The Great Seasonal Switch: A First Holiday with the In-laws

The Great Seasonal Stand-off—the annual decision of where to go for holidays—may be one of the first major compromises for newlyweds. When my husband and I were first married, my parents lived in Alaska and his parents in Michigan. It was impossible to visit both places for our first Christmas together. Would we split the holidays? Would we assign a holiday to each family to become an annual event? Would we set a rotation into motion?

We decided to spend our first Christmas with my husband’s family. It was going to be a huge change from my small family which consisted of simply my parents, my sister and her husband. We are generally a pretty calm bunch (although my husband would disagree when we start storytelling). I became number thirteen in a growing, loud, and very active family. Ironically, surrounded by all the busyness that first Christmas, I felt alone. For the first time in 24 years, I was not with my family in the snow globe of interior Alaska with plenty of snow, spruce trees, cross-country ski trails and dancing northern lights. I was used to a perfectly imperfect Christmas tree sawed by my dad from the woods and pulled in along with some snow (and plenty of needles) through the sliding back door. We disguised the holes with the larger ornament and set just a few presents under the tree for each person.  

When we arrived, we were greeted by a stunning Christmas tree complete with glistening gold bows and perfectly strung white lights. A mountain of presents surrounded the tree and grew even larger in the wee hours of Christmas morning. It was very different from the Christmas that I was accustomed to during my childhood and early adult years.  

I will never forget that first Christmas when I called my parents to wish them a Merry Christmas. Despite the boisterous celebrations throughout the house, the delicious aroma of food wafting up the stairs and the laughter of the kids, I wanted to cry. I missed my Christmas.  

However, this year will be our eighth Christmas as a married couple and it is again my husband’s family’s turn. Thankfully, the feelings of that first Christmas are long gone. Now my two girls will be in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Christmas morning. It will still be loud and crazy, but I no longer think of this family as my husband’s. It is now mine. But for those who are facing holidays with a new family for the first time, please allow me to share some things I’ve learned in the past eight years of holiday swapping:


If it is the first holiday away from your family, it is not going to be easy. Don’t be too hard on yourself expecting everything to be perfect—this is very different than what you are used to! Just don’t stay in this place of self-pity. Acknowledge that it is hard and perhaps have a discussion with your spouse about how different this holiday is. Then move on!  Don’t stay secluded on your phone or computer talking to your parents and siblings for too long. Get out and enjoy the festivities with this new family.


When I took my marriage vows, I promised to put my husband’s needs before my own. This is not a simple task when it comes to spending time with family.  It is easy to get selfish with special days or holidays. However, it is important to show devotion to your spouse by loving his/her family. You might be surprised how loving this new family for your spouse’s sake turns into simply loving this family. When I married Justin, I gained two parents, two brothers and sisters, and an amazing quintet of nieces and nephews. For this first holiday, work to share in your spouse’s joy at being with his/her family. If there is a tradition that your spouse loves, do it without complaint. It may even become one of your future favorites!


My favorite thing about spending the holidays with my new family was watching the excitement of the nieces and nephews. I clearly remember the three youngest ones pounding on our door in the pre-dawn Christmas morning darkness. When we said they could come in, the door burst open and they tumbled over each other into our room. They bumped around in the darkness of our room to find our bed to pull us up. “Get up!  It’s Christmas!” What fun to experience the joy and magic of Christmas through the eyes of little ones. It is so magical to them. There is always something you can find to be excited about, so look for the positive. This year I’m looking forward to seeing a big family Christmas through my girls’ eyes.

Between the cooking, cleaning, shopping, gift-wrapping, traveling, sleeping on air mattresses, new food and traditions, the holidays with new relatives can be stressful. Give it time. You may be surprised at how much you look forward to each and every holiday with different members of your extended family. I cannot wait to see that perfectly-decorated tree, look for my name among the presents and get hugs from each pair of arms in our large (now sixteen-person) family that I’m blessed to call my own.

Image Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo


Amy VanSlocum grew up in rural Alaska 100 miles from the nearest stop light, McDonald's and movie theater. She has lived in Michigan, Montana, New York and has finally settled in northern Colorado. She graduated from Calvin College in 2008 with a degree in elementary education and earned her graduate degree in library science. Amy and her husband, Justin, embarked on their latest adventure, parenthood, in the summer of 2014. In their spare time, the VanSlocum family heads to the mountains to hike or ski.

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