The modern (and often unorthodox) Christmas family gathering

Yes, it’s all about families - but these days that might mean a day spent with your half-siblings, a former partner, or your ex-stepdad and his new squeeze. Tim Walker meets those who manage to turn their unorthodox set-ups into festive fun
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Indy Lifestyle Online

For lots of people, Christmas means Mum, Dad, Granny and 2.4 children eating turkey, opening presents, watching the EastEnders Special and snapping at each other after one too many brandies. But for an increasing number of families, the festive season is a moment, instead, to tuck into a nut roast with their stepmums, half-brothers or grandad's gay partner. I have been known to spend a deeply enjoyable Christmas week in a house with my father, mother, stepmother and each of their respective mothers, as well as my stepmother's stepfather, two of my four step-siblings and a bunch of other relations, including a cousin who brought along the large blended family that she shares with her second husband. We got on like a house on fire – all 30 of us.

"Christmas can be a tricky time for blended families," says Keren Smedley, author of Who's That Sleeping in My Bed? The Art of Relationships for Grown-ups. "If one parent is left alone, the kids are often racked with guilt. Ideally parents say, 'Fine, let's spend Christmas together'... but there are also all these other half-brothers and sisters, steps and so on. The fantasy people have is that because they fall in love with someone, the children will immediately like each other too. And it doesn't always work like that. If it's a new arrangement, keep Christmas short – don't expect someone to go and happily spend three days with another family if their mother is at home alone."

On the other hand, Smedley goes on, "I know people who very happily spend every child's birthday together, every Christmas together, every school play together. That's what they originally agreed, and they end up doing it every year and enjoying it." As Janet, Amy, Samuel and Sarah (and me) prove, you don't need a conventional cast list to have a happy Christmas.



'Sometimes my stepdad's ex-wife comes along, too'

Amy Burns, 29, Suffolk

My parents divorced when I was four or five. My mum remarried when I was 10, to a guy 15 years her senior, so he's now in his late seventies, but fit as a fiddle. He had three children from his first marriage, and I have three siblings. I also have a half-brother on the other side, because my Dad remarried too – a woman 15 years his junior. My half-brother's grandad is younger than my stepdad... I grew up with all my siblings and step- siblings from the age of 10, in the same house. I'm the second youngest of the seven. Some were at university or still at school so we came and went, but at holiday times we'd all be together. We still all go home for Christmas.

We do all the standard Christmas stuff, but none of us are christened so it's not a religious affair. We also find the presents side of it excessive, so this year we're buying one present for one person each, with a £30 limit. My mum sent a spreadsheet round the other day, with who'll be there on what day, who'll be cooking and who'll be washing up. It's a military operation. Every other year I'm at my Dad's and my 'steps' go to their Mum's. It's always been very smooth. We're quite a liberal, honest and open family. Sometimes my Dad will come along with his new family, and my stepdad's ex-wife will also come along – the three mothers and three fathers all get along. I can't imagine how boring it would be if my parents had stayed together.

I've always thought we're the perfect example of how a big family can really get on despite not being the 2.4 children. We've always got on really well, been on holiday together and stuff. Loads of my family are musicians, and some of them are in a rock band together, called The Lea Shores. They've played the Royal Albert Hall, played with Kasabian and things. The band consists of my real brother, my stepsister, her husband and his twin brother. I play the ukulele; two of my siblings work at Guildhall School of Music; my other sister is in a rock band in America but she's also coming back for Christmas. My stepdad was a woodwind teacher and met my mum when he gave her lessons.



'We love having my ex and his new family to stay'

Sarah Maxwell, 49, Bristol

For every family that can't get on together, there's another family that is bloody well trying. And guess who it's for – the kids, of course! I have a lovely son, and his dad and I split up when he was little. And he's happier at Christmas when his dad's around. For the past few years that's included his dad's new wife and another little boy, his half-brother. When I called my ex-husband to invite them for Christmas this year, I could hear his wife and son cheering in the background, and I was really flattered, because we try very hard to make them feel welcome. My ex-husband's wife wasn't "the other woman". If she had been, it would bring a lot more baggage. She was the last of a long stream. And I have to say she's lovely to have as a guest. When I'm knackered, she cooks!

This will be our fifth Christmas all together. I share a house with my brother and sister, and my other sister comes with her daughters, too. I come from a big family, and I don't like a Christmas dinner that's just four people; it seems too small. I like at least 10. And my ex and his wife fit in. They smoke, so they're not shocked that we have a disgusting spot outside the kitchen where we smoke. And they don't stay long, which is another good thing... All the frightful tension happened long before my ex remarried, but we never had a problem with Christmas, because, like my dad, I always swear by "safety in numbers".

What I've also never understood is the code of behaviour that says I should hate my ex, and that it's mad not to. You have to move on, whether you're a man or a woman. By the time you've got to a certain stage in your break-up you've put up with all kinds of shit, so when your ex settles with someone nice, that's a good thing. When I meet other people who do the same sort of thing at Christmas, they admit it as if it's something weird. But so many children are victims of divorce now, and it makes them miserable. When do we want them to be happy? At Christmas. And if you're both halfway nice people, you'll bend over backwards to make it a nice day for your kid.

All the children get on; there are no fighting stepkids. We don't have the problem of somebody getting pissed and shouting about a 50-year-old grievance, which might happen in a nuclear family. A few new genes in the pool makes a big difference at Christmas. I think it's a depressing time for a lot of people precisely because they're doomed to the nuclear unit. And how awful for children to be shuttled from one place to another. My son's father lives in Scotland, but why should his Christmas be fragmented? It's nice of my ex and his family to schlep down on the train each Christmas. There's a shape to the day – church, presents, lunch, more presents, everybody getting pissed, singing and so on. It's huge fun. We all have a good time, and that's why we do it.



'The children can't see the joins, so why should we make a fuss?'

Janet Fry, 53, Bath

I acquired my stepchildren as teenagers and they're now 37 and 40. I've been married to my husband longer than his ex-wife was – just! The children lived with us; I only got the second-hand ones, I don't have any children of my own. But my stepchildren think they have three grannies – and now they have children of their own. They can't see the joins, and if they can't, then why should we make a fuss? I get on with my husband's ex-wife fine. It always seemed to me that if we wanted everybody to be together at Christmas, rather than people disappearing off around the world to see the other half of the family, we should embrace those people who are elsewhere.

I'm obsessed with Christmas, so we do have a traditional day. There'll be 18 of us this year, from three generations – including a neighbour who'd be on her own otherwise. It's not only generous goodwill; I also believe in having a stranger there to keep the children well-behaved! I have a semi-adopted daughter whose mum died when she was 14. I assumed the role of surrogate mother. She's 22 and I gave her a room in our house about three years ago; she'll be here, too. We've been doing Christmas like this for 15 years or so. And this year my stepdaughter will have her current partner and her ex-partner – who also has a new partner and child – here as well. It was strange to start with, but it's a fantastic way to get brownie points, both karmically and within the family.

My gay brother is having Christmas with his ex-wife and their two children, and his ex-wife's new husband and his ex-mother-in-law. I just think it's what we do in our family. I look at the statistics about step-parents and step-children and broken families, and I'm sure this sort of thing is just going to become more and more normal. You have to reach out to other people. I grew up in a nuclear family with mum, dad and four kids, and everybody screamed at each other throughout the whole season. And there's never so much as a raised voice in this set-up, so maybe people are just on best behaviour, but somehow the tension is defused.



'We're a nomadic family, but this is when we come together'

Samuel Peterson, 32, London

My mother was an anthropologist and my father an archaeologist. I have one sister who's six years older than me. I was born in the US, but when I was eight years old we moved to the Philippines, where I lived part of my childhood with a hunting and gathering tribe on a remote island. When we were in Manila my father's employer would send a suckling pig to the family every Christmas. On Christmas Eve we went to her house, which was a palatial mansion with a professional Santa giving out gifts to all the Filipino kids.

My mother died 12 years ago so I've been the primary host for family events since then. My father and sister are both in the US now, but we're totally nomadic. My sister and I both get homesick, but there's no home to be homesick for. My father lived in the Netherlands for 16 years and we sometimes did Christmas there, or travelled to Germany. Especially since my mother died we've never really done traditional Christmases.

There's part of me that craves the constancy of a traditional Christmas. But I don't know anyone who loves going home for Christmas every year. Most people I know are incredibly stressed by it. I'm not: people with non-traditional lifestyles have an easier "out" – getting to do what they want rather than what they feel they should do due to familial obligation. This year I'm flying back to the US. My father has rented a house for the season in a hippy mecca in Arizona. It's not somewhere that we have any roots. Last year I flew them here and we went to Edinburgh for the holidays.

I regularly spend Christmas with my family, but I had a partner for seven years and we alternated whose family we spent Christmas with. Sometimes we went to with my in-laws in Indiana for a terrible redneck Christmas of tinned ham and tinned peas. My in-laws weren't keen on me – some of them had an issue with me being gay, but mostly it was just that their son, brother or whatever had found a partner. They were used to having him on his own for Christmas, and now there was me, and I brought my Dad and sister, too.

Next year I'm just having loads of my poofy and dykey friends over for Christmas in London. They'll bring all their boyfriends or girlfriends. We did it once before, and one of my friends is a chef – he made a spatchcock turkey, which I'd never seen: you take the giblets and innards and blend them into a meaty, bloody pulp which you mix with the stuffing and smear on the outside of the bird. It looked really hideous. I'm vegetarian now. Turkey still means Christmas to me, but as the years have gone by it sort of repulses me. Each year I think of it less as Christmas lunch and more as a dead bird on the table.

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