The holidays can be a challenging time for blended families.
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I love the holidays. I mean, really love them. Not, like, love them in a weird overboard-Christmas-hoarder way, but full disclosure, I did bring almost 30 boxes of holiday decorations into my marriage. And to my husband’s chagrin, I can rarely stop myself from adding a bit more every year. I love nothing more than the post-Thanksgiving custom of making a cup of coffee, putting on a fire and holiday music, and decorating away.
But I had to adjust my expectations when Craig and I got married. Not only did we need to navigate the holiday custody schedule and how to coordinate the kids’ Christmas lists with his ex-wife, we had to decide what we wanted our family holiday season to be. Unlike couples who get married and have a few years to themselves before kids are in the picture, we had an instant-family. One with kids who had been doing Christmas with their dad for well on a decade already.
And the holidays can be a time fraught with emotions for kids. What does it mean to have a new stepparent in the picture? Kids may wonder where they fit in and how their previous family traditions will be honored? And for stepparents (at least this one), we are focused on making sure the kids have a good holiday season and feel comfortable with the new family structure, but also wonder how we fit in to the whole picture. Really, it’s just a weird time all around.
Our first Christmas together was shortly after we had gotten engaged and we had a lot of discussions about how to integrate me into their lives and vice versa. As a child of divorce, I knew that as fun as the holiday season can be, it can also be a melancholy reminder that one’s parents are no longer together. Craig and I wanted to make sure the kids enjoyed the holidays, but also had space to adjust to their new reality of an additional parent in their lives.
Establish new traditions for your new family.
We quickly agreed that we should create some customs for our new family unit that they could look forward to each year. But in the same way our family was now blended, our traditions should be, too – so we weren’t going to scratch all previous holiday experiences and start over. We were going to incorporate some old with some new.
We also agreed it was important to provide a comfortable space if the kids wanted to remenisce about years past. It seemed important to honor everyone’s memories as we made new ones together. So we made sure that they knew that I was interested in hearing about what they used to do together so they didn’t feel weird talking about any of it in front of me.
Here are few ideas for family (blended or not) activities that will be remembered for years to come:
Put out holiday decorations together
Whether it is decorating the tree, putting up lights outside or setting up a nativity set, allocate an afternoon to put out the holiday decorations as a family. Last year, our kids got excited about setting up the lighted deer in the front yard and even named them.
So make some hot cocoa, make or buy some holiday cookies (see below), put on the holiday music and go to town. We all know kids can have a limited attention span, so you may end up finishing the decorations yourselves, but the point is that you begin them as a family and enjoy some quality time together.
Okay, I know not everyone is a baker. I am, and I love baking holiday cookies, so this is always top of my list. The reality is that I make cookies, brownies or some kind of dessert with at least one of the kids fairly regularly, and especially around the holidays.
If you aren’t a baker, buy some pre-made dough to roll out and cut out, along with holiday sprinkles and frosting. You could buy a new cookie cutter each year to try with the kids. Or give them one as a stocking stuffer to make some post Christmas cookies. Top shelf baker or first time dabbler, kids appreciate the effort. This can be a time to let loose and see how creative everyone can get with their decorations.
Buy an advent calendar for your new family. Have each child take turns marking the days of the month leading up to Christmas.
It doesn’t have to be fancy and there are lots of options on Amazon alone. We bought this one last year and the kids had fun attaching the magnetic ornaments each day, and even rearranging them sometimes. You could use the same one over and over, or a different one each year. One of my fondest Christmas memories was popping open each day on an advent calendar that held a piece of chocolate behind each day’s tab. Even adults light up at the prospect of daily chocolate, right?
A special seasonal event
One of my favorite holiday traditions growing up was to go to the Nutcracker ballet with my mom each year. Last year, I took one of my stepdaughters and my mom to the Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker, and it started a brand new tradition for us.
It doesn’t have to be the ballet, it could be anything from ice skating, attending a cookie decorating workshop, a light display, or doing community service together. Pick something that your kids will enjoy and that you can all look forward to doing together each year.
A special Christmas ornament for each child
We decided that each year we would pick out a special ornament for each child and earmark it as “theirs,” so that when they grow up and move out on their own they might have some ornaments with meaning to start their own Christmas traditions. The first year we did this, we gave each of them a small picture frame ornament with their names engraved and a photo of them from that year. We got a similar one for us, engraving it with “newlyweds.” If your kids are younger or into crafts, you could even make ornaments like this together.
Blended family holidays (traditional families’ holidays, too!) aren’t all unicorns and rainbows. There are difficult moments, moods, and dynamics to navigate. And you should be open and receptive to talking about any tough feelings the kids may have. But if you can set up a few fun traditions for your new family, it can help the transition to a new family structure and form some great memories for years to come. And if any of your new customs are similar to activities the kids used to do with their biological parents, find a way to put your own twist on it so that it feels new and unique to your new family. You’re not trying to replace any of their previous traditions, but to blend old and new.
This all certainly continues to be a work in progress for us and our kids, but I am hopeful that when they look back on their favorite holiday traditions, some of ours will make the list!