In an ideal world, holidays would bring all families closer together and heal all wounds. Parents, stepparents, ex-spouses, children and grandparents would embrace each other in perfect harmony, and family discord would disappear, at least until after the New Year. Unfortunately, this isn’t an ideal world, and holidays reflect that.

“Holidays are stressful for everyone because we have this image that things should be perfect,” said Margorie Engel, Ph.D., president of the Stepfamily Association of America. “Stepfamilies are not unique in this regard.”

She compares the difficulties of a stepfamily facing the holidays to those of a recently married couple: two families are coming together to form a new entity, and the expectations and pressures are enormous.

Moreover, stepfamilies face the additional stresses of ex-spouses, multiple sets of grandparents, joint custody arrangements and children with divided loyalties. This can present unique challenges around the holidays. Sometimes, just the sheer number of people involved turns holiday gatherings into logistical hurdles.

Limited Time, Unlimited Demands

For Trey Dixon, Christmas typically meant dividing time between his mother and stepfather; his former stepfather, who has remarried; his father’s parents; and four other sets of grandparents formed through various divorces and remarriages. All of these family members lived within a two-hour radius of Trey in southeast Texas, and everyone wanted to see him for Christmas. By the time Trey had a son of his own in 1997, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s was one big road trip.

That was when Trey and his wife, Nancy, learned the importance of saying no. “We realized that if we didn’t draw boundaries, we wouldn’t be able to establish any of our own traditions for our son,” Nancy said. “And, we’d be traveling all the time.” The Dixons began alternating holidays among various relatives and announced that from then on, they would spend Christmas Eve at home — alone.

According to Engel, establishing new traditions is a key part of the stepfamily’s success. “You have to recognize that holidays will be different now no matter what,” she said. “If you try to approach them in the same way you used to, you’re doomed to failure.” She adds that in new stepfamilies especially, there will be a jockeying for position, with each person trying to determine how the holidays will be spent.

Elizabeth Einstein, a former board member of the Stepfamily Association of America, writes in her book, “The Stepfamily: Living, Loving, and Learning,” that part of the solution to this dilemma may be to play up other occasions throughout the year, like birthdays or Halloween, so that the stepfamily isn’t trying to center all of its traditions and rituals around a single holiday. This leaves more room for compromise.

The Reason for the Season

All the traveling and complying with both custody matters and family traditions can make it difficult to focus on the true meaning of the holidays. “We spread ourselves so thin trying to get everyone where they need to be, and we end up diluted,” said Kathy St. Romain, a divorced mother of two who is currently in a long-term relationship. “We don’t get to spend much time together with just us.”

Competitive gift giving also can interfere with focusing on the meaning behind the holiday, as when one parent gives a spectacular gift that the other parent can’t afford — or would never approve.

Engel has seen situations in which there is a disparity between the types of gifts given to biological children or grandchildren and stepchildren or step-grandchildren, and this can be devastating to the children involved. “We recommend that parents or grandparents save this largesse for separate times or birthdays away from the stepfamily environment,” she said.

Grandparents in particular don’t necessarily have to spend the same amount of money on a step-grandchild as a biological grandchild, she says, but they should take into account the feelings of all who will be present when the gifts are open.

If you are blindsided in any way by an unexpected gift, Engel recommends discussing the situation with the child right away. Don’t ignore it or pretend it didn’t happen.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Ultimately, with planning, flexibility and a sturdy sense of humor, any family can learn to enjoy the holidays, even with the presence of nagging imperfections, Engel says. For some kids, there may even be a silver lining. “The kids know that they may not get to have Christmas with Mom and Dad in the same room, but they do get to have three separate Christmases,” St. Romain said. “With all the rough times they’ve been through, I wonder if they see this as a bonus.”

And Engel points out that stepfamilies — and all families — have two powerful tools at their disposal. “Basic courtesy and thoughtfulness — if they exist, then most problems disappear.”