#1359: Sibling’s Christmas Decorations Are Making My Parents Break Down

Dear Captain Awkward,

I (she/her) have a Dad (he/him) and Mom (she her) who value their traditional culture and religion even though they did not raise my sister (she/her) and I to be very religious, i.e. we were allowed to go away to college, I was encouraged not to observe religious dress and they didn’t expect us to participate in daily religious activities (they didn’t either). You could say we were culturally faithful but not pious. They took a lot of crap from relatives who insisted they were making a huge mistake and would end up with kids who have no values or faith.

My sister married a guy who was of our background but even less connected to the culture and religion. My parents welcomed him though I suspect privately they were a bit uncomfortable because he drinks alcohol and has tattoos which are prohibited in the religion. Then my sister put up a Christmas tree (not Christians but her in-laws do Christmas). I happened to be there when they found out and it was like watching my parents take a fist to their face. My sister was their closest child, she could do no wrong in their eyes and they’ve always bent over backwards for her. After being so sure that they could raise us liberally while still upholding the culture and religion, they were devastated. No amount of me reminding them that she doesn’t consider it a religious act or framing it as a decoration has helped. They’ve decided they won’t go to her house until the tree is gone. My mom does daycare for my niece so BIL (he/him) drops the baby off at her house now.

I’ve tried to point out that they may regret this and harm their relationship with their only grandchild once she is old enough to figure out that her paternal grandparents happily celebrate Christmas and drink alcohol with her parents while her maternal grandparents make a stand every December, but they won’t budge. My sister is surprised they are upset and says a tree is no big deal which strains credulity in my opinion. I’m visiting and keep walking in on my mom just sitting silently with tears running down her face and my dad quietly counting the days until he can see niece again on daycare days (he is the only name/word she can say so far, total bff’s). I resent my sister for taking so much over the years (I was not similarly favored) and then so casually throwing us into this chaos. I am annoyed with my parents for not seeing something like this coming considering her husband’s background. Do I keep defending her, comforting them or should I just stay apart like normal?

Never thought I’d miss the days when they were a unit of three + me.


Sometimes the universe sends you a twinkling light display that says “STAY OUT OF IT” and this is one of those times.

I know things are tense right now but this is part of the process of negotiating boundaries. Your parents and your sister have learned some new things about each other’s priorities. Clearly the tree IS a big deal, to both sides. Your parents feel like their culture and religion are being rejected and erased by the omnipresent colonizer holiday, and they are learning the limits of their authority and influence over their formerly obedient child. Your sister wants to assert some “I followed your rules in your house, but I make my own rules in my house” independence and align herself more with how her husband’s family does things. Both parties assumed the other would a) automatically agree with them about everything forever and b) give in already, and nobody knows quite what to do about that now that the truth has been revealed. If either party wants things to be different, it’s perfectly clear what they can do to change it (ignore the tree and visit vs. take it down). But until someone budges, this is how it’s going to be. What do they want more, to teach each other a lesson or to spend time together? Being right can be damn lonely, but either way, it’s not up to you.

The good news is that nothing has been permanently severed here. Your parents are still seeing and caring for their granddaughter and on speaking terms with their son-in-law even though they are upset. The tree is most likely going to come down in a couple of weeks and everybody will be able to resume normal relations without anybody losing face if that’s what they decide.Questions like “how will we explain this to niece when she’s older” and “what will everybody think” are non-urgent side quests. Over time, your small niece will figure out that one set of grandparents really, really, really does not enjoy the trappings of Christmas and be absolutely fine. The relatives who want to judge your parents’ parenting will anyway, so just know that if they’d been incredibly strict and doctrinaire with all of you, everybody would blame that instead.

I think you are very smart and self-aware about how the history of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism is affecting you right now. It’s understandably tempting to enjoy the downfall of The Perfect Daughter a tiny bit while also being irritated that this whole month is going to be All About Her even when she’s not here and all about the $#@! tree even though none of you actually celebrate Christmas. Still, I don’t think there are any advantages for you in getting more involved or trying to mediate a conflict. Your best path is probably one of open, unambiguous retreat. Scripts:

  • “What do I think? I think that if you’ve already explained to [other party] how you feel, that’s about all you can do. I know you love each other very much, and I trust that you’ll figure it out before too long.” 
  • “It’s clear that this is really important to both of you, and I hope you and [other party] can find a way to talk about it that isn’t so painful.” 
  • “What do I think? I think that it’s not my Christmas tree and Sister is not here, so could we talk about something else? How is [massive subject change] going?” 
  • “You never take my advice about anything, so why would you start now? It doesn’t matter what I think.What do you think you’ll do?” 
  • “Nice try, but you could not pay me to get in the middle of this fight. If you need me, Niece and I will be in the other room watching Moana for the 300th time.”
  • You don’t have to pretend a neutrality that you don’t feel. “Jeopardizing [free daycare from trusted family][a close relationship with your favorite daughter] over an awkward centerpiece is not the choice I would have gone with, but it’s not mine to make. I love you and I hope you all figure it out.” 

Make it clear that you won’t be a go-between, and change the subject early and often so that you’re not getting sucked in to giving The Problem Of The Tree even more attention and time. If you live with your parents, it sounds like an excellent time to get out of the house for some long walks or to see other relatives and friends so your parents can cry in peace and you’ll feel less pressure to do something about it.

May this all get resolved before the assorted birds, rings, and milkmaids wreak their terrible vengeance upon the earth (and our ears).