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Photo Credit: Sadie Hart, Creative Commons

As soon as the trick or treaters drift into their sugar induced comas, stores begin shelving candy canes and twinkly lights to gear up for the bigger-and-better-than-last-year holiday season.

For the married folks, this also means mother in laws and moms will soon call asking how and where we’ll be spending the holidays. For some, it’s the same old same old every single year. Mom gets Thanksgiving, MIL gets Christmas Eve, Grandma and Grandpa get Christmas Day. No big deal.

What if your family doesn’t work that way? What if both families want you on the same day or there is always some other conflict?

Some of us hardly have visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads as the holiday season approaches. Many of us have visions of conflict, past pain, regrets, distance, loneliness, and having to choose between two families we love.

Over the past six years we have been married, we’ve learned a few ways to make the holidays a little merrier, without losing our sanity or resorting to behavior that compromises what we believe. We believe couples, especially newlyweds, can and should enjoy the holidays and establish their own traditions, while attempting to honor each side of the family in the best way possible. Here are five things we try to do each year to make the holidays as merry as possible.

1. Focus on the bigger picture. It’s not about receiving gifts, it’s all about giving. It’s all about celebrating our Savior. Use the holiday season to bless others as a couple in radical ways! If your families are focused on exchanging gifts, suggest and organize an opportunity to volunteer or serve others. If you choose not to participate (it is a choice) in a gift exchange, let your families know in advance. Let them know you are happy to just enjoy their company, no gifts required. It is tough to buy gifts for both sides of the family, especially when you are just starting out or getting out of debt. If they insist on a gift exchange, you could try suggesting a white elephant type exchange or limiting the amount of money each participant spends to $5 or less.

2. Establish a new tradition each year, just for the two of you (and your kids or future kids). You need to establish your own traditions as a couple/family. We like to reserve Christmas Morning just for us. When we have children, we plan to continue this tradition. Make sure each side of the family is aware of any traditions you establish. One way to honor each side is to adopt traditions from both families. If possible, participate in any traditions you grew up with that have continued.  If there is a scheduling conflict, suggest a change in the date of the activity or event, not the tradition itself.

3. Set boundaries. This is probably the most important (and difficult) thing you can do when approaching both sides of the family. Inevitably, each side may get their feelings hurt or get upset when you do not visit on a specific day. There is no way to always please everyone. Someone is going to be hurt or disappointed. Try to step into their shoes to understand how they feel, but set boundaries. Make it clear that manipulation will not work. You can empathize with how difficult it must be for your MIL to not have all her children under the same roof on the same day, but you also need to speak the truth in love and do what is best for your family. Stick together as a couple. Never pit your spouse against your family.

4. Never compare celebrations. One side may take the whole family on a luxury holiday cruise, while the other side may have a humble meal with no gifts. Neither side really needs to know what goes on “over there”. Comparisons, bragging, or sharing too many details about celebrations with “the other side” can lead to unintended hurt feelings. If you are spending the actual holiday with one side and not the other, this can also lead to conflict. Unless they ask, it may be best to just keep mum about it and focus on enjoying your time with each side.

5. Be flexible (but don’t break). You may have to compromise. Try to focus on spending time with each family, not on how or where it will be done. Maybe you always spend Christmas Day with Mom and Dad, but this year they decided to hit the slopes. Let them have their trip. It may hurt to let go of what you always do, but it’s not about upholding the way things are always done. It’s about relationships. Make every effort to honor your parent’s wishes, but don’t bend so far that you break. Sometimes you have to gently remind each side that you have two families to visit with. Let them know you will make every effort to visit when and where they would like, but it may not always be possible.

What tips do you have to make the holidays merry and bright?