The ways in which we engage with our nearest and dearest and extended family on a regular, perhaps daily, weekly or even annual basis, form the basis of our family traditions and rituals. Traditions that range from ordinary routines and day-to-day activities – think those parents who routinely give their children a hug before leaving for work or school each morning or those high achievers that regularly place notes in lunch boxes – to more elaborate celebration of holidays and special occasions. For example, in honor of my mother (who passed away three years ago), each year on what would have been her birthday, myself and my family go out for dinner to an Indian Restaurant (she really enjoyed Indian food) or my good friend who on Christmas Eve once the children have gone to bed, sits with her husband and together they wrap all of their children and stepchildren’s Christmas gifts and place them under the tree as a surprise for the kids when they wake up the next morning. Sometimes rituals can be smaller and less noticeable to the outside world, say for example how my partner and I always give one another a kiss when we return home every day after work to say hi and reconnect.
Traditions and rituals tend to be things that are purposefully and intentionally repeated in the context of a relationship or a family. They are important because their predictability provides security in our lives. They help to create strong bonds and pave the way for good times and shared memories. Traditions also teach values, have the power to connect generations and assist in passing on cultural and religious heritages. Most importantly traditions help define and communicate our identity within relationships and as a family.
When life conspires against us, forcing family traditions to be broken, edited or altered, it can be hard to cope, to adjust and to accept. Indeed, most of us have no idea exactly how important certain traditions or rituals are to us until they cease to happen or, for one reason or another, they are no longer able to continue in the same way. If anything, within my professional capacity working with separated parents, I have seen first-hand how fiercely parents can fight to keep certain traditions alive, especially in the early stages of divorce and separation when everything else around them might be changing and they feel powerless and that they have no control.
Many families (particularly once children arrive on the scene) have set ways of doing things on and around Christmas and established traditions about anything and everything from where Christmas day is spent to who makes (and possibly even consumes) the eggnog. The holiday season, whilst a time for joy, is a celebration that can bring out the best and the worst in people and in families in general. Holiday stress for stepfamilies however, is like no other. Think about it. If trying to navigate multiple relationships and organize celebrations amongst one or two households is hectic and stressful, imagine trying to coordinate plans and merge traditions across multiple households and families – many of whom may not share the same priorities or values or even know or like one another.
In this way Christmas and holiday traditions have a way of exposing the underlying, hidden complexities of stepfamily life like no other celebration. On-going silent battles and simmering conflicts between co-parents, step-parents and even in-laws can flare up and risk turning into open warfare as adults’ pressure children (or vice versa) about various issues including how much time they will have together, when that time will start and finish, travel plans and sometimes even who gets to give what fantastic gift to whom.
In the early years of stepfamily formation, as members each strive to keep their traditions alive and create or reject new ones, a good bit of positioning can take place between those in the household who are biologically related (say a parent and a child or sibling group) and the stepparent (and perhaps their children) as the outsider or interloper. For those in the household who do not share an established tradition (or for whom that tradition holds little or no meaning) it is easy to feel left out meaning that the identity of the stepfamily can appear somewhat fragmented and confused. If the adults involved are not careful, confusion, loyalty conflicts and issues of loss can easily bubble up and spoil the joy of the holiday season for children and grown-ups alike.
So, given the importance of traditions here are our top 10 suggestions about what you can do to cope and/or to find common ground around family traditions this holiday season:
- Manage expectations. Despite Christmas being on the same date each year, we all seemed surprised by how quickly the holiday season sneaks up on us. Try to clarify well in advance with your partner and with the children what traditions are expected in each household so you and your partner can (together) make decisions about how to manage those expectations.
- Be realistic. If the relationship you and your spouse have with your stepkids’ other parent is tenuous and rocky at the best of times, it pays to temper your expectations and to not expect the holidays to work out just as you hoped (or want them to). The reality is that holiday stress tends not to make people change their personalities, cure incorrigible behavior or improve a bad attitude!
- Do your best not to get caught up in things needing to be the same or celebrated in the same way or at the same time and place as they have always been. Presents can be opened with the same excitement in the afternoon as they can be in the morning. Ham tastes just as good on Boxing Day. Perhaps instead of an annual tradition accept a bi-annual one e.g. if a changeover on Christmas day is difficult and involves significant travel being undertaken by the child consider alternating holidays and years to maintain balance and predictability.
- Be flexible. In the lead up to Christmas if parents and stepparents stubbornly hold their position and refuse to be flexible, all too often battle lines are drawn, pitting parent against parent, adult against child or those biologically related against those that aren’t. This doesn’t solve anything and just tends to make everyone miserable, tense and resentful.
- Rather than bicker over which tradition means more or is more important to whom use it as an opportunity create a new tradition with your stepfamily that is unique, purposeful and holds meaning for those in your household. Creating new traditions or rituals provides good chances for your stepfamily to gain a hold on intimacy. Something one of my friends started the first Christmas she spent with her husband and stepchild was to go to a Christmas tree farm and let her stepson pick and cut down a fresh tree. They now do this each year, as a family, and it has become a must-do for all of them.
- Be sensitive to the individual experiences, perspectives and feelings of all members of your family and realize that mixed reactions are common. For a stepchild, being with mum means not being with dad. Just because everyone in your family always goes to Nana’s for Christmas day lunch, that tradition likely holds little meaning for your new partner and their children, not least because they may not yet have established an emotional tie to your extended family. On the other hand, your spouse may not understand the family ties and traditions of you and your upbringing (especially if you have not told him/her about them – see tip #1).
- Don’t go overboard and take it slow. There’s a temptation in the early years of stepfamily formation to go crazy with traditions and seek to make things perfectly perfect. Let’s face it, there are loads of great traditions and rituals out there and you may have dreamed of doing them all! Don’t fall into that trap. Start slow and pick a few. Family traditions are one of those areas where quality beats quantity every time.
- Make it meaningful. When considering introducing a new tradition, you should first ask yourself, “What’s the purpose of it? What do I hope our children, stepchildren and our family will get out of it?” Do you want to instill a certain family value with the tradition? Perhaps family solidarity, inclusion or unity is what you’re aiming for? The answers to these questions will help ensure you develop meaningful family traditions and not trying to do things for the sake of doing something.
- Unity with your spouse. Bringing family and friends together over the holiday season doesn’t guarantee that everyone is on their best behavior or that everyone will be happy. But what should be guaranteed is that you and your spouse will endeavor to stick together and stick up for one another. If the in-laws or members of extended families, make snide comments, disrespectful remarks or seek to exclude any member of your [step]family, politely speak up and offer your spouse support. Saying nothing implies unity with the person making the offending comment. The best tradition you and your spouse can implement is knowing that you each have one another’s backs.
- Wherever possible, be inclusive, especially if it someone’s first Christmas in this situation or without a loved one. Make sure everyone (be they adult, child or teenager) gets something of what they need or that makes the holiday time special for them.
Established traditions and familiar ways of doing things cannot be ignored or easily dismissed when stepfamilies are forming, especially around the festive holiday period. Newly anointed stepparents quickly discover that finding common ground for family traditions takes time and requires a great deal of flexibility, and sensitivity, particularly from the adults. Remember that even an amicable relationship between households and co-parents, can’t erase sadness over traditions lost and memories from previous family holidays shared prior to divorce and separation and re-partnering occurred. Getting used to new traditions, maybe different food, and being with strangers in unfamiliar homes can be awkward and clumsy at best. Hang in there though. Christmas is but once a year. There are 364 other days available each year and other celebrations such as birthdays, Halloween, and Easter to name a few, to create traditions and memorable moments for you, your partner and your stepkids to share.
We’d love you to share what traditions are important for your stepfamily at this time of the year and how you went about creating them.