During the holiday season, I am typically addicted to the sappy, predictable, sugary holiday fare that runs 24/7 on the Hallmark Channel that time of year. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, I watch one perfect holiday-themed love story after another, sighing at the snow and the romance and the ease with which all the characters cheerfully handle the holiday drudgery that turns most of us into Grinches.
I really need to stop watching those movies. I really do.
Because we all know that the holidays hardly ever actually resemble a Currier & Ives painting, let alone a Hollywood movie. And when you factor in six kids and two parents trying to figure out how to successfully blend our family traditions, the results are often stressful and sometimes comical.
Maybe there’s a family out there that can pull off their first blended holiday season without an argument or a mishap, but ours is not that family. Definitely not. We love each other. We want to be together. But we also want to kill each other once in a while. That’s just the plain truth.
And because I consider it my duty to help inform those who might follow me of the snares and missteps along this post-divorce path I have taken, I feel obligated to share some of my discoveries. So, purely for your edification, I offer you a list of things that James and I had to negotiate as we celebrated our first holiday season as a blended family:
1. What to stuff the turkey with. He was used to sliced potatoes and bacon, while I favored the more traditional bread stuffing.
2. When to put up the Christmas decorations.
3. Whether to get a live Christmas tree or an artificial one.
4. Whether said Christmas tree should have white lights or colored lights.
5. How much money to spend on each child for Christmas presents.
6. Who should do most of the Christmas present shopping.
7. Whether the Christmas presents from Santa should be wrapped or unwrapped.
8. Whether the whole family should attend church on Christmas Eve or only those who choose to.
9. Whether and how many gifts should be opened on Christmas Eve.
And so on.
Some of these points were more easily agreed upon than others. Surprisingly, the question of how much money to spend on presents was pretty much a non-starter, but James and I worked out the issue of which lights to put on the tree while standing in the garage screaming at each other. Go figure.
What this holiday season taught me about blended families is this: you’ll never know until you try. Most of the things on the list above we could never have anticipated prior to experiencing them this year. I mean, sure you realize that blending families and holiday traditions might be difficult, but I think most of us think about those difficulties in terms of the Big Stuff: how well the children will get along, or whether anyone will feel left out, or if the presents will be just right on Christmas morning. But, like in a marriage, it’s more often the little things that open up the biggest holes. And in a post-divorce relationship, preserving some of your previous traditions, particularly for the sake of the children, can feel more important than you’d ever thought.
I found it interesting that I most easily sacrificed the traditions that Bryce and I had made together and clung fast to the ones my girls and I had constructed since my divorce. Those were important to me — and, I learned, to them — in ways that I hadn’t fully appreciated when we were stumbling along together after the divorce. But what made them special to me was exactly that — we had created those small traditions together, in the midst of our early pain and uncertainty about the future. We three had drawn together and made holiday patterns that felt good and right and reflected us. And those were the ones that I fought over with James. For him, it was the traditions that he’d carried with him from his childhood that he held most dear.
On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily our sense of what the holidays should be dovetailed. It occurred to me that our common values around family and togetherness likely drove those similarities, and that was gratifying to discover. And it was amazing and heartwarming to see the kids all acting like siblings during Christmas break. But I think the best confirmation of how far we have come was delivered by my mom, the day after Christmas, when she said “You all really are a family. No one who sees you all together could doubt it now.”
And, as for me and James, you could say we came through all the frustrations and negotiations and ended up full circle again. Quite literally. Perhaps a bit emotionally bruised from all the high drama of our non-Hollywood holidays, but none the worse for the wear as it turns out. Because on Christmas morning, he surprised me with a beautiful ring that I have not taken off since.
I make no pretense that any of this is easy, because I can’t honestly say that it is. Not for us, anyway. But it has its moments of such pure sweetness and grace that I do not doubt that it is worth it. Even with our struggles to make a family holiday that is uniquely and completely us, even with the arguments and the silences, I would not trade this holiday season for any one that came before it. Sincerely.
So I will continue my journey down this path for another — likely eventful — year. I welcome you to join me in creating my on-going happy ending.
Just don’t expect a Hollywood script.