Hanukkah or Kwanzaa? The only way to trim
holiday angst is to make new traditions and keep some old.
article is re-printed from reMarriage magazine, Fall 08.)
after the long-needled spruce went up in the family room, the trouble
began. The holiday tree was anchored in its stand, but stood bare for
several days. Opinions on decorating styles, it seemed, were anchored
as well, along traditional family lines. As the arguments swirled
over tree decorations, they spilled over into what was the perfect
time to open gifts: Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?
start to this stepfamily’s first Christmas together! Robert and Liz
had married in late fall, and now, just weeks after settling into a
new house, the holidays were upon them. He was widowed with four
children under 12; she was divorced with two teenage daughters.
Although everyone seemed excited about the new family they were
building, the stress created from so many changes was mounting.
were staring straight at their differences, about how holidays were
to be celebrated—and especially how a decorated tree was supposed
to look. In a
Solomon-like moment, the family decided to divide the tree into two
sections, with each group doing their “traditional” things.
first stepfamily holiday decision became a family legend that still
elicits laughter every time they tell it. Over the years, as they
began to feel more like a family, all the members made a commitment
to compromise. Rather than a his
concoction, this stepfamily created their first ours
tree—complete with all
the sentimental items and new acquisitions.
Robert’s older two children remained tied to stringing popcorn and
cranberries and his younger ones insisted on making colorful paper
chains as they always had, those old-fashioned decorations festooned
their side, Liz and her daughters wouldn’t hear of not using the
beautiful ornaments they had collected from their travels. Each shiny
globe evoked happy memories for them. And a new tradition emerged:
selecting that one special ornament during a family vacation. Because
the children had to negotiate which one to buy, their compromises
reflected forward steps on their stepfamily journey.
and traditions are important to all families, but when holidays
arrive, remarried families start with several strikes against them.
Roots are fragile. Happy memories are fading. Stepfamily members
share no common history. Individual traditions may differ vastly and
people cling to them for what they represent; giving them up feels
like yet another loss. The most important thing is to meet them head
on. Acknowledge up front that things are going to be different.
and Liz’s tale is repeated in remarried families everywhere; only
the scenarios differ. Add a multi-ethnic remarriage and the learning
curve grows. Aunt Nina always expects to have the first night of
Hanukkah. Are the stockings hung or laid on the hearth? Where will
the Kwanzaa celebration happen? Will Mom let us borrow the unity up
(Kikombe cha Umoja) or should we get a new one? Whether adopting a
new appreciation for the traditional African celebration of values or
celebrating a totally new holiday, each scenario asks the question:
What will our new stepfamily values be?
holiday itself. Christmas
or Hanukkah? Kwanzaa or Christmas? Both?
Christmas tree. Live or
artificial? Cut down, buy one to plant after the holiday, or return
to a favorite corner stand?
New modern menorah or family heirloom? Handmade tablecloth from your
grandmom or mine?
Dressy or casual?
“What do you mean we’re having turkey? My mom always makes ham
decorated with cherries!”
and gift-giving. One
special expensive item or many smaller gifts? Give to each other or
to charity? When do presents get opened? Robert’s younger children
always awoke to presents in the morning after Santa’s delivery;
Liz’s daughters liked a Christmas Eve ritual so they could sleep
in late. Their compromise was opening packages that the mail carrier
had delivered in the evening, with Santa’s and the rest on
and compromises are there, but working out differences takes advance
planning and time. Waiting to open boxes of “his” and “hers”
ornaments until it’s time to trim the tree is courting trouble.
before the holidays arrive, begin talking about how things were done
in former families—and why. “We always used that menorah because
it once belonged to our great grandmother in Germany.” Perhaps the
decision to get the dreaded artificial tree makes sense when the
other side understands it as a green statement—“to save real
trees.” Discussions about the emotions behind a tradition can start
family members thinking about creative compromises. Sharing
traditions, including the ones that still hold warm memories,
motivates family members to become more sensitive to each others’
ways and needs. There is no “right” or “wrong,” just raw
emotions and long-held beliefs. When it comes to traditions, judging
the other way as “wrong” only hurts feelings and hinders
surprising to realize that traditions sometimes are repeated when, in
reality, they lost their significance long ago. It might not be so
bad to start some new ones.
are never higher than when discussing who gets the kids during the
key holiday moments, whether it’s the annual seder or the Easter
Egg hunt. And nowhere does communication become more critical than
when clarifying visitation schedules during these supposedly “happy”
already complex family situation is multiplied with remarriage, with
stepdads and ex-wives and multiple grandparents all wanting a piece
of the action. Imagine this difficult scenario for young children.
After sharing Christmas Eve with their mother, Fred awakens his
children early because he’s booked them into five 2-hour visits:
breakfast at Grandma Helen’s, snack and gifts at Aunt Betty’s,
Christmas dinner at Grandma and Grandpa Ellstrom’s house, late
afternoon with Fred’s mom before going to supper at Aunt Sarah’s.
Is it any surprise that the children are cranky and tired before they
even get to the last grandma’s house? By that point, they don’t
even care about more presents and have no idea who gave them what
loot. They whine and want to go home. All that chaos and they haven’t
even had their own stepfamily celebration yet!
holidays are emotionally charged, too often what is meant to be a
joyful time becomes more terrible than terrific. A better
stress-reducing solution would be to plan several celebrations so
everyone can truly enjoy each special time. Because December 25 is
merely a calendar date, stretching out the festivities can make them
more meaningful to everyone.
children of divorce deal with many challenges, they aren’t unhappy
about all the extra holiday dinners, presents, and attention they get
from their new extended family, say researchers. According to the
University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr.,
who studied the effects of the extended family on the stepfamily, the
key is how well adults handle the situation. Resolving differences
with their former spouses and refusing to use the children to settle
differences mirror what’s possible in stepfamily living.
you might have to cook an additional turkey or take another day off,
but keeping schedules simple is the secret to a successful holiday.
for Enriching Times
youngsters travel great distances to be with their other parent,
holiday success rests with the adults in both households.
end, the children need to be prepared. Acknowledge their feelings and
let them know you feel good that they can be with their other parent.
Keep any sadness you feel to yourself.
receiving parent needs to help the children feel comfortable with the
transition during this sensitive time. Remember that some
children—especially teenagers—would rather be with familiar
friends and surroundings. Get them involved in the new experience;
avoid treating the kids who don’t live with you year-round as
guests. “Hey, Alex, your dad tells me you make great popcorn balls.
Would you do that for us while you’re here?” Giving them small
responsibilities can make them feel a part of creating the holiday,
too—and more a part of your household.
can be an enriching time for children of remarriage. As youths move
between two families, and many travel to new places, stepchildren may
meet new people and gain new experiences. Teenager Jenifer says she
likes going to her dad’s place in St. John’s the day after
Christmas with her dad and stepmother. “It’s cool because one day
I am out cross-country skiing with my brothers in New York and the
next afternoon I’m out sailing with my dad in the Virgin Islands.”
Like Jenifer, who adapted to not being with her mother the entire
Christmas week, children can learn to become more adaptable and
role models from a greater extended family offer new beliefs,
attitudes, and skills. Jenifer’s father recalls how his own
creative father loved to paint but couldn’t nail a bird house
together. His stepfather’s hobby involved sailing and woodworking.
“Learning all that from him led me to become a carpenter and to
living on a sailboat. It’s great to have a spare dad,” he says.
of us, the holidays are a time of expectations. Unmet ones account
for much of the disappointment, sadness, and postholiday depression
that people in all families experience. An emphasis on planning ahead
and creating realistic holiday expectations will prepare remarried
families to receive the gifts the holidays offer. When hopes and
dreams are balanced with reality, a joyful exchange of sharing old
traditions while making new ones can provide a festive foundation for
the stepfamily’s future. And it just might skirt some of those
Einstein, LMFT, is a
nationally known marriage and family therapist. An award-winning
author and coauthor of a new teach-out-of the box program, Active
Parenting for Stepfamilies,
she trains professionals to work more effectively with stepfamilies.
She lives in Ithaca, New York.