The holidays conjure up picture perfect Normal Rockwell images complete with laughing children, large feasts, and merriness galore. However, holidays can be one of the most chaotic issues for stepfamilies. What was perhaps at one time an enjoyable and relaxing family time is now that time of year fraught with anxiety and false expectations. Travel plans are up in the air. Parents must switch their custodial patterns. Finances are tight.
Yet, holidays need not suffer our all-encompassing time and grief to stave off the upcoming battles. Instead, start with these tips for stepfamily holiday success.
1. Lower expectations:
Daily life comes with stress and strife. Why do we expect anything different from holidays? It seems every year we continue to romanticize the holidays and insist that this year will live up to the pre-conceived images portrayed by the media. Don’t buy into it. Families are not perfect and, therefore, cannot be expected to satisfy the standards we set for them.
Just as we learn to manage daily stressors with planning, we can do the same with holiday stressors. Don’t overdo it. Live within your abilities. Determine what is important to you. I have been known to prepare quiche early on Christmas morning then turn around and prepare dinner for 30 that afternoon. My family is just as happy to eat store-bought cinnamon rolls and save their appetites for the afternoon feast, which now merely includes hearty soups and heavy appetizers for 30. Lesson learned! These days my plans include sleeping in on Christmas morning so that I can relax and enjoy Christmas too instead of attempting to fulfill expectations that only existed in my mind.
2. Practice the art of cooperation:
Custodial arrangements and overspending on gifts are often major areas for discord during the holidays. Coordination with the other home is paramount. Truly. Courts will assign holidays in some parenting plans, which can be helpful. For those with more flexible arrangements, it’s important to listen to the children. Don’t become fixated on days and times. After all, Thanksgiving Day is not the only day during which we can be thankful! The point of the holiday is the opportunity to spend time with family and friends, enjoying one another and embracing a shared experience. Holidays are not celebrations when they are combative and angst-ridden. Fight your battles another day. For today, put your residual feelings aside and put the children first.
In addition, apprehension over family finances during this time of year is not unusual. Child support commitments in addition to family gift-giving can impair many families’ finances. Be wary of the desire to compete with the other household. Teaching the children the importance of the holiday at hand takes precedence over the desire to out-do the other household. Consider it an opportunity to practice the adage, “Your children need your presence more than your presents.” After all, parenting is not a popularity contest. Therefore, attempt to collaborate with the other household instead of compete.
3. Include old traditions:
When children are faced with the formulation of a new family unit, they often feel incomplete. While they may be glad to be enjoying time with dad, they are missing time with mom. By incorporating some of their biological family traditions into your own holiday, you will be able to assure them that you recognize that they miss their other parent and the family that was left behind.
For example, my husband kept his children’s childhood Christmas stockings. Each year, I display them on the downstairs mantel and fill them just as Santa would. It’s my way of including a tradition that was important to their childhood memories of their mom and dad. While I make no attempts to recreate their past, I embrace it and encourage them to as well.
4. Establish new traditions:
Creating a holiday tradition as a stepfamily is one way to draw people together and build a shared history. If we share a tradition, we share an experience. Those with shared experiences have a bond. And I think we can all agree that bonding is the goal for every stepfamily, no matter how long or what path it takes.
The personalities of the children involved will dictate what kind of traditions will stand the test of time in your home. But be willing to entertain different options until something “sticks.” Our first Christmas as an official stepfamily, we wanted to celebrate big. We live in a traditional Williamsburg-style home that seemed perfect for a 20-foot artificial tree in the living room! It was perfect for about three years and then it became exhausting. Now, we gather when the kids come home from school and make an evening of finding our fresh-cut Christmas tree at the local farmers’ market. It’s a tradition that fits into our family lifestyle better than the massive, heart-stopping White House version of a Christmas tree.
As parents, whether, biological, step, foster or blended, we have a responsibility to ensure that the holidays, either faith-based or secular, are an uncomplicated and enjoyable experience for those children in our care. By engaging in these few simple rules, holidays can become an experience you treasure during a frenzied season.
IDEAS FOR HOLIDAY TRADITIONS:
- Elf on a Shelf
- Hanukkah Helper
- Ornament making party
- Tree decorating party
- Potato Latke Top Chef contest
- Make a gingerbread house
- Create a family newsletter
- Christmas Eve candlelight service
- Play dreidel games
- Holiday movie night
- Special holiday dinner/favorite dish
- Wrapping party
- Adopt an “angel” from a local charity
- Storytelling contest
- Hang the mistletoe
- Make reindeer food
- Advent calendar
- Decorate stockings
- Christmas pancakes