November and December can be stressful times for blended families.  The Norman Rockwell holiday ideal surrounds us, and our favorite traditions inevitably clash with someone else’s.  What is supposed to be a season of gratitude and good cheer can all too easily turn into just another series of arguments.  Every family has to find its own way through the minefields, but I have stumbled across some principles over the years that have been very helpful.

Celebrate the Occasion, not the Day

When I was growing up, we always had a big dinner with the extended family on Thanksgiving Day. As my sister, brother, and I got older, our various interests took us away from home more often on Thanksgiving Day.  Our family gradually shifted the celebration to whichever  day we all could get home.   By the time I got married, our Thanksgiving celebration had morphed into an informal soup and sandwich buffet on the weekend.   That tradition made it easy for us to accommodate my stepsons’ going to their mother’s house on Thanksgiving Day itself.  Best of all, our holiday meal (pre-COVID) included whatever extended family, friends, and neighbors we could corral.  By shifting the day that we celebrate, we not only avoid conflicting schedules, but we are able to include far more friends than we otherwise could.

We’ve done the same thing for Christmas.  My husband grew up in England, and every Christmas Eve we gather with his family and our sons for a traditional meal of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and trifle.  That schedule leaves the boys free to spend Christmas Day with the rest of their family.  It also has created a unique tradition that everyone enjoys far more than trying to cram multiple visits into a single day.

Focus on the point of the occasion, not an artificial time frame.  As one friend told me, “The holiday is whatever day we decide to celebrate.”  Being flexible will give you a lot more freedom and a lot less stress.

Plan Ahead and Have a Plan B

If you have not figured out your schedule for the holidays, do it now.   If you need to accommodate a child’s visit to a biological parent, start communicating sooner rather than later.  Don’t just assume that this year will be the same as last year.  Be certain that everyone knows and has signed off on the plan.

But always have a back-up plan if something goes wrong.  Some of us deal with biological parents who wait until the last minute to make decisions, or who might not follow through on what they originally agreed to do.  Just like the Red Cross has a protocol for disasters, plan what you will do if something falls through.  

Avoid Competition

It is always a temptation to compete with your child’s biological parent, but you need to be particularly on guard this time of year.  It is all too easy to overload a child with presents and material things.  We need to step back and concentrate on building relationships, which is far more important to our children.  

Many years ago, I ran across research showing that experiences make people happier than things.  If we spend time with our children building traditions and creating memories, they will be far happier than if we give them a lot of things.  What is important is not how we stack up against the other adults in our children’s lives, but what relationships we build with them.

Many of my friends have countered the materialistic trend of the season by limiting the number of presents or having the family spend time volunteering with a charity.  My husband and I years ago figured up our total gift budget for our extended family and used it to buy a block of tickets to a holiday concert.  That extended family outing has become a much-loved yearly tradition.  With COVID shutting down live shows this year, we thought that we would have to skip it.  Fortunately, one of our family suggested renting a movie theater just for our group, where we can socially distance, visit with each other, and enjoy a Christmas movie.  That creative twist on our family tradition is exactly the sort of experience that builds lifelong relationships.

Take Care of Yourself

Winter holidays are all about children and families, but do not forget yourself in the rush of taking care of others. Because we celebrate Thanksgiving over the weekend, my husband and I usually spend Thanksgiving Day by ourselves.  We have had a lot of fun coming up with creative ways to spend the day, such as the Indian buffet we discovered that became one of our favorite Thanksgiving memories.  Shifting the schedule for the family not only made life easier for everyone, but gave us the freedom to explore all sorts of options.  Find a way to recharge your batteries and enjoy the relationships that are most important to you.

Holidays can be a big challenge for blended families, and it may be impossible to completely avoid stress.  But if you can focus on building the relationships within your family and be flexible about everything else, you may be surprised at how pleasant the season can be.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.