It's easy for me to forget that the holidays can be challenging for blended families. After all, I've been doing the Stepfamily Holiday Shuffle for almost [gulp!] 30 years. My parents divorced when I was 7, and stretching Christmas between their homes was something I was completely used to. Then when my Dad and Stepmom split up when I was in my 20s, I had no problem adjusting my holiday visits to include one more household. So by the time I met my husband and SD, I was an old pro at this holiday schedule balancing act. It was literally second nature. My husband had a harder time incorporating this way of thinking into his holiday mind-set... especially when it meant dealing with my freakishly large extended/blended family. In fact, he is still getting used to it but here's how we've been managed so far...
Be flexible. In order for our holidays to be successful, we have to expand our thinking b-e-y-o-n-d the 24 hour time frame. Christmas simply can not be done on December 25th alone, so visits are planned for the 24th and/or subsequent weekends depending on where we are in the holiday custody schedule. Again, I am used to this concept. My husband is still getting the hang of it. But my SD? C'mon!! What kid doesn't love getting presents, and in our family the gift giving mayhem gives Chanukkah a run for it's money... sometimes lasting well into the new year!
Plan ahead. Lucky for us, my husband and his ex had the foresight to work out a holiday custody schedule ahead of time as part of their divorce agreement. Each year, they alternate who has my SD on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve/Day, New Year's Eve/Day. Halloween is shared with each getting 2 hours to go trick-or-treating. Knowing ahead of time when my SD will be home with us makes planning our holiday visits so much easier. And, a detail which I think is brilliant, the exchange time for Christmas is always 11am on Christmas morning, so Santa has never had to change his schedule. ;) This year is bioMom's turn to have my SD for Thanksgiving, so that means she will be home with us Fri-Sun. A left-over turkey feast is just as good the second time around, IMO, so SD will get a mini-Thanksgiving celebration with us too.
Don't over do it. Not doing too much is also a challenge, especially with all of the steps and ex-steps in my family. We try not to over-book ourselves and keep the kids in mind, especially my SD who often travels over 4 hours to visit her bioMom's family for holiday celebrations. We try to have as many people over our house as we can to cut down on the travelling. And we plan visits with relatives who live further away in the weekends that follow Christmas... oftentimes extending into the new year just to give ourselves and SD a break from too much travel.
Develop your own traditions and memories. We always decorate the Christmas tree together as a family. In the past, that damn tree has sat bare in our living room for days until my SD came home from visiting her Mom. It was so worth it. SD has her own special decorating job -- which is to to hang all the non-breakable ornaments. She knows which ones are "hers" and tackles them with great enthusiasm and last year happily showed her brother how to hang them just right.
In recent years, SD has also expressed an interest in helping me bake my Christmas cookies. I've usually done this alone, when she is visiting her bioMom and when The Boy is napping. It's just easier and much more productive for me to have the kitchen to myself. (I can bang out over 3 dozen butter cookies in an hour!) But I now realize that I'm robbing both my SD and myself of a wonderful bonding experience and a cherished holiday memory. So this year, instead of taking the easy way out, I will share this tradition with her just as my mother did with me. Baking our Christmas cookies is one of my most treasured holiday memories with my Mom. I want my SD to have the same memory... one that she can then share with her own daughter one day.
My husband and I have learned that in order to be successful, holiday expectations have to be tailored to fit custody arrangements and several sets of relatives who all want time with the kids and us. Expectations have to be realistic, and not based on some fantasy. But with a little planning, patience, and a sense of humor we have made it through and created precious memories in the process.