Blended Families at Christmas

Our amazing blended-family Christmas

Two young girls longed for their parents, each with new families, to spend Christmas together. The result was an unlikely alliance that, 25 years later, is a strong 'family' group
Bill Heine's blended family
Bill Heine with his family: (back row l-r) Bill, Jane, Peter and Anne, and (front row l-r) Harriet, Olivia, Ezra and Magnus. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
Christmas can be tricky, especially when Mum and Dad no longer live together and both have new families. Where do the "old" children fit in, and how do you pick out the fractured anger and anxiety of the ghosts of Christmas past? There are bound to be winners and losers, enemies and friends.
My friend Peter invited me to dinner with his partner of 14 years, Jane, and their two young children, Harriet and Olivia. I fell in love with Jane and we had a son, Magnus. Peter met Anne and they had a son, Ezra. So this love triangle really involves three families: the original family of Peter, Jane, Harriet and Olivia, the first new family of Jane, me and Magnus, and the second new family of Peter, Anne and Ezra.
How do you crack the problem of Christmas when the kids from the original family want Mum and Dad to be together on the big day? They yearn to have some of the old security and normality back in their lives, if only briefly, by bringing their parents together again. They have been satellite kids for too long, living on the edge. Now they want to be centre stage.
Peter and Anne decided to invite the girls as well as Jane, Magnus and me to a Christmas house party at Anne's place, an old converted Oddfellows Hall in Norfolk. I arrived for a week's visit with an armful of presents and even more questions – "What the hell am I doing here?" "How do I get out of this?" "Who's going to get hurt?" "Why didn't we twig this could be a big, deep disaster?"
I had encountered the same questions before when I erected a whacking great shark's tail crashing through the roof tiles of my house in Oxford without the benefit of planning permission. The battle to keep it there raged for six years, from the council to the courts to the cabinet, and the shark is still there. In contrast to that, this would be a doddle.
By now, we had all settled into new relationships, but these had strains. My son Magnus was two and Peter's partner, Anne, was pregnant with Ezra. There were also the stains from the old relationships that no one could erase. Peter had been jilted by Jane and still had a smouldering, semi-threatening side to his smiles, or did he? I had no idea how deep the cracks went. But Harriet, 12, and Olivia, nine, were delighted, if not manic. They had what they wanted: Mum and Dad together for Christmas. They had got their wish, but at what price?
This kind of Christmas shouldn't have worked. Peter and Anne are Jewish and, on their terms, Christmas should be a non-starter. Jane was the "wayward wife" who had rejected Peter. I was the intruder who had broken up a family. Harriet and Olivia were grieving for a lost father and Magnus, in the middle of the "terrible twos", was, at best, difficult. We were all in various states of suspicion and disturbance.
It was almost a cruel experiment to throw us all together when the mixture might be explosive; and over the past 25 years it has bubbled up at times with odd resentments, bossy parents, and sibling squabbles, but strangely this unlikely alliance has worked and the legacy is that we have grown from three separate family groups into one. Maybe it has happened because we are all survivors and knew we needed each other to "make it", as we all had a stake in the outcome. There was no "them or us" attitude, it was just "us".
On a practical level, we decided to ditch family pressures and share responsibilities. Instead of one woman doing all the cooking, there is little pressure these days because what started with four adults sharing the stove has now turned into four women and four men doing the cooking. It is very laid back. One year we didn't get around to Christmas lunch until 2am on Boxing Day. It is a time to relax and take off old masks or put on new, fun ones.
Walking is also a way of bonding. We've rambled over most paths along the north Norfolk coast and watched flocks of geese turn the orange evening sky purple as they come in to land at Holkham beach. Under the squawking and honking sounds, we have gossiped and whispered about disappointments, hopes and betrayals, mostly outside the extended family, but sometimes inside it. We have found a way of holding each other together. We haven't forgotten our own, sometimes bitter, back stories, but we just don't let them get in the way any more.
Fear can also bring people together. Oddfellows Hall is on the edge of the forest at Holkham Hall and from the start we recycled dead wood from the forest to our fireplace, very old, lichen-encrusted, gnarled limbs only, of course. We have all done it. One night, Anne and Jane and the girls went out with torches to gather firewood. A gamekeeper with a gruff northern accent and a dog leaped out and told them: "Leave and don't come back." It was very menacing. Fortunately, they had almost filled the car boot with firewood and drove off, but the experience helped the group to hug each other around the fire ... and laugh later.
This was in contrast to all those dark nights when we had walked in the snow through the tall trees of Holkham forest looking for owls, never worrying about our safety. After this we did, but that didn't deter us.
Over the years, our group has expanded to include a granny, a sister, cousins and assorted friends and lovers, even a parrot called Rembrandt. And the length of Christmas, at least ours, is elastic and runs for two weeks some years.
We've also widened the celebrations where we all get together to include birthdays, Mother's Day and, more controversially, Father's Day, when all four kids recently decided to ambush the two fathers and hold a contest to find out which father knew more about all four children. They then turned the tables, acted as judges, took a vote and selected the "better father". It was agonising to find out how little you know about your kids; and I say "your kids" because I feel like a father to all four of them, and so does Peter.
Over the years, Christmas has changed for us. In the early days, the table was always lit by a beautiful silver candelabra brought by Anne's Jewish grandparents when they fled from Russia on foot and carried it over the Carpathian mountains. When she started to explore more precisely her Jewishness and roots, it disappeared – not exactly appropriate for Christmas.
In the age of the internet, the presents have changed from statements to tweets. In the beginning, we wanted to reassure each other and bought big presents. Now the gifts are mostly culled over the year from Oxfam shops, jumble sales and car boots, or they are handmade. Jane is a potter, and each of us by now has almost a full dinner set.
This strange celebration of Christmas tends to end on New Year's Eve. We light Chinese lanterns and send them into the sky. It's the closest thing to a sacred moment, when we offer something to the air, watch it bounce about tentatively and then take off, flying higher and higher.
It somehow lifts the spirits, but we stand with shoulders hunched and well wishes as this little light goes with the wind. We know it's delicate. We don't know where it's going, but we all hope it won't come crashing down in flames and disaster, although it could. Maybe that's the secret: we know and yet we still go with it. Long may the delicacy be as robust as it is.
The Hunting of the Shark by Bill Heine is published by OxfordFolio, £14.99