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Keep the Peace: Planning the Stepfamily's Holidays

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I Kid You Not!

Our holiday rituals usually are associated with an image of an intact, first-marriage nuclear family. When their family doesn't match the image of what a family should be, stepfamily members may feel disappointed, left out, or even embarrassed.

It's the Little Things

“But we always open our presents in the morning!” “What? No pot roast on Hanukkah? And we always eat sour cream, not apple sauce, with the latkes!” Sometimes life is lived in the details, and it's the absence of tinsel on the tree or not having the dog around to sneak the turkey skin that makes people most painfully aware that there have been major changes in their lives.

“Superficialities take on symbolic meanings at holidays. Solutions that can please both sides are a good bet,” writes Cherie Burns in her book, Stepmotherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked. To go for the give and take, and to try to create solutions that will satisfy the soul of each family member yet move the stepfamily into the future, people have to understand which details really resonate for them.

Understanding and re-creating are two different things. Many times it is inappropriate to try to re-create somebody else's ritual. “I'd never thought about it, but the first time it was Valentine's Day morning and my parents weren't standing together over my bed serenading me with `Let Me Call You Sweetheart' was the moment I realized that my mom was really dead, and that nothing was ever going to be the same,” says John, whose father remarried the next winter. “I'm totally glad my stepmom didn't try to do that with my dad; I would have lost it.”

The loss of holiday rituals is something to mourn, and it takes time—and probably a few holidays without the ritual—to fully heal.

Stepping Stones

When your family fights over holiday customs, problem-solve by mixing and matching: one of yours, one of mine, one of little Joey's, and three new ones that we've never done before!

You'll do best if you discuss holiday plans ahead of time and include everybody's input. Negotiating a family holiday is a big reminder that there are other people involved in your family, each of them deeply wedded to their own traditions. Time for a family meeting! Here are some suggestions and advice for revamping the holidays for your new stepfamily.

  • Plan ahead. Don't let expectations go unspoken, or otherwise somebody will be doomed to disappointment. If your partner has converted to Judaism and the kids think Santa's coming and he's not, you've got a big problem on your hands.
  • The first few years, try to lower your expectations. Get real Zen about it and expect nothing.
  • Don't assume holidays will be calm and peaceful if daily life is full of strife. There's no holiday from mixed feelings, and you can't force fun, gaiety, and family spirit.
  • Don't expect holidays to be as they were in the past. Also be aware that the loss of the old ways of doing things is a disappointment for the kids, as well as for you.
  • Discuss how holidays used to be for each of you, and have each person define which rituals are most important to them. This can be hard to hear (especially if you're having some troubles coping with your partner's ex), but it's very important. Incorporate into your holidays a few of these important old rituals.
  • The winter holidays are traditionally a time of family togetherness. You and your partner can have some private time, too (eggnog and a hot time in front of a hotter fire), but always take the stepkids into consideration.
  • Acknowledge that you are starting from scratch. There is something exciting about having the opportunity to create holidays as you'd like them to be. Then create a few new family rituals, things that none of you has done before. Aim for creating your own holiday spirit (with additions) and welcoming kids into it.
  • Don't try to re-create somebody else's rituals. You can't make it as it was, you don't want it as it was (because that was before you!), and you'll only make people unhappy if you try. It will backfire, I guarantee it.
  • Be flexible and encourage flexibility.
  • If things are really tense, don't force get-togethers, or minimize the amount of time spent together.
  • Remember to celebrate. You are a real family.

Ease into It

Holidays are most enjoyable when the stress is less. Take the pace down a notch. Make it easy on yourself. Instead of cooking a huge meal, go out to dinner. If you're cooking at home, have everybody pitch in. Having several people agonize over whether the turkey is done or whether the little red thing that pops out is broken fosters a sense of togetherness between them. They'll have a shared sense of accomplishment, and sharing the work load will reduce the resentment load. Hallelujah!

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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