Combining Holiday and Family
By Ron L. Deal, M.MFT.
Traditions — sometimes called rituals — refer
to the activities and patterns of interaction that we repeat on
a daily, weekly, or even annual basis. How you greet one another
at the end of the day is a valuable ritual, and just as important
over time as your twenty-year tradition of eating Thanksgiving
dinner at Grandma's house. Traditions are important because they
communicate our identity as family and their predictability provides
security to our lives. When traditions are broken or changed—even
if the change is preferred—something dies inside us. Most
people have no idea how important traditions are to them until
they can't do them anymore. Oh, how we'll fight to keep our traditions
The issue of belonging and family identity is very much tied
to traditions. During the integration years (generally the first
5-7 years), stepfamilies discover a good bit of positioning taking
place between the insiders (those who are biologically related
to one another) and outsiders as individuals try to keep their
traditions alive. Persons who don't share in a given tradition
feel like outsiders and a divided family identity is obvious.
But that's to be expected since the family has not had enough
time to bring people together in harmony. Finding common ground
for traditions over time requires a great deal of flexibility,
particularly from adults. When parents and stepparents refuse
to be flexible, all too often battle lines are drawn pitting insiders
Holiday traditions in particular put co-parent (or ex-spouse)
relationships to the test. If your ex-spouse relationship is rocky
at best, don't expect the holidays to work out just as you hoped.
Yet even the best co-parent relationship characterized by considerate
negotiation regarding time with the children still can't erase
sadness over traditions lost and memories from previous family
holidays. Getting used to new traditions, different food, and
being with strangers in unfamiliar homes is awkward at best.
Holiday experiences open the underlying, hidden dynamics of stepfamily
life. On-going silent battles between co-parents, for example,
often become open battles as parents pressure children regarding
how much time they will have together and how travel plans will
be made. Loyalty conflicts and issues of loss can easily spoil
the joy of the season for children if parents are not careful.
David, an eleven-year-old whom I was counseling, decided it was
just easier to not visit his dad at Christmas one year for a number
of reasons. First, his parents maintained a low-grade battle for
control that demonstrated itself in proposals and counter-proposals
of how David would get to his father's house and for how long.
A second reason related to his stepmother who "wants me to
be part of her family. I don't want to be with her or my stepbrother
when I visit Dad. I just want to be with my dad. Why can't she
just leave us alone?" As usual, my conversations with the
adults in each household revealed their belief that the other
parent was responsible for David not wanting to visit his dad.
Mom blamed Dad; Dad and Stepmom blamed Mom. In truth, it was David
who thought it best to keep the peace, not make his parents negotiate
(which he knew they couldn't do), and avoid feeling intruded upon
by his stepmother when he was with his dad. He just stayed home.
Practical Strategies for Combining Holiday and Family
- Be flexible and make sacrifices. You cannot
make everyone happy all the time. Accepting this truth immediately
takes away the pressure to give everyone what they want. Being
flexible means realizing you can combine, modify, or sacrifice
old traditions during a given year in order to give your stepfamily
opportunity to develop new ones. Set the tone for negotiation
by showing a willingness to sacrifice. If you won't, why should
your children or stepchildren?
- Plan, plan, plan. As a couple, be proactive
in discussing upcoming holiday plans. Determine your preferences
and wishes and what sacrifices you will make on behalf of the
other home. Then, contact the adults in the other home and start
negotiating. If you have three or four homes involved in the
equation, start planning very early.
- Complex stepfamilies may have to be really creative.
Stepfamilies that have children from both adults (complex
stepfamilies) often find themselves pulled in multiple directions
during the holidays. One creative approach is to let each parent
and children spend the holidays with the extended family members
of their choosing. This may lead them to be in different homes
for Easter dinner, yet acknowledges their differing family connections
and honors family traditions. This may be particularly useful
to new stepfamilies. As the stepfamily integrates over time,
the decision to combine holiday activities may be met with less
- Do what you can do and accept what you cannot change.
Work on your co-parental relationship throughout the year so
as to improve your chances of respectful negotiation during
the holidays. But realize that ultimately you cannot control
the other household and you may have to grin and bear it. When
stuck in awkward or tough situations, appeal to difficult family
members with "for your dad's sake, let try to put our differences
aside."(1) Hopefully this will be motivation enough. In
the end, lay what you cannot change at God's feet and go on.
- Maintain the stepping stone of patience as individual
family members grow to accept new traditions. Patience
sounds easy on paper, but in real life it’s a tremendous
challenge. Ask God to help you live out this fruit of the Spirit
- Live and learn. One stepfather found himself
disappointed year after year because his stepson had to be rushed
off to his father's house in the middle of Christmas day. He
was never able to fully enjoy the day with his wife and stepson
because everyone was watching the clock. Eventually he and his
wife proposed a change to her ex. As it turned out, her ex-husband
was also discouraged each Christmas and was open to changing
the visitation agreement. They settled on an alternating arrangement
that gave each home an undisturbed Christmas holiday while the
other home had an undisturbed Thanksgiving holiday. The loss
of togetherness experienced during a given holiday was moderated
by the joy they received during the other.
- Be compassionate regarding your child's preferences
during the holidays. At the same time, teach children
that sacrifices sometimes have to be made to make the new stepfamily
- Daily rituals of connection are important to the integration
process. The small, simple behaviors that families
repeat on a regular basis communicate care and commitment. Hugs
before leaving for school, a special note in a lunch box, Friday
night pizza and a family video, and Sunday dinners with Grandma
are rituals that keep people connected. Biological parents should
strive to keep alive pre-stepfamily rituals of connection while
stepparents work to create new comfortable ones. For example,
a parent will hug children before leaving for work, and the
stepparent may touch them briefly on the arm. A parent may write
an "I love you" note and hide it in a backpack while
the stepparent's note notifies the child of a raise in allowance.
Take advantage of repeated behaviors to communicate care and
develop trust in steprelationships.
Ron L. Deal is President of Successful
Stepfamilies, author of
The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family,
and serves as stepfamily educational consultant to Focus on the
Family. He has appeared on numerous broadcasts, including Focus
on the Family, and conducts stepfamily conferences and ministry
training around the country. He and his wife, Nan, live with their
three boys in Arkansas. Article reprinted with permission.
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