Congratulations! You have a beautiful new family! Maybe that means you married your love and together you now have a whole passel of kids. Or maybe you just moved in with your significant other and got a new puppy. Maybe an elderly relative or a younger sibling have joined your household. Maybe you’re celebrating for the first time with your chosen family instead of your family of origin.
And now it’s time to have your first Christmas all together! How lovely! How magical!
We all bring a lot of expectation to something as emotionally stacked as the holidays. But often we don’t even know what those expectations are…until we’re bitterly disappointed and angry at the people we love most.
Here are some ways you can make things go more smoothly!
Talk about it BEFORE Christmas Eve
As early as possible, start talking about what the holiday will look like. Ask everyone to share what their most dreamy and magical Christmas would look like.
Then ask what their nightmare scenario would be. For instance, maybe you love to dress up and you picture a beautiful, elegant feast day, everyone done up in their best finery, with twinkly toasts in crystal glasses. And maybe your beloved says that’s their nightmare; what they want is permission to lounge in PJs aaaallllll day and eat cheese and crackers.
(This is not a hypothetical example. When we did this at our house the first time, we discovered some overlap that required some tricky maneuvering. I am SO glad we didn’t discover that on the big day!)
Talk through the things that seem so obvious that of COURSE everyone does them. You might be surprised.
Talk openly about what hopes and dreams you have in terms of gifts: is this the time for that hilarious gag gift from the gift shop? Or is it time for shiny sentimental things in tiny boxes? This will save you much grief.
Discuss whether presents should be surprises, or whether it’s better to share specific requests. Are returns okay, or is that sacrilege?
Who does the cooking and shopping and planning? Who does the cleaning? Who wraps the presents? How do extended family members, friends, coparents, and neighbors fit into the mix?
You’re allowed to “pause” traditions if this isn’t the year for something
Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely if we could do all the magical things the holiday season asks of us forever and ever, amen? If we could make Grandma’s sugar cookie recipe perfectly – no burnt edges!! – every year, for eighteen years running?
And yet. Life happens. Life changes.
We add new people to the mix, our energy levels shift, we have less bandwidth. Our tiny humans get sick, the dog tangles with a skunk, or the deck falls off the side of the house.
Or maybe you’re just tired and worn out because life is hard and complicated and busy.
So in case you need permission or a reminder: you’re allowed to pause a tradition and pick it back up next year. Or in two years even!
If you’re a new family, blending traditions is hard (and that’s normal)
Combining and creating new families is already a challenging (though worthy!) endeavor. The holidays can highlight every difference, and everything can get pressurized. Different traditions, different foods, different approaches to Santa and his … realness.
True story: I wrote The Secret Society Of St. Nicholas after a heartbreaking conversation between one of my new kiddos and her dad, right when we were all in the thick of figuring things out together. If you’ve got a child in your life who’s coming to terms with Santa and his magic, and especially if someone got the news abruptly, this book is for you.
It’s totally normal to encounter some bumps in the road of Christmas when you’re navigating it as a new family.
- Do you do stockings? When are stockings opened? Is there an orange in the stocking?
- Should stockings contain a toothbrush, deodorant, and socks… or diamond earrings?
- When do you open presents – Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?
- Do people open gifts one at a time while everyone watches? Is there a specific order to opening presents?
- What’s the present budget per kid?
- Are kids expected to give each other gifts? To give parents gifts?
- Is there a specific holiday meal? When is it served?
- Do you dress up fancy and festive? Or is it a pajama day?
And on and on and on.
Focus on what matters MOST, and let the rest go
Sometimes it feels impossible to meet everyone’s competing needs, and it actually might be. But as long as everyone gets their MOST important needs met, everyone will be okay.
But don’t assume you know what matters most to your new family members!
Ask them to rate things on a scale of 1 to 10.
This is a holiday adaptation of an incredible communication tool my husband and I use all the time called the “Give A Fork” communication tool – it’s truly life-changing.
Basically, you’ll ask everyone how many “forks” they give about different things so you know where to invest your energy. And if you’re not that excited about any of your current traditions, this can be an opportunity to create new ones.
We use this system with our kids to find out what their “ten forks” holiday traditions and activities are. Each person has a few things that feel so important that it hardly feels like the holiday without them… but often we the parents are wrong about what those things are for which kid!
(It’s like they keep growing or something. Just when I get it all figured out, it changes. The Give-A-Fork system lets me know really clearly what actually matters to them, so I can make that happen and not waste my energy on a bunch of things that are actually less important.)
Don’t forget to include the one or two things that matter most to you, too.
Not every family member is going to absolutely love every holiday tradition immediately; do them anyway
I never tire of singing the praises of our reusable advent calendar of holiday activities. It makes sure everyone gets to do their favorite thing! It acts as a planning and organizing tool for the kids! It helps us celebrate the sweet, tiny moments of the holiday season!
But here’s the secret: Not every kid loves every activity included in the advent calendar. (Which is bound to happen when you have five kids.)
Do our teens loooooove when we pull out the holiday coloring books? No. They grump about it and act too cool … and then ten minutes later they’re quietly invested in finding the right shade of red for Santa’s hat.
Does every member of our family give Frosty The Snowman four stars? They do not. But we’ve watched it every December for five years now and once everyone is settled into the couch, they’re happy to be there.
My point is: Not everybody is going to be equally invested and excited about a given tradition. Don’t let that grumbling stop you. Persevere, dear one! You (and your grumbler) will be glad you did.
Your new family is so beautiful, friend. Blended families, chosen families, evolving families– there are so many ways to love each other, and I am so happy for you.
A beautiful, loving, joyful holiday is possible. Ironically, the more you’re willing to be uncomfortable up front, the more smoothly it is all likely to go! So don’t be afraid to lean into the uncomfortable conversations or ask direct questions early on– it will bring you a much lovelier Christmas season in the end.
I’m wishing you and your family the most joyful, cozy, restful, hilarious time ever. (‘Til next year. When it will be ever better. Promise.)