Childhood holiday memories can be some of the most vivid.
The giddy anticipation of setting out cookies for Santa. The ruckus of Christmas Day, opening gifts and spending hours with loved ones.
Then, the kids grow up. They have their own families. They want to establish their own holiday traditions.
It’s a balancing act.
But grown children and parents agree: flexibility, compromise and communication are key.
“My advice would be to be flexible and cherish the time that you can spend with as many loved ones and family as you’re able to,” says Travis Farley. “But at the same time, don’t be afraid to start your own traditions with your own family. It’s a balancing act. But it’s worth it if you can balance it all.”
A good fit
Jessi and Travis Farley have their holiday routines down pat.
They’ve been fortunate, the Altoona couple says, to have understanding, flexible parents and schedules that accommodate gatherings on both sides of their family, as well as their own.
“My in-laws are really easy going, and my parents are really easy going,” says Jessi Farley. “Doing stuff on the actual day isn’t as important as getting together.”
Coordinating the holidays is also easier because they live nearby and see each other on a regular basis, she says.
The Farleys spend Christmas morning together with their kids, Beckham, 3, and Norah, 18 months. While opening presents from Santa and their stockings is part of their tradition, they’ve tried not to make that the focus.
“We wanted Santa to be a part of it, but we didn’t want presents to be a huge thing,” says Jessi, whose kids receive many gifts from others in addition to the things she and her husband buy them throughout the year. “We just want God to be the center of Christmas.”
The tradition on Jessi’s side of the family, which includes her three sisters, has been to spend Christmas Day every other year with her parents. On the off years, they get together on New Year’s Day. Jessi and her husband also try to see her grandmother on Christmas Day.
They celebrate with Travis’ family every Christmas Eve, going to church and opening gifts.
The families had already been following the traditions before Jessi and Travis got together. Jessi’s older sisters first established the every-other-year routine, so she and her younger sister followed suit, Jessi says.
Jessi and Travis talked to his family to see what they wanted to do for the holidays, and they decided to keep their Christmas Eve custom intact.
Jessi’s family also has a Christmas Eve ritual, where they go to church and come home to have soup and play games. Jessi vaguely recalls telling her parents she wouldn’t be able to make it because she’d be at her in-laws’.
“I do remember her saying that’s when Travis’ parents celebrate Christmas, so we won’t be at Christmas Eve,” says Annette Sauer, Jessi’s mother. “And I’m like, ‘Well, I understand that.’”
Another change for Sauer has been her daughters asking her if it’s alright for them to open gifts with their own families on Christmas morning before coming to her house, she says. It’s carrying on the tradition her daughters had growing up, where they always opened presents before going to see Sauer’s mother in northeast Iowa.
The holidays have meant a lot of adjustment for Sauer.
“At first, it really bothered me that I had to share my family with other families,” she admits. “But I also understood how important it is to them. The first few Christmases were difficult for me to kind of change that frame of mind that it’s not all about me.”
Sauer understands that, just as she and her husband established holiday rituals for their family, their daughters must now do the same for their own.
It’s a process that requires everyone to be open to change. And it’s a change, Sauer says, that isn’t bad.
“It’s just different,” she says. “You just have to accept that life changes.”
A daughter’s first Christmas
This Christmas will be the first for Jessica and Cole Heitman’s daughter, 7-month-old Zoey.
The Altoona couple has talked somewhat about the holidays, but nothing in-depth, Jessica Heitman says. They know it will be a challenge trying to begin their own traditions with Zoey while also spending time with Jessica’s side of the family, Cole’s mother and his father. Jessica also anticipates more invitations from family and friends who will want to see their daughter.
“I think both Cole and I both feel that Christmas is a very stressful time for us,” Jessica says. “The hardest part is not wanting to let anybody down but still keep the spirit alive of how we were raised and keep those memories going, while also being realistic.
“Starting the traditions with Zoey is priority No. 1 for us right now because we’re not going to get this time back. And now is when traditions start.”
Now, they celebrate early with Jessica’s parents, typically gathering the Tuesday or Wednesday before Christmas, which are Cole’s days off, Jessica says.
They’ll usually have breakfast with Cole’s siblings and his dad the week of Christmas, she says. Christmas Eve and Christmas morning are spent with his siblings and Cole’s mom.
Linda Carnahan, a church organist at Ivy Centennial United Methodist Church in Altoona, plays at two services on Christmas Eve. They attend the first service together, then go home to eat a spaghetti meal she’s made and open presents.
On Christmas morning, she makes egg casserole, and they open up the big gifts.
But Jessica and her family may be tweaking things a little this year so they can begin establishing holiday rituals for Zoey.
That may mean shortening the time at Cole’s mom’s on Christmas Eve so they can get home to put out cookies for Santa, Jessica says. They may also be showing up later for the Christmas morning gathering so the three of them can open gifts and spend time together.
Though they’ve yet to formally talk about their plans with her, Carnahan says no matter what they decide, she’ll be happy just to be able to spend time with them.
“It’s whatever they want to do,” Carnahan says. “I just go with the flow.”
After visiting Cole’s mom on Christmas Day, the couple has been making the four-hour trip to see Jessica’s mom’s side of family in northwest Iowa, spending about four or five hours there before driving back to Altoona.
The trek to see Jessica’s mom’s side of the family goes back to her childhood. The only time she has missed the gathering was last year, when she was a week away from her due date. While it was for the best, it was tough not being there, she says.
While she wants Zoey to experience that celebration, they’ll have to consider factors including the weather, Cole’s work schedule and how Zoey would fare on the long ride, Jessica says. They may end up skipping it this year, or head up there every other year.
Jessica says she isn’t worried or anxious about telling her parents what they decide.
“I really don’t think it’s going to be that hard of a discussion,” she says. “They’re pretty laid back, so I think they would understand.”
An eye to the future with baby on the way
Amber and Matt Moorberg’s baby boy isn’t due until Sept. 16, but they’re already thinking about the impact he’ll have on the upcoming holiday season.
While they grew up with different Christmas traditions — Amber spent it with family in Florida, while Matt was in his hometown of Estherville — being with family was, and still is, a big part of the holidays and their lives.
In the past, they’ve conferred with their families and stretched Christmas over the entire winter break so they could see everyone, Amber says. This year, their biggest concern is making sure that everyone, including themselves, is happy with the plans they make. They’ll be trying to schedule Christmas with Matt’s parents, who are divorced, and with Amber’s family, whose celebration includes going to Disney World on Christmas Day.
The Altoona couple is in the beginning stages of talking with their parents about how things may change as they try to establish traditions with their son. For example, traveling will be more expensive, so the Disney World trip could become an every-other-year event, Matt says.
Whatever they decide, the most important tradition they want to instill with their son is being with family, he says. But, it will take some time to figure it all out.
“It will take probably a couple years of trial and error, and then we’ll see what feels best for everybody,” Matt says. “It’ll take compromise.”