My fiancé is new to Christmas. How do I ease him into my Mormon family’s over-the-top holiday style?

Dear AMG,

I am engaged to truly wonderful man who was baptized into the LDS church a few years ago. My fiance was not a member of a Christian faith before he joined the church, and he has never really celebrated Christmas before. Not even in a secular way. This may not seem like a big deal, but allow me to illustrate: we could have been set up by a mutual friend six months before we eventually met, but we weren’t, because the mutual friend thought my fiance didn’t get Christmas and, remembering that my mother replaces every piece of decor in her house with Christmas decor during December, was convinced that the relationship could never work.

I have a big, loud, loving Mormon family that does not believe in halfhearted Christmas celebrations. We’re talking matching pajamas and rhyming, multi-stage treasure hunts and nativity re-enactments and Danish aebleskivers from my great-grandmother’s recipe and grandkids bolting to bed after sighting Rudolph’s nose in the sky and a laundry list of other traditions. And I’m afraid that this might be a little overwhelming for an adult’s first Christmas. My fiance’s heart is in the right place: the commercialism of Christmas is off-putting to him, he wishes the crowds at Temple Square would go inside the building and serve in addition to looking at the lights, and he went to two church Christmas parties last year where talk of Santa and presents abounded but there was nary a mention of the baby born in Bethlehem. I should say, too, that though he’s a little nervous about the prospect of my family’s enormous Christmas celebrations, he has prepared in the best way he knows how: research. Months ago, after a conversation about some of my family’s Christmas traditions, he got online and bought for himself one of our favorite Christmas storybooks. The book is out of print and probably cost him a small fortune, but it was very sweet. He is trying to understand why this holiday is important to me. 

So here’s the trick: How do I help this man I love understand this celebration that is important to my faith, to my family, and to me? 

Merry Christmas,

Anxiously Engaged

Dear Anxiously:

Dig if you will the picture–kind Jewish husband trying to please goyische wife on the first Christmas they’ve celebrated with their kids in their own home.  So he decides to go all out and cook a Christmas dinner, the centerpiece of which is a roast pork loin stuffed with gourmet cubed bacon.  And then he ends up spending the earliest hours of his Christmas morning stricken by flu and hunched over a toilet hurling up said pork loin.

Welcome to my interfaith family Yuletide life.

No doubt, this time of year brings challenges to mixed-faith (or, in your case, mixed-culture) families trying to achieve peace and harmony. It’s worth noting too that many people dread the holidays for other reasons.  Shorter days can activate depressive moods.  Difficult family circumstances can heighten feelings of isolation. And for many reasonable people, the style in which Christmas is generally celebrated these days is like one giant plastic-and-sugar fueled commercial assault.

But each of us must make our own peace with the holiday season.  In my Jewish-Mormon household, we’ve tried some truly unsuccessful tactics—the bacon-stuffed pork loin being the most spectacular. After a few years trying, we’ve found a low-key balance that works for us for now. We do not have a Christmas tree.  We do set out manger scenes along with our menorahs.  Santa does not visit our house, but we do a big Christmas Eve celebration at Grandma’s, and Grandma has stockings for the kids. And whenever possible, as a family, we attend the beautiful 10 p.m. Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal Cathedral in our city’s historically LGBT neighborhood.  Because really, if you want high-class religious festivity, a well-appointed Episcopal Church full of stylish gay folks is the place to be.

This year, your intended will be a guest in your family celebration.  Acknowledge with a wink and a smile that you understand your family is over the top, and graciously acknowledge his efforts to join the celebration.  If he wants to bow out after a few hours, let him go.  More important will be the first year you celebrate the holiday together in your own home.  Go slowly.  Let the full-blown Christmas you grew up with be an “away game” at first.  Honor the sanctity of your shared domestic space and try to keep it a comfortable zone for both spouses. Remember that while it can be entertaining to visit a home that’s festooned with tinsel and twinkle lights from stem to stern, waking up in one every day if Christmas is not your bag is another story.

Now, if you do scale back in your own home in the name of newlywed diplomacy, be prepared for the fact that you may miss Christmas and the familiar around-the-house sights and smells that make the season for you.  Create lots of opportunities to wear those jammies and eat those Danish pancakes and smell spruce at the homes of friends and relatives.  Over time, as your husband gets the hang of Christmas, there might be some of your traditional celebratory elements that he’s happy to welcome into your joint domestic sphere.

But what’s most important is to develop some new traditions unique to the two of you and the family you are starting.  Maybe some holiday do-gooding in the service of a cause you both care about.  Or a favorite food you discover and make together.  Or a wintry sport-type outing.  Something that’s just for the two of you to enjoy.

Over time, he will develop a taste for this strange confabulation that is Christmas, and you will develop a clarifying new perspective on the holiday.  And in that space where his desire to share your joy meets your desire to protect his thoughtfulness, you will create a bright little miracle of your own called happiness.

What about you, readers?  How is this holiday season treating you?  How do you manage the season at home?

Send your queries to askmormongirl@gmail.com, or follow askmormongirl on Twitter.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “My fiancé is new to Christmas. How do I ease him into my Mormon family’s over-the-top holiday style?

  1. Tricia

    I think it’s important to give him permission to take breaks and to leave earlier than you if he needs to. My husband has a rather large family that can be a bit overwhelming. Sometimes just the number and volume can be overwhelming. I step outside, breathe, look at the sky, regroup, and rejoin them when I’m ready — which is typically less than five minutes. The two of you might discuss ways to silently communicate this need to each other and you might even join him for that time. The two of you can out on the porch, hugging and giggling about all the madness inside!

  2. This situation is a little different for me, because I was raised Lutheran and my husband was raised non-practicing Catholic. In our house Christmas as a kid and even now, Christmas was a big deal. As soon as Thanksgiving was over, Christmas is fair game, we’ve got cookies, music, the house is Christmased up to the nines. We got to church on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. My husband’s family on the other hand don’t really celebrate. They have a tree they put up and get donuts for breakfast every year and then everyone goes their own way. It was really hard for me to explain why it was so important to me.

    So, we’ve come to this compromise. First, one church service, not both but we go as a family. Second of all, Christmas Eve is when we do gifts with my family and we celebrate the heck out of Christmas and Christmas day is for relaxing, no waking up at the crack of dawn to head to sunrise service, no big plate breakfasts, just a day to relax and reflect.

    Additionally, we’ve started our own Christmas traditions to make it feel more “ours” by exchanging ornaments each year and no that we have a child we take our daughter to see Santa, which is something he wanted to do when he was a kid and didn’t get to.

  3. R.O. Despain

    Since we don’t celebrate masses and we know that Jesus was born in April, how did Christmas ever become so over-the-top? Assimilationist response to our “allies” in the Religious RIght?

  4. I’ve got some sympathy for the to-be-huband. I have issues celebrating Christmas, part of which is the commercialism, but mainly because of the injustice of Christ’s birthday being placed on a pagan holiday to manipulate pagan peoples when Christ was not born in December. Its taken a few years to figure out how I personally want to celebrate the Christmas season and its still a work in progress. For me its a matter of respect for other people’s traditions and join with them in their celebrations, but be open-minded in what celebrations I want to choose for myself, and then keep an open dialouge with my husband so he feels respected and connected to what is meaningful to him. At this point, our family will be celebrating Christ’s birth in spring, observing the solstice and the celebration of light in the darkness in December, and focusing on the spirit of giving and addressing economic inequality embodied in the legend of Santa Claus.

  5. Bradley

    I have a large family and for some guests and new-found members of the family (i.e. in-laws) it is very overwhelming to be in that situation at the Holidays. I agree that the commercialism of Christmas is a bit ridiculous at times.

    My parents love to decorate with holly, garlands, snowflakes and reds, golds, green and even navy blue (a very pretty Christmas color, at least to me!) There are few, if any, Santa Claus in their home. When my mother has been in charge of ward Christmas parties, she’s chosen to decorate with snowflakes and snowmen and family photos rather than Santa. And there are always mentions of the True Christmas story of the Nativity. In fact, when we were kids, we always knew the real reason for Christmas.

    I think that maybe in your family’s traditions you can put Santa less, decorate in more Christmas neutrals (snowmen, candy canes, etc.), and bring in the Savior a bit more. I think service throughout the year is great, and at Christmas should be no less.

    So maybe you can have him experience your family’s Christmas while bringing in some of HIS ideas of what Christmas should be about. Maybe make some new traditions.

  6. Valerie

    First off, do allow your intended to feel free to tell you when he has had enough visting and would like to leave. NEVER force him to stay and put on a happy face for that is being disengenuous and you don’t want that. Let him decide, giving him the freedom of choice and you be understanding of his feelings. For myself, I can honestly say, that spending to much time with a large family gets to me. I am one who would rather have some peace and quiet then putting up with loud voices, babies crying, kids whining and tired and all the commotion. Good luck and hope you both can enjoy Christmas.

  7. Jason

    You are such a kind and thoughtful woman! I would ask him what he wants. Does he want to observe a very traditional family Christmas this year and see how people do it? I would explain exactly what takes place and then see if he wants to experience it first hand. Then I would really listen to him. If he does want to experience it then let him. He may find that he really enjoys it all. If he only wants to experience part of it or if he later decides that in future years he wants it a little more calm then respect that. The point is inform him and let him make an informed decision and let him know what you personally would like in your own Christmas traditions in the family you are forming together. My wife and I have made several concessions on each others holiday traditions and we now have our own way of doing things and I was surprised at how important it is to them to help other people who do not have the means to have Christmas like we do.

  8. Now the day is done, I’m curious? How did the Big Day come off? Are you still engaged? Your family couldn’t be more enthusiastic than ours, but I relented a bit this year, and only put up about 1/3 rd of the usual. Never missed the 2/3 rds more. Family much more relaxed, so many boxes are going to D. I.

    This year it looks like we won’t even have enough snow for our annual barefoot run at midnight on New Year’s. Sniff. I think we’ll still do it, but wear shoes this time, and keep up the tradition of lighting sparklers to see if we can make it all the way around the house before the sparkler goes out.

    Traditions are fun. We also light a menorah light for each night of Hanukah, so if his background was Jewish, include it. No reason not to…

  9. Anxiously

    Thank you, Joanna, for your thoughtful response, and thanks to all of you for helpful suggestions.

    Christmas went remarkably well. We spent most of Christmas Eve day just the two of us–visiting friends, running last-minute errands, and baking for the big dinner. The meal went off without a hitch, and he graciously fielded many questions from my nieces and nephews, who could not conceal their astonishment at his never having celebrated Christmas before. He raised his eyebrows ever so slightly when, during the nativity reenactment, my three-year-old nephew brought the baby Jesus a toy motorcycle instead of some frankincense, but I think he actually liked watching the kids. He wore the matching PJs, learned a verse of a Christmas carol, and was very careful not to say anything revealing about Santa around the grandkids.

    We decided to spend the first part of Christmas morning alone, exchanging gifts and making those famous Danish pancakes. We later rejoined the family for gifts and church, and overall, things went really well. I think the alone time was helpful, and when he was done being around everybody, we left for a while. And he still got to see a big Christmas in action. He’s already planning his participation in a couple of the bigger traditions for next year. We certainly have a lot to figure out still, but his good and generous heart was able to see the love in my family’s quirky celebration.

    Hope you all had merry Christmases, and best wishes for the new year!

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