For the first two years of our marriage, my husband and I were holiday vagabonds. We’d spend the days before Thanksgiving and Christmas driving four hours to our home state and staying overnight at two or more different homes, all while attempting to cram in a few hours with each of our extended families and old friends.
There’s a whirlwind nature to those days that my life lacks now--the arrival of our children has merited more structure and discipline--and though the rose-colored glasses of hindsight make me look back fondly on the facility we had to travel more frequently and spontaneously, I also distinctly remember wishing our holidays weren't defined by constant travel. We were able to visit everyone, go to bed whenever, make the drive back home long after dark. But we were also pretty rootless, missing out on opportunities to consider how we actually did want to define the season for ourselves.
Have you experienced this? Merging your life with your beloved's in engagement and marriage also means merging the lives of your families, for better or worse. Determining a moderate, healthy level of commitment to family obligations is a question that looks different for every couple and evolves through different phases of life. So does the question of how you’d like to form your own rituals as a couple and future family. To help you answer these questions and cultivate peace during this hectic time, we offer you these suggestions for navigating the holidays:
Boundaries don’t destroy freedom; they create freedom.
During the years my husband and I lived far from family, and before we had children, we were able to travel anywhere and everywhere, saying yes to almost every invitation, but we weren’t free. The feeling of needing a vacation from Christmas vacation was a major reminder that freedom didn’t mean the ability to take back-to-back road trips and pack our schedule to the brim, but the ability to accept or decline commitments with unburdened hearts, unchained to duty and calendars.
Giving of yourself is, of course, good and necessary. Relationships with your loved ones deserve your time and attention. When we overstretch ourselves, the quality of our relationships can suffer. After those first busy seasons, my husband and I decided we’d prefer to alternate spending our holidays with one family each year, not both. The times we stayed for two or three hours at one celebration before getting back in the car to drive to a second, we hardly felt time to be present with our relatives before moving on to the next obligation. We were putting in face time, but it wasn’t true quality time.
Arleen Spenceley writes, “[boundaries] keep what is hurtful, unhealthy, or needless out of the way. We are most free when we have healthy boundaries, not when we have none.” Just as it’s fruitful to judiciously draw a line with your social life, so it is with delicate or painful situations that might feel more prominent at this time of year. If you know the season will bring with it certain tensions or difficult relationships, bring to prayer the question of how you can embrace the challenge while protecting yourself--in some situations, that might mean entering into these tensions, and in some, that might mean avoiding them.
Anticipate points of miscommunication, and work through them ahead of time.
Making clear each of your expectations for how you’ll spend and divide your time, filling one another in on your families’ particular rituals, and creating a game plan for travel each go a long way in keeping you and your beloved on the same page.
Start your own traditions.
Traditions are special, and they’re comforting. Creating new ones that belong to the two of you grounds you in these busy months and shapes your identity as a couple. Need ideas? Buy or make an Advent wreath and incorporate it into your daily or weekly routine; my family lights the wreath every night during grace before dinner. Take up a prayer ritual like the St. Andrew Christmas Novena, which begins tomorrow, the O Antiphons, or a daily Rosary of only the Joyful Mysteries. Try out a few new dessert, cocktail, or meal recipes and reserve them for holidays-only. Choose a movie or book to experience each year during Advent or Christmas.
Identify ways to carve out quality time.
When you’re spending weekend after weekend at parties and gatherings, and when you’re staying over as guests with faraway family and friends, it’s easy to go for long stretches without any time as just you and your fiancé or husband. God willing, your time spent in groups and with family is fruitful and precious. Yet there’s value in knowing how extensive social time affects your unique temperaments and in nourishing your relationship accordingly. Even extroverts need time to recharge alone or with their beloved, so plan ways to do that. Choose a day to shelve all things party and shopping-related and go on a special date instead. Load up on podcasts or audiobooks if you have a long road trip ahead of you. Briefly duck out from your hosts to attend confession, Adoration, or a daily Mass together. Take a nightly walk during your stay with family.
Find peace in God’s will, no matter what.
Approach the season with a spirit of flexibility, and embrace times of stress, anxiety, or trial as your road to Bethlehem. St. Teresa of Calcutta constantly thanked God for her suffering, resolving if trial be the Father’s will for her, that it draw her closer into the heart of Jesus. Her holy example is a powerful reminder that the Father’s every whisper to us, everything he wills for us, is a mercy. In him resides our peace.
Know of our prayers for you this Advent. Tell us, what spiritual or practical strategies have helped you find balance during the holidays?