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Auntie A’s Guide to Holiday Etiquette… for the Non-Traditional Celebration

From death, to divorce to multi-faith households, atypical family situations can befuddle even the most laid-back individual who is striving to ensure the holidays are a merry time for all.

By Alisa Murray, aka “Auntie A”

For most families, the holidays always present relational challenges. For some, keeping the peace is just a matter of taking a deep breath and walking into the next room. After all, we do not choose our families, so tempered tolerance is necessary. These are people to whom we are related, and we do love them, but we certainly might not have chosen them as friends or even like them. Nevertheless, close quarters with people who have a memory of who you once were can create a pressure cooker of hot buttons for which you should be prepared. Plan to come to the event with your strategy for a quick exit from an impending disaster.

What happens, though, when the awkwardness of certain holiday gatherings is more complex? What happens when someone close in the family dies? How do you navigate through the feelings of each family member faced with celebrating at a time that now makes them sad? What are the new rules for raising children to be grateful and thankful as products of divorce? Two houses can be a devastating game changer on so many levels. Oh, and how do you teach children that are in a multi-faith home about rituals and customs without stepping on the toes of the other parent or really getting into hot water with the grandparents? Etiquette can only go so far in these circumstances where the situations fall outside of the normal bounds of how we know to behave.

 

Death

This year makes the 39th Christmas, birthday, Mother’s Day, and you-fill-in-the-blank occasions I’ve celebrated without my mother. She was tragically killed in an auto-train accident when I was a child, and as a result, the entire process of holidays changed for me forever. What was once a joyful time became a time where adults cried intermittently and bemoaned the loss.

Death does change etiquette protocol during the holidays, probably more than at any other time, because the celebrations consist of family gatherings, and without family members, it’s just plain difficult. Add to this challenge the fact that each person comes to the table with a different set of coping skills and set at varying stages of personal grieving.

When Grandma’s house was always the setting for Thanksgiving and she dies…now what? You have to change things up is what! Find a new fresh way to celebrate. Perhaps, for a few years, anyway, instead of having the traditional ham and sides that she cooked, you choose a different menu. Give each person a chance to reset and recover. Then, in time, what you’ll do is find yourself bringing that loved one right back into the celebrations. You will start cooking Grandma’s recipes, and the very act of doing so in the kitchen will make you smile with memories. You’ll tell stories about Grandma from holidays gone by, and her memory will continue to live on within your family. As with most things… everything will be fine with time.

 

Divorce

When families decide that divorce is the best solution for them, there is a new normal for all children. Children are no longer creating Christmas under one roof with Mom and Dad. When parents try to outdo one another with gifts, children see right through their shenanigans, and it can really cause an unnecessary stress fest!

Being creative with traditions and rituals is key. Children will adapt to the Advent-calendar days they are with Mom and the Elf on the Shelf activities at Daddy’s place. If the children are at your husband’s house for Christmas this year, ask if you can Skype them on Christmas Eve and sing a carol with them. Be creative.

What you should not do is give a gift and then require that it stay at your house and not go with the child. Try to communicate with each other and coordinate efforts for giving not competing! Working together as parents and reassuring the children that so many people love them is one of the best presents you can give them. Most importantly, choose to do something that requires no money. Drive around and check out the lights, or make a meal together during the kids’ time off. Time, attention, and love are more important than anything you could give them under a tree. Children will remember those moments, and you’ll be rewarded, as, years from now, they will look back on a childhood untainted by you and your spouse’s decision to divorce.

 

Multi-Faith

More than 2.5 million families celebrate multiple holidays and rituals in their homes. More than one-third of all American Jews are married to Christians. Of this group, those of whom are parents must decide how to navigate a menorah and a Christmas tree…Santa Claus and dreidels. One would hope that prior to making children, these families will have had multiple conversations about their faith, the ways they need and choose to profess it, and their expectations for passing their faith onto the next generation.

Will the children be raised essentially Jewish with a few extra rituals and celebrations that are clearly not a part of that faith? How confusing will this be as they grow and mature, and at some point will the kids need to decide for themselves what faith with which they want to identify? If you are a faithful Christian, are you okay with taking Christ purposefully out of Christmas? Should the children become exposed to both equally–and at what times?

Each faith has a coming of age, so to speak, and this critical rite of passage, in many respects, defines a person. The decisions about what will be celebrated and with which associated rituals are big decisions with lasting effects into adulthood. Each family must seriously contemplate which and how rituals will be celebrated, and which rituals will not be acknowledged. The organization of all holidays in multi-faith households is a brave new world. Most importantly, for each family, it will be different.

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