Written by JM Randolph, the Accidental Stepmom
There are two kinds of traditions: intentional and accidental. I believe that every family should have both. Accidental ones take care of themselves; you really don’t have to worry about them. Anybody who performs just one tipsy, alternate rendition of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas discovers soon enough that they’ve signed up for life.
However, intentional traditions in a blended family can be a minefield. When you start your own family from scratch, you get to set the traditions from the beginning. When you step into someone else’s family, your ideas may or may not fly. Everyone arrives with their own set of beliefs and agenda about how to properly celebrate a holiday. (Have you seen Marney’s Thanksgiving Letter?) Kids, especially teens, tend to keep these rules secret…right up to the point when someone unknowingly breaks one of them.
I grew up with rich holiday traditions, particularly for Christmas. All through December we made cookies, went to church, sang carols, opened Advent calendars and were visited by the elves. Yes, long before the Elf on the Shelf, the elves hung out at my house. They brought little gifts when they caught us being good. When we were acting out, my mother would say, “The elves are watching!” and look around the room. For the longest time, I thought the elves were a pair of German beer steins.
I introduced the elves to my stepkids just after the first Thanksgiving we had together as a family. They accepted them without question. Other attempts to share my traditions have had different results.
Getting them interested in baking Christmas cookies has been like trying to spark an interest in cleaning grout. It is significant to note that four-fifths of these kids also don’t like peanut butter or pie; you can never entirely let your guard down around kids like that. They much prefer store-bought sweets laden with chemicals. When I bake, I end up with a pile of amazing cookies that, once again, only my husband and I will eat, creating the need for what I call January Pants.
When I was a child, we opened one gift on Christmas Eve just before bed: the “toe” of the stocking, i.e., the biggest of the little presents. Never in a hundred years would I have dreamed that a kid would resist this concept, but I had two who did. That whole not liking peanut butter and pie thing should have tipped me off. Of course, this first year, I had five identical gifts chosen. I improvised on the spot for three different gifts, so as to keep the peace and not reveal that particular surprise early for the two who were opting out.
Sometimes you make traditions by taking them away first. My husband made Yorkshire pudding for Christmas dinner every year but none of the kids would touch it. After three years, he gave up. The next year, the kids all asked, “Where’s the Yorkshire pudding?” One year of it being gone made it everyone’s favorite dish.
My favorite traditions are happy accidents. One Christmas Eve when we couldn’t agree on church, we drove around the neighborhood looking at all the decorations. Suddenly we saw, very clearly, a family obliviously eating dinner in their dining room while a Santa was trying with some difficulty to get in their sliding glass back door. Now we have a Christmas Eve tradition of trying to catch Santa breaking into someone’s house.
If you can let go of needing holidays to play out in a specific way, you’ll open yourself up to a lot of light and laughter.
JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey with her family and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.