Holidays in Blended Families: Making Holidays Ties That Bind, not Ties That Break

Kids care more about peace between their parents than they do about holiday scheduling. Do your best to be flexible during holidays in blended families.

Scheduling, Scheduling, Scheduling. What Are We to Do?

Stepfamilies include at least one parent in another household. This fact can make holiday scheduling daunting. Because both mom and dad want to be with their children, tension between ex-spouses over these arrangements can ruin many a holiday for post-divorce children. Most children care much more about peace between their parents than they do about the specifics of holiday scheduling. Do your best to be flexible during holidays in blended families.

Get Creative

Many divorced couples solve the problem by splitting the holiday. Mom has Christmas Eve and morning. Dad has Christmas afternoon and evening. The dilemma is that, for many kids, even one holiday celebration can be overwhelming.

Meltdowns and/or apparently “bad” behavior at holiday times may be a signal that it is all too much. One of the families in my book (Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships) solved this problem by inventing what they called “Chosen Christmas” and “Chosen Thanksgiving.” One parent celebrated the holiday on the actual date. The other chose a time, at least a week later or earlier.

Great Expectations

Holidays are also a time of intense expectation for specialness and togetherness, and for familiar comforting rituals. They can bring equally intense disappointment when these expectations are not met. The hope is that holidays will bring a stepfamily together. However, stepfamilies bring together at least two very different cultures. The differences range from the level of ethnic and religious identity, to the small details of daily living, and celebratory rituals.

It can be very helpful to talk ahead of time about holiday rituals. What are your favorite foods? What is the rhythm of the day? Who is included? Give each person a voice about what’s special to each of you, how you each like to do Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, or Passover, or Thanksgiving. Begin by just listening, not trying to convince each other. Even under the best circumstances, however, the negotiation can be surprisingly intense.

Learning by Goofing

My first husband and I thought we had done a very thorough job of talking with my stepdaughter about our first Christmas together. In the family I grew up in, stockings were filled with oranges and a few simple craft supplies. The idea was for us kids to open and play with early on Christmas morning while my parents slept.

My stepdaughter was accustomed to stockings filled with small wonderful gifts gathered by her aunt, an international banker. In my stepdaughter’s Christmas, stockings were always opened as a family on Christmas Eve.

However, because we had very little money, opening stockings on Christmas Eve would have left very few presents for Christmas morning.

After much discussion, we borrowed a Papernow tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve, and agreed to open our stockings together on Christmas morning. My stepdaughter also taught us how to shop for special stocking-sized gifts.

We were very proud of ourselves. However, despite all of this good work, an hour into our first Christmas morning, my stepdaughter burst into tears and fled upstairs.

This was a distinct surprise. After catching our breath, we figured we had missed something. Sure enough, between sobs my stepdaughter said, “Christmas is in pajamas! It’s always in pajamas! You guys had all your clothes on!” Indeed, my husband and I had gotten up before my stepdaughter, showered and dressed.

The next Christmas, because neither my husband nor I owned pajamas (we both slept in old t-shirts), my stepdaughter allowed us to get dressed. However, we agreed to put bathrobes on over our clothes.

The moral of this story is that stepfamily living, especially early on, is full of what I call, “learning by goofing.” Despite the most careful negotiation, so much of what feels “normal” and “right” no longer has language. “Christmas is in pajamas” probably had never had language until the moment that my husband and I showed up fully dressed!

You Can’t Know Where The Land Mines Are Until You’ve Stepped on One

Especially early on, the most ordinary activities in a stepfamily can suddenly become full of unexpected land mines. This is especially true at holidays. Stepmom happily strings elegant white lights on the tree. Her stepson, accustomed to colored bulbs, bursts into tears, or withdraws to his room.

The intensity of the response can be stunning. However, these details are the threads out of which the fabric of our lives is woven. Especially at holiday time, especially after the losses and multiple transitions of divorce and a new stepfamily, even pulling one more thread can feel too much.

Flexibility and creativity do help. One stepfamily I know hangs one set of stockings on the kids’ doors (the tradition of mom and her kids) and one on the mantle (stepdad’s tradition). They dubbed this, “Santa sees double.”

The bottom line is that becoming a stepfamily is a process, not an event. I often suggest that it is helpful to change the metaphor from “blending” to bringing together a group of Ugandans with a group of Italians. Over time, stepfamilies create more and more shared ground. However, in most thriving stepfamilies, some differences remain.

Published on: December 07, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Patricia Papernow

Dr. Patricia Papernow is widely recognized as one of the world's foremost experts on "blended families" and post-divorce parenting. Her groundbreaking new book, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t is available at amazon and on her web site,

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Great ideas!