bah humbug
December 31, 2007 1:48 PM   Subscribe

My family members decided to suddenly start celebrating Christmas this year. I feel weird about it. Help me deal with these changes.

Some family history is important:

My parents were immigrants to the US. We weren't raised Christian (or Jewish) and never grew up celebrating Christmas. The major family holiday was Thanksgiving, we'd barbecue on July 4th, have New Years celebrations, and go all out for Halloween.

Christmas (ie, winter break from school) was usually spent sleeping, watching movies, some homework, but mostly just hanging out. We actually tried celebrating Christmas one year with a small plastic tree, but it was weird. We never continued. I never felt deprived not celebrating this major American holiday, and it didn't seem to be a major things for my siblings, either. Sure, there were the pressures of "what did you get! what did you get!" - when we returned to school with our peers, but, it never really bothered me. I got gifts on my birthday, which was satisfying. I personally felt like I was in on some esoteric knowledge, of Santa's myth (sadly breaking the news to my best friend one year). I never felt this feeling like I was really missing out on something.

Fast forward 20-something years. My sisters are both married with kids (I am not). Their husbands are of a very similar upbringing as us.

This year, my sisters decided to celebrate Christmas. (By celebrate, I mean decorations, a tree, presents, everything in the secular sense). I feel really weird about it.

They invited me (which was nice) but I live several states away and had plenty of other things going on. I'm also a poor grad student - I can't afford to fly down often and buy gifts all around. I've also never had to worry about that before.

i think if it were just one of my sisters, it wouldn't be as uncomfortable - but it's like both of them are joining forces to suddenly start a new family tradition. I'm trying to think of this in light of my niece and nephews (toddler to elementary school aged), and that involved in the secular version of Christmas are still some fun and exciting rituals and activities.

I realizing that this is very me-centered, so I'm looking for advice for anyone who has ever experienced a sudden change in family tradition, and how you dealt with it. To be honest (and yes, totally about my ego) I feel kind of peeved that, as adults we've all kind of done our thing at the end of December, and am now feeling a sense of exclusion that - ok, new family tradition - and I don't really want to join in. I dislike the materialism, the malls, the shopping, the going broke, the bills, the formalities. It's foreign, and being "deprived" sounds bizarre to me (my sisters words, not mine) We always have Thanksgiving together as "family time" and I certainly celebrate the birthdays of my niece and nephews (if I can't go, send cards/presents). I'm scared that this tradition will continue, and unless I partake in it, I'll be the weird aunt. I'm generally very fond of change, but this change, not so much. Help me, please.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Just gracefully decline to participate if it bothers you, and don't worry much about it otherwise. Family traditions always start somewhere, and now that both of your sisters have families of their own they're reconsidering how they spend the holidays. That's just life - things change, they're not out to make your life worse, but make their own life better. Be happy for them and wish them well, and don't try to stop the hands of time from turning.
posted by voidcontext at 2:03 PM on December 31, 2007

I dislike the materialism, the malls, the shopping, the going broke, the bills, the formalities. It's foreign, and being "deprived" sounds bizarre to me (my sisters words, not mine) We always have Thanksgiving together as "family time" and I certainly celebrate the birthdays of my niece and nephews (if I can't go, send cards/presents). I'm scared that this tradition will continue, and unless I partake in it, I'll be the weird aunt.

I can relate. I grew up in a Jewish household, and Christmas day was a non-event. Hanukah was pretty sedate, but my memories were more around family meals, fires in the fireplace, candles and song, with a present (or eight) that were pretty insignificant.

My quick take on your situation: don't make a big deal out of it and don't participate. Use any excuse to avoid it becoming an incendiary issue.
posted by docpops at 2:04 PM on December 31, 2007

Prediction -- your sisters are celebrating Christmas for their kids' sake. For whatever reason. But it's about the kids, not you and not themselves.

So, join them. Give the kids lots of the cheap-ass presents that kids love.

Don't be the weird aunt. Be the cool aunt.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:04 PM on December 31, 2007 [6 favorites]

First I would examine what really bugs you about it. Does it bug you or are you just not excited about it?

As someone who has celebrated Christmas for my entire life, I sympathize. I used to hate it as a younger adult, but now, its a really nice time to be able to go and visit with the family. Its a time of togetherness, its not about the presents to me. Its just jolly or something. I am growing to dig.

When my family started doing a more nuclear family christmas rather than a huge extended family thing it took some adjusting. I enjoyed a billion of us milling around my grandmother's teeny house. Now that it is more intimate, it is strange, but I am growing to like it. My parents don't need gifts to speak of, so I try to make them something to show I care enough to spend time on them, the money doesn't count.

It seems like a lot of your bristeling is the money aspect, so don't engage in that part. My nephews are very spoiled and their parents make a lot more money than me, so anything I could buy them would pretty much go unnoticed in their little parade of useless shit they are always going through. So I make them something like a wooden puzzle or a collection of interseting facts I put together, just silly stuff and that they remember.
posted by stormygrey at 2:10 PM on December 31, 2007

I have not gone through this same experience. However, in my family, Christmas and birthdays were the only time we got toys -- and, aside from September, the only times that we got new clothes and shoes. And we didn't give super expensive gifts. Even now, my grandma loads up on stuff at the dollar store, although she may also buy a small toy or book. So, if your sisters are going to take on Christmas as a new tradition, you can still take part, if you want, without spending a fortune or being really materialistic. We were raised to focus on the amount of time and effort that went into finding a gift for someone -- not the size or cost of the gift. My M-I-L doesn't celebrate Christmas, which doesn't seem to bother anyone else, so you might also be able to sidestep the celebration, since it wasn't yours to begin with.
posted by acoutu at 2:13 PM on December 31, 2007

I concur with everyone who sees this as an attempt to give their children something the parents would like the children to have. If you're not comfortable participating (or can't afford to be there in person), I also suggest gracefully declining and sending something thoughtful in a bright shiny package for each child, or something silly, like a stocking stuffed with chocolate and trinkets.

Having been raised in a Christmas household, I think the kids will notice that you don't even send a card. It's not necessarily about thinking "Hey Aunt is cheap and lousy! She never sends presents" but it can start a thought process of "Hey, there's never a present from Aunt. I wonder why she doesn't like me?" That is why I recommend not taking a zero tolerance stance. There is too much overspending and too much over-the-topness about some people's Christmases, but not everyone's. It does not have to be and you don't have to join into that one-up-manship aspect of it. Nonetheless, to avoid making a big deal out of it, it may be easiest to send/bring a small token. A book every year. Or a game for everyone.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:14 PM on December 31, 2007

First of all, if you are short of money or time or live far away it is not imperative that you attend the holidays with your family. I'm not talking about a protest, rather, at some point many people start their own traditions. I live in California and when I was in Grad School I finally figured out that flying during the holidays sucked and that Kentucky (home) was typically cold and grey. Now we (my new family) try to visit in the springtime (Derby): better weather, family more relaxed, fewer expectations, friends have more time available etc.

Secondly, if you do participate, you don't have to go total commercial style.
I remember a christmas in Florence, Italy; the gift giving was very simple and not a huge focus. Be the aunt who gives the kids a good book, maybe bring your family a food treat - just something symbolic that they will enjoy.

So, if you don't wanna go, don't go. If you do, keep it simple and mellow.
posted by asparagus_berlin at 2:17 PM on December 31, 2007

Also, I can say that I never once felt deprived as a kid. I felt lucky. It's unsettling and a little sad to think that your sisters are creating this holiday for their children where there was never a void needing to be filled. I suppose the compromise is to send a gift or two and leave it at that. But thinking of someone having to schlep on a plane for this makes me ill with rage.
posted by docpops at 2:20 PM on December 31, 2007

So BE the weird aunt! I love Cool Papa Bell's answer: get some cheap toys (or books!) for the kids and leave it at that. Or just write a nice card letting them know you're thinking of them. As those kids get older, there may be among them those who also find themselves rebelling against the dreamland version of someone's ideal holiday, and you can be the anchor for them. Offer to take them to a movie on xmas day, to get away from the family pressures. Be that person who stands for what YOU believe is best at the end of December, not the one who goes along with the crowd. It's a good example for kids and will cause you less agony in the long run.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 2:20 PM on December 31, 2007

Oh, sorry - ignore the movie suggestion as you don't live in the same state. Don't be pressured into flying out there; you'll resent the whole trip and your money is better spent for school.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 2:22 PM on December 31, 2007

Maybe your sisters don't feel like you, and do feel like they missed out on Christmas, and they don't want their children to go through the same thing. Have you talked to them about this? You just kind of gloss over it in the question with "they decided".
posted by smackfu at 2:28 PM on December 31, 2007

I can understand being annoyed, since it sounds like they didn't consult you at all. And my mom has unilaterally started at least two new family traditions, so I relate to it feeling weird. At first hers felt incredibly contrived. But now -- about 5 and 6 years in -- these new "traditions" already have started to feel natural and fun.

So, maybe you can rise above your annoyance and find the good in the idea anyway? I'd consider this something destined to continue, and then see it as an opportunity to shape what the traditions become. Your reaction to it will soon become a tradition, for good or bad!

Just pick something you'd like to do with goodwill and love every winter and throw that into the mix. Pretty soon it'll be "what charity do you want Aunt Anonymous to donate to on your behalf this year, little Suzy?" or "oh, here's good old Aunt Anonymous's annual Christmas fingerpainting of you, little Suzy! Look, she's made your hair short since you just got it cut!" or "hurry and open your presents presents, because at noon Aunt Anonymous is coming over for your annual [snow hike / cookie making / day helping at the soup kitchen]." or "oh look, Aunt Anonymous sent you a packet of pea seeds this year! We can plant them in their pots after lunch, like we do every year. Then this summer, yum, we'll have sugar snap peas!"

Or, you could ask your sisters: "Hey, I don't want to be left out, but I don't have the money to fly out every year. What sort of thing do you think I could do every year to celebrate Christmas in a way that Suzy and Joey would like?" Then, even if they don't have a good answer for you, they'll at least have been informed that you want them to give you ideas and help keep you involved. In my family, most of my aunts & uncles just send a card with a little money in it (the amount doesn't really matter) and then we have a warm phone call.
posted by salvia at 2:41 PM on December 31, 2007

I do celebrate Christmas, but I won't travel by air around that time -- plenty of other people have adopted a similar ban after trying it a time or two. Airports are crowded and hectic, and weather in one area can disrupt distant flights. You can certainly decline to travel without being the bad aunt.

I never give Christmas gifts to my nieces and nephews, because they get so many toys and treats that they don't know who gave what. Also, there are a lot of kids, and I often don't have it together to find something for each one by the deadline. I send gifts or a few dollars for birthdays or at other random times. If my siblings don't like it, they haven't said anything about it to me. The kids don't mind at all.
posted by wryly at 3:23 PM on December 31, 2007

I can understand being annoyed, since it sounds like they didn't consult you at all.

Why on earth should they consult her before deciding to celebrate Christmas with their own kids?

anonymous, if you don't want to participate, then don't. Beyond that, it's really none of your business what holidays these folks celebrate with their kids, and the fact that you are concerned about a new tradition that brings family together strikes me as bizarre and selfish.
posted by dhammond at 3:23 PM on December 31, 2007

Nobody *has* to schlep anywhere, Christmas doesn't *have* to be massively commercial, and no one *has* to consult anyone else when deciding what traditions to start or follow with heir spouses and children. The traditions we grow up with are one thing, the traditions we choose to follow with the new families we start as adults are another. They've decided that they want to do this with their families, and have invited you to join them. The choice is yours, but this tradition is not about you - it's about the families your sisters have started.

I hear so much about how people hate the holidays because of how commercial they are, but they don't have to be that way. I know plenty of people whose Christmases are manageable and low-key, and more about spending time with family. We get so wrapped up in how Christmas looks on TV that we forget that how we celebrate (and IF we celebrate) is up to us.

I would advise acknowledging this new tradition in some way, since you have been asked to participate. Not that you have to go, but sending a card does not take up much time, money, or effort. If you want to send the kids something small and inexpensive, then go for it. If you don't believe in giving Christmas gifts or just cannot afford it, then the card with some warm message like "Hope to see you all soon, have a great Christmas" should be enough.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 3:59 PM on December 31, 2007

I'm scared that this tradition will continue, and unless I partake in it, I'll be the weird aunt.

I think all my relatives are weird, one way or another. For example, one of my cousins is a vegetarian. That's not really that weird, though, is it? It's just a case of her not eating meat. It doesn't affect my relationship with her at all. Other than to inquire about interesting recipes, it doesn't come up between us at all.

So what exactly is the problem here? Your sisters are celebrating Christmas. So what? If you don't want to join in, then don't. Perhaps send a card with some $$$ inside it for a present, and leave it at that. You have a fantastic reason not to get involved - having to fly.

but it's like both of them are joining forces to suddenly start a new family tradition.

Yeah, they probably are starting a family tradition, with their own families. This doesn't directly affect you at all. It's not like you live at home with them & your parents, and have to take part because you live in the same house. They're in a different state to you. If you don't want anything to do with it, then don't have anything to do with it. Exactly why is this bothering you?
posted by Solomon at 4:05 PM on December 31, 2007

I don't know if this is the "help" you're looking for, but I would keep a wary disassociation from the tradition, deal with that away from your family, but for the kid's sake (and for yours, if getting together with your family is usually tough), perhaps try to ignore the stale religion by looking at the excitement in the eyes of the youngsters.

I try to stay so obnoxious about this "tradition" on the inside, that I'm willing to accept my bland acceptance of it on the outside. For example, It's not a religious celebration, more of a half-attempt at jazzing Christianity up for kids (Jesus wasn't born near to December and the tree is, I think, some kind of Norse worship ritual). If you're worried about your niece and nephew buying the Christ aspect of it, that's between them, their schools, their local govenrment, and their parents. As far as they are concerned, you're simply there to add to the junk.

I accept all this through the following; when I'm not around the kids I begin to argue secular arguments with those around me who might be "playing with" religion for the season. You probably know the type ("I'm not saying there is or isn't a god, I'm just saying that this tree looks beautiful, and I don't mind giving a few presents just in case..."), and they annoy me too. This year I debated with a cousin who said she was a Christian who believed in reincarnation.

Then, to get over my Xmas blues, I had an online debate with one Falun Gong fanatic who was backing the self-immolations of demented protesters, telling him that burning yourself to death in public support of a spiritual movement led by an alien who can walk through walls and who drives a $40,000 car in the USA, is probably not a worthwhile use of one's resources. Then I went on to "Christian Penpal" and looked at my tally; three times in 2007 I was pushed by strangers towards the Christian faith, so I searched for three people looking for help in the midst of a crisis of faith, and tried to permanently wedge arguments (like the ridiculous way Christians still believe in evolution, even without running to laughably thought-through pseudo philosophies like Intelligent Design) between them and God. Finally, I replied to this post.

The rest of the time, while not extolling agnosticism from the bell tower, I helped my niece and nephew with their new creative arts kits, read my new books, wore my new slippers, drank champagne, ate too much, spent too much, got ill, smiled a lot, and went shopping about four times as much as I would normally in a month.

I hope this helps. I hate Christmas, I hate people's need to believe in something, to look for fairy-tail stories to bring joy, and the sheer lack of imagination that goes into every tree, every light, and every present, every year. However, forgetting that for a few days, and forgetting my usual worries, I had the most wonderful time with two kids and their side of the family, who otherwise I wouldn't see, and hardly relate to normally. So Christmas, from the family perspective, was worth it, this year.

Sorry for rambling on, and please, if anyone is reading this, I'm not trying to kill Christmas. I had a great one, and were it not for this once-a-year event I wouldn't be my favorite niece and nephew's favorite uncle. They're the only kids I get to hang out with, and it's very, very refreshing. But don't expect a card...
posted by omnigut at 5:06 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I understand why this is bothering you. Do you feel like your sisters are somehow insulting or diminishing your childhood by choosing to celebrate Christmas now? If they decided to eat ham instead of turkey on Thanksgiving, would that bother you? Your sisters chose to change their Christmas traditions. That's not about you, but they are willing to include you. If you can't afford or don't care to go home for Christmas, don't. Start a "cool aunt" tradition when you do go home. Do some cool thing with them that they can look forward to when you come visit.
posted by clh at 5:37 PM on December 31, 2007

Personally I love Christmas but in the last 10 years no two Christmases have been the same in my family - there are always different people (not just family), different kinds of celebrations etc. - and despite all these changes it still stayed Christmas.

So what's my point? Change is good, it is healthy, it makes life more interesting. A ritual in your family (no Christmas celebration) has been replaced with Christmas celebrations for some of your family members. As far as we can tell from your post your sisters invited you but didn't take offence when you declined the invitation. So you have all options open to you - join in in future, continue to do your own thing or alternate between the two. As for rituals - why not start your own little rituals - with your sisters' families, your friends etc. Not necessarily Christmas related or even at that time of year...

As to what you do with your nieces and nephews - nothing wrong with being the slightly strange aunt. As long as you spend time with them when you actually visit and show them you care in other little ways when you're not there they'll be fine. Children are very accepting of all kinds of 'odd' behaviours in people they love.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:54 PM on December 31, 2007

Why on earth should they consult her before deciding to celebrate Christmas with their own kids?

Because they're starting a FAMILY tradition. Maybe you have a family where every little nuclear family unit dances to its own rhythm, but in my family, there is a lot of integration among the aunts and uncles and cousins around things like holidays and even some summer vacations. I'm not saying they should ask her permission, but a little discussion of what they're doing, and why, and how she could fit in with it so she remains an integral part of her nieces' and nephews' lives, including this important (to them) new tradition, might not be asking too much. Particularly since two of these family units made a change at the same time. It's obviously making her worry about being left out, and now you're saying "why shouldn't they leave you out? they have their own families and your involvement in those activities is not important"...what?

If my brothers had kids, and suddenly one of them called me up and said "Hey, want to come stay at my house for Holiday X? Joe, Bob, Mom, and Dad are coming, too." I'd be like, "wtf, since when is our entire family Religion X? How did I get left out of the decision to convert? You want me to come for how long?" If one had called me and said, "hey, I've been reading Religious Text X lately, and I'm considering beginning to observe Religion X's holidays. I'm trying to get everybody to consider doing it and here's why," and we discussed it, and then six weeks later he invited me for Holiday X, well, at least I'd feel like my presence and involvement had been desired even before the idea was a fully-formed New Tradition.
posted by salvia at 6:17 PM on December 31, 2007

Is it possible that your family did have a christmas tradition - of feeling superior to the deluded consumerist masses - and you are more upset because your sisters are abandoning that tradition than because they are starting a new one?
posted by selfmedicating at 6:24 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

If my brothers had kids, and suddenly one of them called me up and said "Hey, want to come stay at my house for Holiday X? Joe, Bob, Mom, and Dad are coming, too." I'd be like, "wtf, since when is our entire family Religion X?

The poster describes her sisters' Christmas to be of the secular type, so it really doesn't sound like anyone's adopting a new religion.

Anon, if I were you, I'd talk to your sisters about your discomfort and sense of alienation over this. They may be able to give you some insight into why they felt Christmas was something they wanted to begin to celebrate which will make it easer for you to accept in whatever fashion you need. You also seem to be projecting a lot of negativity onto Christmas, and like several people have said, Christmas isn't about consmerism unless that's what you make of it.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:10 PM on December 31, 2007

Short advice: It sounds like you live far enough away that most reasonable people will not expect you to make a long trip to their home during the second worst travel season of the year.

Long advice: I think that we'd have to know more about how your family operates to give you real solid advice. For instance, aunts, uncles and cousins are non-concerns in my family since they only show up once or twice a year. Additionally, since most of them live at least a handful of states away from us, it's not unusual that they won't show up for the winter holidays. As a compromise, they may only show up for one holiday - at their sole discretion. Have you considered quietly trading Christmas for the Fourth of July barbecue that you already know and enjoy?

Are you going to show up once or twice a year when you can afford it or can have time off? If so, their new traditions may have nothing to do with what you want or can participate in during the winter holidays. Additionally, unless you ask them you won't know why they started celebrating Christmas. We can't answer that for you, and that's an enormous part of your question.

Personally, I can't imagine being upset if my brother became Jewish and invited me to, say, a Rosh Hashanah dinner - despite the fact that I'd have a ton of trouble trying to get such a holiday off in the first place. (I'd be the only one taking off, and it would be very obvious.) If I couldn't go, I would instead feel honored that I was invited and relay my feelings as such. But, go back to the short advice. I think you live far enough way to politely decline non-secular holidays without looking like a jerk by any stretch. Pick a secular holiday and show up for that instead.

If your sisters' families are making a strong shake for religion, then that's a whole 'nother askmefi question. Lots of secular people (like me) recognize Christmas, though.
posted by fujiko at 8:48 PM on December 31, 2007

I am alone in my family for blowing off the whole Xmas schtick, secular religious and whatever. I simply do not care what anyone thinks, I hate the whole schmeer. I send out no cards, I buy no gifts and I usually sleep through Dec. 25th every year. You don't have to call me the Grinch because I proudly claim the mantle already. Halloween is the only crypto-proto-agrarian holy day I have any respect for, with Christmas being wonderfully ignorable in my view. You gotta do what you gotta do, don't get herded into any type of behavior you feel questionable just because it's "family".
posted by telstar at 1:33 AM on January 1, 2008

The poster describes her sisters' Christmas to be of the secular type, so it really doesn't sound like anyone's adopting a new religion.

Yeah, sorry, I didn't mean that I thought that. Just that they're doing an activity, in some ways joining a group, that previously the OP seems to have considered "other" to them. More like what selfmedicating said. All of a suddent they're going to be part of this thing that a bunch of other people do but that previously none of them did.
posted by salvia at 1:38 AM on January 1, 2008

Talk to your sisters and let them know you aren't interested in celebrating Christmas. You might want to talk to them about why they want to celebrate it, but it's their business how they raise their kids. Remember the kids on birthdays and other holidays, and send gifts, postcards, letters occasionally; everybody loves to get mail, kids especially. You can and will develop your own traditions with your own kids/family.
posted by theora55 at 7:10 AM on January 1, 2008

I suspect part of the weird feeling is caused not by the detail of what your sisters are doing, but by the spotlight that it puts on the way your lives are evolving along different lines from each other. You are several states away, and presumably don't know if you will ever live close to them again. Yes, it is hard to handle. None of us will ever be children again, living a child's uncomplicated life among our family. Most of the time going forward into the future is an adventure, and I hope your studies will open up the world for you, but it is reasonable to look back with nostalgia.

You know that people cope with changes in tradition, building new ones to fit the circumstances they find themselves in -- like your childhood Thanksgiving. I suggest that you don't rush into fixing a response to this new-to-you Christmas thing. It doesn't sound as though your nephews and nieces really need anything material from you. I would put any gift-giving effort and money into something thoughtful for their (probably harassed) mothers who you love more and who likely receive less -- and some time other than Christmas may be better. One invaluable gift that uncles and aunts can give is security, there are other adults beside their parents who think they are wonderful, and who will be there in case of disaster. That feeling can be delivered through phone calls, snail mail and email more effectively than through a single Christmas visit.
posted by Idcoytco at 12:20 PM on January 1, 2008

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