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by Natalie Nichols Gillespie

For the last ten years, Christmas Day has been an exercise in controlled chaos in our home. Our stepfamily of two adults and some of our seven children awaken early, “ooh” and “ahh” over Christmas stockings filled with goodies, read the Christmas story, tear into the gifts under the tree, celebrate with some breakfast, and rush out the door to either pick up some of our children or drop some of them off with their other family – all before noon.

Stepfamilies take the busy-ness of the holiday season and compound it—times two. Two sets of parents must find a way to be civil at programs and pageants. Mix in all the grandparents, visiting family and friends, and it can be a recipe for stepfamily disaster. Stepfamilies deal with a number of holiday factors that traditional families never do. Like who gets to have the children on Christmas Eve and wake them up Christmas morning, which family is going to buy the bicycle and where the new bike will reside, and whether a trip to see relatives on mom’s side is appropriate if dad will lose his holiday visitation.

There is hope, however. With plenty of planning ahead, putting others first, and preparing the heart, successful stepfamily holidays can be achieved. Consider these steps to avoid additional “step-stress” this holiday season:

Get Over Getting Stuck in a Rut

Like Tevya learned in the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof, “tradition” sometimes needs to be broken in order to establish something new and equally wonderful. Exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve may have been the way you always did it before, but if the stepfamily needs to exchange on Christmas morning in order for everyone to be there, by all means, create a new tradition.

Stepfamilies need to zero in on what is really important during the holidays: the birth of Christ, giving to others, and creating a sense of closeness for the stepfamily. Those things can be celebrated on December 22 or December 28, if visitation schedules prevent celebrating on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Forget Feeling Left Out

Stepfamily members battle insecurity. Children who lost their original family to death or divorce are uncertain the stepfamily will stick. Stepparents feel used and unappreciated, and parents often end up caught in the middle.

Couples in a stepfamily situation can alleviate some of the insecurity by demonstrating that your couple relationship is healthy and strong. The parent must also support the stepparent, so that the children do not play one off the other. If you disagree on something to do with the kids, take the argument behind closed doors and return when you can present a united front.

Parents should also ensure that gifts are even among the children, whether they live there full time or visit occasionally. Children that live in the home should not receive new bikes and video games, while the visiting children get a few small tokens.

Avoid Acting Out

Holidays are the perfect time for former spouses to develop major conflicts. Be aware of that fact, and don’t walk into arguments. Choose your battles carefully, and give in gracefully when you can. Pre-planning conversations and listing workable options before you place the call can keep you from reacting emotionally.

If attitudes inside your home are the biggest issue, examine your own heart first. Has resentment built up? Do you need to reconcile with your spouse, child, or stepchild? You cannot control someone else’s actions or response, but you can control your own. Get your heart right first, and let God take care of the rest.

Negate the Nitpicking

The holidays may be the time when the house should look pristine, and the family should act perfect. Accept now that it won’t and they won’t, and relax. Hanging Christmas ornaments on the tree with a stepdaughter may be far more important that trying to force that same stepchild to clean the living room. Look for ways to positively build a bond.

If a child opens a new expensive toy 15 minutes before he is scheduled to head out the door to Dad’s, it is only natural that the child will want to take it with him. If you don’t want big, expensive items walking out the door, don’t give them for Christmas. Give them for a birthday, or bring that present out as a “bonus” when the child returns. Otherwise, let it go. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Reassure your children that it is okay to spend time with their other family, even though you will miss them when they are gone. Giving children the freedom to love both of their families is one of the greatest gifts you can give.

Ostracize the Overdoing

Overbooked parents and children mean cranky, stressed out parents and children. Plan your calendar well in advance and limit your activities to the most important, including visiting with extended family, serving others, spending special times as a stepfamily, and creating time for yourselves as a couple.

Decide with your spouse before December rolls around what is realistic for your family in terms of outside commitments. Note visitation days when children will be coming or going, so that you can accommodate time to Christmas shop and build in driving time for the transition between households. Pencil in school Christmas programs and church commitments, and work out plans with the other parents as early as possible. If travel is involved, attempt to lock in details early enough that it is affordable.

With everyone on the same page, stepfamilies can create lasting memories as they celebrate the birth of Christ and successfully enjoy being together.

Natalie Nichols Gillespie is author of The Stepfamily Survival Guide and numerous other books. She serves as managing editor of our bi-monthly E-Newsletter.