The holidays are fun, but the way they’re celebrated is very personal to each family or individual. If we all imagine what the perfect way to celebrate a particular holiday might be, each of us will have our own unique vision because of our own family’s traditions, background, and beliefs.
Now imagine blending what your family does to mark a special occasion with another family’s interpretation of how to celebrate, and you’ve got a snapshot of what it’s like to navigate holidays with a stepfamily!
Holidays are most meaningful when all of the things we are used to doing are a part of the occasion. We enjoy the repetition and the comfort of treasured rituals, including foods, music, decorations, stories, games, and other activities.
For me, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without my special Christmas dishes that are brought down to serve our holiday feast on. Christmas Eve wouldn’t be the same without sprinkling reindeer food (a mixture of oats and glitter) on our front steps to help Santa’s reindeer find our home. Our home wouldn’t be the same without a stocking for each family member hung above the fireplace. The tree wouldn’t be the same without all of the special handmade ornaments, made throughout the years.
My stepkids were used to having lasagna for Christmas dinner because their mother is Italian. They always played the “find the pickle” game on their Christmas tree. They looked forward to their own ornaments made or collected over the years, and their own stockings saved from years past.
One thing we all had to acknowledge, from the start, was that all of these traditions are beautiful and meaningful. No way of celebrating was better than the other, and there is room for all. Now, there’s no sense in me making a lasagna for Christmas dinner when they will still enjoy this during their mom’s turn to celebrate. I don’t need to duplicate, replace, or overshadow anything she’s doing in her home. I will also let the kids continue to search for pickles in her tree because that’s something she started with them.
Here’s what we have done to help our two families knit together during the holiday season. Some activities are from traditions we have created together, while others incorporate things that each of our families brought into our created family:
Gingerbread houses: the kids love creating a sweet village every year that becomes the centerpiece on our dining room table. I load up with numerous kinds of candies and treats for embellishments (e.g. little pretzel logs for log cabins or woodpiles, mini marshmallows, candy canes, gun drops, candy snowmen, and so on) and let the kids get creative with homes we either construct out of graham crackers and white frosting or store-bought gingerbread house kits.
We have made our gingerbread village since our first Christmas together, and even the teenagers still get excited about making a mess, eating a lot of sugar as they create, and designing something unique. All that time sitting around the table laughing and working together has resulted in some priceless memories and bonding.
Secret Santa: my son and daughter always enjoyed buying or making a small present for each other before we became a blended family. This tradition took on a new twist when we decided to include my stepkids in the exchange, and they all love the mysterious element of surprise as they plot and plan the perfect gift for a sibling who won’t know the identity of their “Santa” until Christmas.
My stepdaughter created a simple form to collect everyone’s requests and preferences. We try to keep the gifts between $10-$12, and we encourage making presents, although we are happy to shop for whatever is needed. Our only rules are that the gift can’t be money, a gift card, or food…it has to be something that required some thought and effort!
Deck the halls: the kids are involved in decorating, we consider the holiday and all of the decorations to be all of ours, and the kids have a greater sense of ownership in the festivities because they helped to make many of the ornaments and in beautifying the home.
Keeping it fair: kids will always make comparisons and easily become competitive about how many presents each one receives. I try very hard to minimize any hard feelings or conflict by keeping the quantity and value of presents as even as possible. The last thing we need is any perceptions that one set of kids received preferential treatment.
The kids all receive very similar treats in their stockings (a lot of hygiene items, a little bit of candy, some small toys, gift cards, and so on) and a similar value of items from Santa (they understand that the younger kids may receive more items because they tend to like things that don’t cost as much as the older kids) and the parents.
Unifying through activities: whether a Christmas movie marathon, trip to the mall to see Santa, a candlelight service or pageant at church, making homemade ornaments, or preparing our holiday meal, we all do it together. We encourage all of the kids to take an active role, to have responsibility, and to experience the fun of the holiday as a family. Even the kids who think they’re too old for Santa or watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer for the 15th year straight manage to have a good time and feel a part of the action.
Not every activity is fun. Shoveling snow, scraping ice off of the cars, or cleaning the bathroom in preparation for Grandma’s visit don’t top anyone’s list of favorite things to do; but, they are all necessary functions to keep our home running, and every member of our household shares an equal responsibility in carrying the load.
There are so many more things a family can do, both big and small, to spread seasonal cheer and form lasting memories and bonds. The holidays can be one of the most successful times of the year to make headway on uniting a stepfamily because there are so many opportunities for fun and excitement. Children will naturally bond over the magic of playing in the snow, sipping hot cocoa while writing letters to Santa, and sharing in the beauty of a lit tree they helped to decorate.
Your efforts to join two families in one home will be promoted by encouraging everyone to join in, treating all the same, recognizing special traditions from the past, and creating new ones together.
Happy Holidays to you all!