The main issue looming over Erica and Aaron Weiss this holiday season: whether to hide a bear or pickle ornament on their Christmas tree.
It’s not as peculiar as it may sound. The couple, who married in October 2021, grew up in homes with deeply rooted holiday practices. In Ms. Weiss’s family, the children hid a tiny teddy bear-shaped ornament on the tree. In the few weeks leading up to Dec. 25, each sibling would move the knickknack to a different spot. The last person to do so would get to open the first gift on Christmas morning.
In Mr. Weiss’s family, one of his parents would hide a pickle ornament somewhere in the house. The person who found it won $10.
Of course, the Weisses, who live in Smyrna, Ga., can choose to honor both traditions. And their ornament dilemma is certainly not as fraught as, say, trying to determine where to spend Thanksgiving and who to include on a gift list. Still, it’s part of the madness known as the “melding of the new family” during the holiday season. And it can get complicated.
“Each individual has a different concept as to what this holiday means,” said Susan Winter, a relationship expert in New York. “One partner’s idea of Christmas might be massively decorating the house, lights everywhere, gift giving, while their partner wants to stay home with eggnog.”
Therapists often earn their second homes during this time of year, as tensions (and blood pressures) reach a boiling point. It’s understandable: Many newlyweds now contend with two or more sets of families with different values, customs and assumptions. The stress of splitting or merging longstanding traditions, combined with expectations to attend multiple events or even host them, can make for a less-than-jolly holiday season.
Perhaps no time is this more pronounced than the first year of marriage, “an official transition from being the child of your nuclear family to being the head of the family you are creating with your partner,” said Elizabeth Earnshaw, a marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia.
And while they’re excited about embarking on a new life with their own rituals, both partners may be torn between fealty to their family of origin and the one they’re creating with their spouse. Their families, in turn, may have some level of “unacknowledged resentfulness that their brother or sister or child has someone else’s attention who is a priority,” said Eli Mayer, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist in New York.
So, how do you survive your first holiday season together as a married couple? And how do you prepare for the common pitfalls, like choosing where to celebrate, hosting your families for the first time, budgeting for gifts and events, and domestic drama?
Discuss Holiday Plans Early
Experts stress the importance of communication, establishing firm boundaries, and, above all else, presenting a united front.
“Ideally, couples will navigate the holidays by sitting down together and exploring what matters most to each individual,” Ms. Earnshaw said. “Often, this will require each spouse to talk to their prospective families about what has been decided upon.”
During these conversations, she suggests couples speak in “we” rather than “I” terms. So, instead of blaming your spouse for refusing to attend the annual dreidel-spinning festivities at your parent’s home this Hanukkah, it’s better to simply beg off with a pithy, “We’ll be doing our own thing at our own place this year.” (Yes, it’s OK to lie on this one occasion).
Couples, though, really should hammer out the details of their holiday activities, which is what Louis and Hannah Morse-Croce of Belmont, Mass., have done.
Ms. Morse-Croce’s large family lives near Boston, while her husband’s family is in Garden City, N.Y. Before marrying in July, the couple would split up for Thanksgiving. Ms. Morse-Croce went to Long Island for the week leading up to Christmas Eve and then took the train to Boston in time for Christmas with her family.
But this year they wanted to come up with a new plan. So they sat down and listed every holiday that was important to them that involved travel. This included Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July, which Mr. Croce, 32, a software engineer, normally spends at his grandparent’s house on Lake Ariel, Pa. Ms. Morse-Croce, 27, a merchandise planner at a women’s clothing company, is usually with her family in Chatham, Mass.
They decided the only way was to alternate years. So, they’re spending Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July with the Croce family on Long Island, as well as the weekend before Christmas. They’ll spend Christmas in Boston with the Morses. Next year they’ll do the opposite.
The good news is that both sets of families were open to these changes. The couple and Mr. Croce’s parents are going to see “Funny Girl” on Broadway the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which could be the start of a new tradition. “Louis plays the guitar and wants to bring his family tradition of playing music on Christmas Eve,” Ms. Morse-Croce said.
Create a Plan for Gifting
Another issue is gifting. Does everyone in the family get one? Just the parents? Just the children? Ms. Morse-Croce and her husband discussed that, too.
For the first time ever, Ms. Morse-Croce’s immediate family agreed to no presents; they’re opting for a Secret Santa instead. It’s also worth noting that not all gifts have to cost money or come in physical form, especially if there are budget considerations.
Ms. Winter believes that couples could take care of their primary gift recipients first, and then acknowledge the others in another way — say, with a handwritten note, a video card, or an experiential present, like a home-cooked meal or a visit to a theme park.
“I like the idea of a blank canvas,” she said. “You had your life before you met, now you have a chance to create a new template for the life you want to live.”
Be Selective About Gathering
The same applies to social events. Rather than accepting every invitation, you now have the chance to figure out who you actually want to see.
During the holiday some friends or family members may “drink too much, they have bad behavior, they’re a little too volatile,” Ms. Winter said. “This is where we need to refine what we want to experience together with our partner.”
Marcus and Ashley Kusi of Dover, N.H., learned to set boundaries early on in their marriage. Mr. Kusi’s family is in Ghana, where he grew up, and Ms. Kusi’s family is in Vermont.
The couple, who have been married for nearly 12 years, call themselves marriage mentors. They have written several books about relationships and host the podcast “The First Year Marriage Show.” During their first year of marriage, Ms. Kusi, 33, said she “kind of dragged him along to everything. It was too much. We can’t be doing everything with everybody and have no time for us as a couple.”
She decided to prioritize her relationship with her husband. Together, they have created their own traditions: Driving around the neighborhood to look at the lights, doing holiday crafts, and baking cookies. They celebrate Yule, the winter solstice, with their two young children, donning matching pajamas, and watching a movie or playing a board game as a family.
Zach Brittle, a mental health counselor in private practice in Seattle, said, “Couples need to learn — as early as possible — how to play the long game.”
“One thing I tell couples all the time is that if one of you wins, the relationship loses,” said Mr. Brittle, who is also a host of the podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. “Can they start with an understanding of and commitment to making trade-offs? When they can’t wrap their heads around this, that’s what causes friction in counseling.”
He suggests couples imagine themselves lounging around on Jan. 1, and reflecting on the last few months.
In the best scenario, he said, “they’ll be able to articulate that their pride will come from navigating a complicated time with empathy and grace and kindness. Not that they went to mom’s house or they spent too much or too little, or that they saw the Nutcracker sober.
Prioritize Your Own Traditions
As for the Weisses, they’re thinking ahead to the traditions they’ll incorporate into their own home. Ms. Weiss’s family didn’t go to church on Christmas Eve, but Mr. Weiss’s family did. They plan to keep church in the picture. And, Mr. Weiss’s mother always baked homemade cinnamon rolls, and his grandfather “invented” a butter cookie recipe that has been passed down to younger generations. That’s staying, too.
“Aaron’s family is known for their holiday baked goods, and we would love to keep that tradition alive,” Ms. Weiss said.
Ms. Earnshaw recommends that couples should allow the first few years of marriage to be about figuring out which rituals they want to keep from their pasts, which new ones they want to create together, and how they will compromise.
“A newly married couple might not have a set of longstanding rituals,” Ms. Earnshaw said. “Because of this, they might not even be sure of what they want to do during the holidays.”