, have a team meeting with your partner and kids, share suggestions, and make it fun for everyone.

What new traditions did you create with your blended family?  What has worked in your experience, and what didn’t?  Share you experience with us in the comments below!


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