By Staff Writer
Over the years, you and your children have developed certain holiday traditions. You may decorate the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving or light the menorah before the kids go to school every day. When you remarry, your partner will want to bring in his or her own traditions, which won’t always mesh with how you and your kids have celebrated the holidays.
Merging two families is not always easy, and holiday traditions are a time when the differences between two families can become more prominent. One family’s idea of celebrating a holiday is very unlikely to be the same as another family’s. But merging two families doesn’t have to mean the end of your own holiday traditions. Susan Davis-Swanson, LCSW, MSW, executive director of The StepFamily Center in Beverly Hills, Calif., offers stepfamilies these tips for celebrating the holidays:
A stepfamily means a lot of new changes to kids - new parents, new house rules, new siblings. Try to leave things you can control, like holiday traditions, as normal as possible, Davis-Swanson suggests. If you are the stepparent, that doesn’t mean throwing all of your holiday traditions out the window. What it does mean is keeping the children’s traditions intact while slowly integrating your own.
Let the kids decorate their Christmas tree the way they’ve always done, and ask them if it’s okay to add some of your own ornaments. Instead of serving a completely new holiday meal to your stepkids, serve them what they are used to eating, and incorporate a new dish or two. Over the years, these small changes will establish new traditions for your new family.
Maintaining all holiday traditions may not always be possible for children of divorced parents or kids in a stepfamily. Too many parents means too many households at which to celebrate each holiday, often leaving kids feeling torn by their loyalty to each of their parents, Davis-Swanson said. “Try not to pull kids in too many directions,” she said. “Try to be flexible and understanding.”
That may mean that you need to get creative. If you want to have your stepchildren at Thanksgiving dinner but they have already promised to eat at their other biological parent’s home, have Thanksgiving on Friday instead of Thursday. Change the day you open presents to Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning.
While the dates of holidays are well-established, when you celebrate them is not. Being flexible and making your stepchildren feel as though you want them there will not only cause them less stress, but will make you all feel like more of a family.
Build New Traditions
Becoming part of a stepfamily doesn’t automatically mean new traditions will begin. “History and traditions take time to build,” said Davis-Swanson. “Realize that you are starting history now that you’re part of the stepfamily, but you need to go a little slowly depending on when you’re coming into the family.”
Over time, your own family history and holiday traditions will become established. These traditions may be a continuation of what existed before your stepfamily was formed, or they may be completely new ones. Either way, it is important for stepparents to not feel slighted or upset if new traditions aren’t established immediately.
Remember that the family that existed before you had a head start forming traditions, and it will take some time for the family that exists with you to establish new ones.
Include the Kids
When you are developing new holiday traditions, be sure to include the children, Davis-Swanson said. “It is important, when developing new traditions, to let everyone have some ownership in them,” she said. Ask the kids what parts of their own holiday traditions they would like to keep and what other things they would like to include.
Integrating your own traditions can also help you and your partner teach the kids respect for other cultures and traditions. For example, if you have a different ethnic heritage than the children, you will bring your own cultural traditions to the holidays. “This helps teach kids respect, acceptance and tolerance,” Davis-Swanson said. “It also teaches them to be open, flexible and welcoming.”
Recognize the Stepparent’s Feelings
Part of merging two families also means making the stepparent feel like part of the family, and not just a participant in traditions that existed before they got there. “The biological parent should want to make their partner feel like an insider, and not just someone on the outside,” Davis-Swanson said.
The biological parent can help integrate the stepparent into the family’s traditions while helping to create new ones. It is the biological parents who can help their children learn to be open and empathic to this new person in their lives, and work toward forming new traditions together.