We laid a few ghosts from Christmases past to rest this year. Christmas #9 for our blended family was a resounding success. It was not always that way. A time of joy and celebration for my children and I became a nightmarish stress that we all began to dread. It was a big wake up call for me. My kids quite rightly pointed out that Christmas was the one thing their father and I had got right. They loved it. It was the highlight of the year, and something they dragged friends along to so that they too could experience the Christmas joy.
I started our blended family journey filled with dreams and optimism about a wonderful big family who all got on as well as the children did. That was my first mistake. It wasn’t that they didn’t get along, just that there was a very large gap in the family cultures. The way we celebrated Christmas was very different, and me trying to make something that fitted with everyone’s wishes left me a stressed, disappointed mess, and everyone else feeling like they had been cheated of the Christmas they wanted and expected.
It was my mother who made the brave call and set a boundary. She told me she wasn’t going to come to Christmas with my darling’s family any more. She explained it wasn’t about them, or not liking them. It was about her and my step-father being unwilling to embrace creating a new set of family traditions and cultures. They liked the ones we had just fine and were simply not on board with having to feel uncomfortable about someone else’s.
My family are very focused on Christmas being about the food and hanging out. Presents are a very small part of the whole thing. My darling’s family was all about the gifts, and the food, but the food was very different to the food my family prepared. My parents found the amount of gifts exchanged too much. My in-laws hated my cooking, finding it too rich and fancy, to the point of them bringing their own Christmas lunch one year.
I was stuck in the middle trying to find a way to make everyone happy, and failing.
So the boundary set by my mother was a start to a new way of doing family and Christmas. It was awkward, my in-laws were hurt. It didn’t matter how much I tried to explain it wasn’t personal, it was about safeguarding their family traditions, it still felt like a rejection. I get it. It’s not nice to be excluded. The older kids then became more vocal about wanting to retain their traditions from their childhood and it became apparent that my dream of a big happy blended extended family was not the dream of everyone else.
We tried several different incarnations of Christmas, none of them really felt right, until this year.
This year the adult children came down on Christmas Eve eve. Santa came on Christmas Eve morning, so we had a relaxed time to enjoy opening presents. We had Christmas dinner with my parents and all of the 7 children on Christmas Eve. It was a nice relaxed day. We then had Christmas breakfast on Christmas Day with my parents and the 7 children. This was slightly less relaxed, with me losing my shit momentarily about showers, as we tried to get ready for a 9am start. This will need a little fine tuning for next time.
After breakfast, we headed off to the in-laws and had a lovely afternoon and evening with them. My in-laws prepared a lovely meal, in the way they like to do Christmas. Having 7 people in their home was manageable and worked well. Today, Boxing Day, as I reflect on the previous couple of days, I feel as if we all had a good time and finally we have the recipe right.
Creating new traditions is not an easy thing. Expecting people to give up their roles and traditions to accommodate yours doesn’t always work either. I love doing the hosting, but so do my in-laws. This way, we both get to host and shape a Christmas that fits our traditions and family cultures. My kids get their family traditions and also then get to go and spend the rest of the day with their paternal grandparents on what is traditionally their Christmas day with me. They get to experience their whole family, this is something many kids lose over the holidays.
It took my mother stepping up and saying this is not working. It took my kids being miserable and threatening to boycott Christmas. It took me being sick of being disappointed and exhausted from the juggling of competing wants and needs, and failing. From the ashes of Christmases past, we have found a way to celebrate with our step-family dynamics. We have found a way to meet the competing wants and needs, without anyone feeling like they have been disregarded or missed.
We only have the children every second year, we have chosen to do year about. It means I get a year off every second year and we do a mid-Winter Christmas instead. I used to try and do a special Kids Christmas before the actual one on the years the children are with their other parents. It become another obligation and stress for people to try and fit in around an already busy time of year. Doing something mid-Winter means it’s easier to find a time that works.
We do a Secret Santa gift exchange, and Santa comes for all 7 of the children. It cuts down the costs for everyone, but I’m especially mindful of the costs for people as my parents approach retirement and the adult children are responsible for purchasing their own gifts. We each purchase one gift and sit round while each person unwraps. It’s fun, no-one feels like they are missing out and the joy each person gets from one single gift seems to be more than they get from a mound of presents.
I encourage you to reflect on your celebration this year. Look at what worked and what didn’t. Decided whether some brave calls need to be made, and start designing a Christmas that will bring joy and peace for next year. Christmas is not about a single day in the calendar year, it’s about tradition and rituals that create memories of what family is. Let’s make them good ones.