If you're newly married—or even not-so-newly married—holidays present a particular bit of inter-family gymnastics. You and your spouse have to make decisions on what traditions you want to have, and few are as fraught as the "where will we spend the holidays" question. And once you do that, there is the inevitable newness of spending a holiday with people who may have distinctly different expectations and traditions than yours. Cue the nerves!
But when it comes to having a happy holiday with the in-laws, the name of the game is ease. Ideally, all interested parties will be aiming for tidings of comfort and joy to grace the festive spread. The best way to achieve that is to leave performance anxiety at the enwreathed front door.
Sure, you have sufficient cause to be nervous. Integrating yourself into the new family is a challenge. You’re out of your comfort zone, unsure of what to expect. Maybe you love this time of year so much that you’re worried awkwardness will overshadow enjoyment and you’ll feel like you totally missed the holiday. But this reminds me of a warm-up exercise from public speaking class in high school (with stressed enunciation): “Worrying does nothing for making things happen.” Instead of fretting about my Christmas, my way, start thinking about what you can give to make this Christmas ours.
If your in-laws are hosting, remember that anyone, anyone who is hosting wants their guests to have an enjoyable time. So enjoy. Take delight in the hors d’oeuvres, the quirky carols, the animatronic Santa. Immerse yourself in the family lore, the secret recipes, the white elephant knickknacks. This is the perfect opportunity to embrace the aphorism, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Even if you don't have a great relationship with your in-laws, showing a genuine desire to be considered part of the family will go a long way toward smoothing any ruffled feathers.
Feel free to ask questions. As your mother-in-law checks to make sure the almond is sufficiently hidden in the rum cake, inquire into the genesis of this tradition. You’re bound to get a good story that might inspire you to carry the flambé torch into your own home. It’s likely that your husband would appreciate that! And your mother-in-law would be ecstatic. Win-win-win.
This is not a time for you to get homesick. Yes, your parents do things differently. But if you spend the evening making comparisons, you will miss the point.
Here’s a good example of this from my own experience. My family doesn’t sing together. Laugh together—absolutely. But hand out sheet music? Carry a tune? Harmonize? Nope. We are movie-watching people, not gather-around-the-piano people. This was a bit of a culture shock when I first spent Christmas with my in-laws. These are trained musicians. I have an embarrassingly limited vocal range and couldn’t play an instrument to save my life. I thought, “Oh no. They’ll be so sad to realize that their virtuoso of a son married so far beneath him.” But as the caroling progressed (and the punch started to work its blessed magic), I realized that even though I don’t produce music, I certainly appreciate it. I can add to this moment by dramatically lip-syncing while offering encouraging, delighted looks to lift up the carolers. I’ll never hit a soprano high note, but I can smile and applaud like a champ.
I love the way they love it. It’s beautiful. I always feel like a better person just for having stood in the same room with them after they’ve exercised their talents. Now that I’ve been through several years of this, the carol-sing is one of the traditions I look forward to most.
I highly recommend that you let this happen to you. Deny that voice inside that says, “Christmas isn’t Christmas without Chevy Chase.” Let their home become your home, just as they wish. Be one of them, because now you are.