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This year will be the first Christmas since we've had kids that our family will try to have three Christmas celebrations: one for our own little family, one with my husband's family, and one with mine.

Last year, my youngest son cried through Christmas. He was colicky and my husband was working Christmas day, so we didn't travel to family or join in many festivities ourselves. But this year will be different. We'll be making the rounds to different sides of the family and we'll begin some holiday traditions for our own little family.

Since we're traveling between families, I've been thinking lately of how each family can be like their own country, with their own customs and beliefs and traditions. And often, just as in other countries, the customs in family are established through expectations: expectations for what to give, what to cook, and how to spend time together. And just as in traveling, managing the holidays with different families may be helped by being gracious and managing expectations. But the question becomes how can you manage your own expectations and teach your kids to manage expectations?

As we make preparations for this traveling between families, my mind is cast back to the Christmas before my husband and I had kids when we were living in The Netherlands. It was our first Christmas away from family and since Christmas meant family for us, we kept repeating to each other, "It doesn't feel like Christmas." Obviously for that Christmas, we needed to redefine Christmas. So we decided to do something different and fun and take the train into Germany to go to Cologne's Christmas markets.

And it was what we had hoped. Hot mulled wine poured into mugs, spices rising on the winter air, bells chiming from the church tower, stalls towering with chocolates and other treats. It was a European Christmas, unlike one we'd had before and unlike one we'd have after. It had turned out that redefining Christmas and altering our expectations had given us just the Christmas we needed.

Later that Christmas Day we took the train back into the Netherlands, crossing over the German-Dutch border after the sun sank. Unexpectedly, the train stopped on a stretch of dark, empty track. The doors clicked as they locked shut and our train car went black as the lights were cut. We'd been locked on a train in a foreign country on Christmas night. Things hadn't gone as planned.

Using my book light as a guide, my husband and I scrambled through the empty train cars, toward the front of the train. We found a number to call for help and someone came from the nearest train station to unlock the doors. We had already redefined what Christmas that year would mean to us and it seemed we needed to let it be an entirely different thing now that we were waiting in the cold dark to be let out. With each bit of traveling we did, our expectations needed to be suspended as the day became a new kind of day.  

The holidays can be hard because of the heightened expectations. When there is a special day, there is pressure for it to be special in every way--to have all the trappings you expect and associate with the holiday. It can be hard to accept that Christmas one year may mean being locked on a train in a foreign country. Or that it may mean your husband working and your newborn crying all night.

This year, I'm going to try to remember to be flexible and open to surprises as we travel through our three Christmas celebrations. I'm going to remember how that night after being let off the locked train we walked down the tracks toward the deserted train station. The station still somehow looked festive in the cold night if I chose to see it right: the glowing lights became a beacon in the distance as we walked toward it. Even the stars blinked above.

Kassandra Montag

Parent Storyteller

Kassandra Montag is a fiction writer, award-winning poet, and freelance writer. She enjoys being outdoors, preferably on the banks of the Missouri River with her boys. She lives in Omaha with her husband and two sons. Learn more about Kassandra at ...

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