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Holidays as a Family of Choice

by Sue Hawkes

The holiday season is always lauded as important family time. There are extended-family dinners, gifts to exchange, and cross-country treks to each other’s homes. All in all, this sounds like a wonderful time of year, right? Well, for blended families (who now make up over 50% of US households), spending this time together isn’t so easy. There are schedules to coordinate, feelings to manage and different traditions to somehow join together. The pressure of the holidays is enough for anyone; a step-family holiday can be even more difficult. When my husband and I spent our first holiday season together we were a few months into dating and had three teenagers between us. This led to a few less-than ideal situations, and I promised myself that I would find ways to make our new holiday celebrations truly feel happy and festive.

Nine years later, I’m proud to say our family is bonded and looks forward to our holiday time together every year. It took work from all of us, and now we are truly a chosen family instead of a step-family. Read below for practices to create your own chosen family this season.

Create new traditions: It can be difficult to continue old traditions when your family looks different than it used to. Instead of looking at the past and always comparing how things used to be, do something totally new. One of my favorite holiday traditions was looking at the Macy’s Department Store decorations on its 5th floor. My husband and I took his girls to do this that first holiday, and they did not enjoy it because all they could focus on was the holiday traditions they were no longer doing. Now, we’ve created a new tradition of going to a concert together. It’s always a highlight and something we look forward to every year.

We’ve also created a “Seafood and Sweatpants” night in place of Christmas dinner. When we sat down and were creating new traditions as a family, we discussed what was important to us about celebrating; the kids landed on comfy clothes and really delicious food. Our new tradition was born! Every year we join together in our sweatpants, eat a delicious meal and play games late into the night. There is lots of laughter and the pressure to have a fancy, picture-perfect holiday meal goes away. It’s a little out of the box, but it’s exactly what we want.

Be Open About Your Feelings: The holidays can be a hard time emotionally for everyone and holding it in and pretending to be fine will not make it easier. Talking openly and sharing your feelings will not only address the awkwardness, but also bring you closer in your relationship. Ask for what you need and encourage children to do so as well. This not only helps manage the holiday but is also a great life-skill to model for them.

A few years after my husband and I started dating, I moved into his house. While it seemed a normal progression in the relationship to us, his daughter had been away at college the previous year and took it very hard when she returned home for the summer and I was now living there. Our relationship became strained, and when she returned to college we didn’t speak for a few months. As the holidays came closer, I decided I was not going to go to Christmas celebrations pretending everything was fine. I asked her to come over for a talk and we had a very open conversation about what our relationship would look like and what the underlying problems were. It was tough, but our relationship became much better once we were able to share our feelings and point of views. Happily, we’ve moved on from that period and are now very close. It can be tough to let go of what past holidays looked like and understand that things will never be the same. There is grief associated with this, and that may be especially difficult for children to express. Acknowledge that things are different, and then focus on talking about the new things you can embrace and look forward to.

Don’t Stick to the Day: It can feel important to celebrate the holidays on their “official” calendar day, but really this is just a made-up expectation. It’s who you spend the holidays with that really matters, and that may mean that you celebrate on a different day. For blended families, this is especially common because children may have more than one house to go to on the “official” holiday. Taking the pressure off of splitting the day and needing to make the rounds creates a more enjoyable celebration for everyone. We hold our extended family Christmas get-together the first Sunday in December to ensure that all our family can be there. We also celebrate Christmas as an immediate family on a different day every year. Sometimes it’s December 25, and sometimes it’s December 27. We do this so that the kids don’t feel pressure to cram everything into one day. We find a low-pressure day when we can focus on simply enjoying time together.

In addition to letting go of the importance of celebrating on the official day, remember that every year is different. As much as we’d like them to, the holidays won’t look the same every year. Life happens and those changes impact how we celebrate. Marriages, breakups, births and deaths all impact what our celebrating looks like. Some years might be really different- let it go and embrace what you can.

With the holiday season in full swing, remember to approach all family situations with love. Turning a step-family into a chosen family is difficult work, and also so rewarding. Creating new traditions, communicating openly and managing expectations will help you enjoy a holiday that reflects you and your family as you truly are- blended and beautiful for it. Happy holidays from my chosen family to yours.

Sue HawkesHolidays as a Family of Choice