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Thanks, Thanksgiving, Christmas

September 22, 2010

First of all, thank you for commenting and emailing advice and offers of help in response to my last post.  I have forwarded your emails and she has read your comments; if anyone who has not yet chimed in would like to offer support, please contact me directly and I will pass the information along to my reader.  She, for her part, has asked me to thank you all for taking the time to respond, and for being so generous and helpful.  I am going to take the post down in a day or two (per her request), so if you have no idea what I’m talking about, please go read and respond if you can.

Divorce is so scary and makes you so crazy that anything–even a message from a stranger–can feel like a benediction.  So, again, many many thanks.

Changing the subject abruptly:

For both years since the separation, it simply worked out that the children spent Thanksgiving (a not-terribly-emotionally-fraught holiday, especially since neither my ex-husband nor I have family in the area) with me. Christmas, however, we took pains to arrange, meaning that the kids spent it with both of us–partly in turns, and partly all together.  It was, to my mind, awful.  I hated every minute of our enforced (and artificial) faux-cheerful togetherness. And I am loath to let the hobbled, halfassed holiday we’ve patched together since our separation become a tradition of its own, which I fear it will if we repeat it for a third time.  However, I am not sure what to do instead.

I am a hopeless sap about Christmas.  When I was a kid, I invented all manner of rituals for my rapt, easily entertained younger sister and brother.  We made our own Advent calendars and read Christmas books well in advance of the Big Day.  I had definite (you might say rigid) notions involving the proper way to decorate the tree, and there were traditions one simply didn’t mess with: We always opened a single present on Christmas Eve, for instance, and agonized for weeks over which one made the final cut.  On Christmas Eve Day, we spent hours sledding or running amok, so we’d be tired enough to sleep all crammed into my bed, singing every carol we knew in the dark.  Pretty much the entire month of December was given over to anticipation and preparation–I played Christmas records on my portable record player incessantly, fiddled with the placement of various ornaments, rearranged the presents under the tree.  Christmas day itself had rules, too:  first the stockings, then a long, exquisitely torturous ceremonial breakfast, and then–and ONLY then–the presents under the tree.

Right, so maybe “hopeless sap” should be replaced by “fascist”, I don’t know.  Anyway.  I have definite notions about how Christmas should be celebrated.

When we got married and had a baby of our own, though we lived near my ex-husband’s family and far away from mine, I imported my childhood Christmas traditions wholesale.  My ex, who is quite easygoing about that sort of thing, was content to play along.  Of course, I didn’t adhere strictly to outdated notions–we seem to have ditched the homemade Advent calendars and moved on to gingerbread houses (an excellent swap, by the way, which proves beyond any doubt that I am nothing if not flexible.) However, I love the sameness and coziness of certain traditions, and would find it very hard to spend part (or god forbid, ALL) of Christmas without the children.

So this was my logic for the last two years.  Preserve the family rituals–which meant we all had to show up.  I honestly don’t remember that first year very well.  Last year, my ex came over on Christmas Eve, left at bedtime, and reappeared first thing in the morning (we called his cell before we even went downstairs, and met him by the fireplace to attack the stockings.)  Breakfast was cooked and eaten and cleaned up; the presents under the tree were opened, and then…well, then it all kind of fizzled.  I was wildly tense both times.  My ex-husband seemed equally miserable, and was eager to distance himself from certain customs (in our family, Santa brings stockings to the kids, but the parents make stockings for each other.  He kind of dropped the ball on that one.  And last year I slipped a present under the tree for him, and he looked embarrassed when he opened it, mumbling that he was sorry not to have anything for me.)

So, the sad fact is this:  Traditions, no matter how cozy and charming, mean exactly nothing without good will.  Without–say it!–the necessary love to prop them up.  And no matter how well I get along with my ex, I don’t love him, nor he me, any more.  It’s awful to spend the day as a family when you do not feel familial.  It’s worse, I think, than spending the day apart.  The latter may be lonely, but at least it’s honest.

Last year was a wretched simulacrum, a sad echo of previous Christmases, not helped by the fact that my younger son woke up with a stomach bug (though it certainly made it less wrenching when I handed  them off to my ex after breakfast.  Off you go, darlings!  Don’t forget your bucket for the car!)  We went through the motions, certainly, but it felt teeth-grindingly false.

A week or so ago my ex emailed me to say that his mother and stepfather were going to be in town from the 23rd to the afternoon of the 25th of December.  I know they would have me over if I wanted to come. (The Dream Cottage!  Decked in boughs of holly!)  But I quail at the thought.  On the other hand, my god, no Christmas Eve?  No stockings, no single, carefully chosen present, no carols by the fire, no cookies and milk and notes for Santa Claus, no ceremonial breakfast the following morning?  Nothing till the afternoon of Christmas day, when my kids could come back to me?

I could, of course, just do the whole thing again, a day late.  Probably they’d like that–it’s the secret every kid with divorced parents knows.  The more holidays with separated family members, the merrier.  I could petition for part of the holiday–say, Christmas Eve up to a point, and Christmas day after a point.  I could do lots of things.  What’s got me thinking is this:  If I handle this correctly, it’s the perfect segue into separate-but-equal holidays–which is something I earnestly desire.  I don’t want to pretend we’re all a family on Christmas (or any other day, really) any more.  I don’t want the kids to get used to it, and I don’t want to do it any more.  If I give this one to my ex, then I can legitimately claim it’s my turn next year.  And thus a new regime will commence.

So, I’m craftily weighing my options.  It may be worth it–an unobtrusive, subtle way to slip out of what’s shaping up to be an untenable tradition.  What, dear readers, do you think I should suggest–both to the children, and to their father?  My out-laws, as I said, leave on Christmas afternoon to fly to Europe.  Can I pull this off, and if I do choose to throw the babies out with the eggnog, how can I stave off sadness if I’m left hanging my stocking, singing my carols, opening my single precious present, all alone?

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2010 9:30 am

    I discovered when I was in the Peace Corps that if I’m not in the same surroundings that have held the traditions, the traditions no longer rule me. Let the ex have the kids for Christmas (it will be a relief to all of you) and do something totally, radically different. Go to the beach, or the movies. Serve Christmas dinner to the elderly at the senior center. Be a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army. Anything that gets you away from the tree and the this-is-how-it-should-be trappings. Who knows? Maybe you’ll like these new traditions even more.

  2. September 23, 2010 10:05 am

    My favorite ever xmas eve was spent at a Waffle House en route to my husband’s family a few years ago. Inclement weather, planes cancelled, I was pregnant and cranky and I really hate Waffle House. But it turned out to be a high point, though it lacked carols, that one early present, and eggnog. Mostly it was great because there was bacon.

    Maybe you need one of those diagrams that show if this then do that: if you are alone on xmas eve, buy a thick book you’ve been wanting to read forever and snuggle on the couch with a cat (dog?). If you have your kiddos, do your usual fabulous holiday tradition. If you’re with your boyfriend and his family, make new traditions. If you’re with your ex… nah, don’t put him in the diagram. Do find new ways to celebrate peace and love for your family, and yourself. You can always go to Waffle House and find joy among the people eating their xmas eve dinner between the sticky spots!

  3. Camilla permalink
    September 23, 2010 10:10 am

    So what would your kids actually like? Are they Christmas-crazed the way you were as a kid, or just all about the presents?

    The years I was nine and ten (after my dad died) my mother and I did one Christmas at Aunt and Uncle’s house, the other at Granny’s house (each place a plane ride away). The year after that, my mother gave me the choice… I still didn’t get to keep many elements of our own traditions, but I made a choice based on genuine preference, and was grateful for it. (It was a close choice, too – both locations were fabulous – but it would’ve hurt when granny ruled against gingerbread, had I not had the choice to be there.)

    I get that you can’t give them the choice I had, but given a list of traditions, they might be able to rank them. Choices make everything more palatable, right? You would be able to let go of the “one present the night before” deal, if you knew the kids ranked it behind “fresh muffins for breakfast.”

  4. Jen permalink
    September 23, 2010 11:18 am

    I’m really not sure how to stave off the sadness of being left hanging your stocking, singing your carols, opening your single precious present, all alone. I can tell you what we do. In my ex’s family, Christmas eve is when gifts are opened and celebrations are held, in my family, it all happens on Christmas day. So for two years, the kids spent Christmas eve with him and came home to me Christmas morning. This didn’t really work though because getting up and out early Christmas morning is difficult when the kids have been up late the night before, and come morning they just want to play with their new stuff. Plus they never got home early enough for me. His traditions were upheld, to a point, with this scheme, but mine weren’t. There was no getting up early and opening presents in pyjamas with this scenario. Now we alternate, one year they spend Christmas eve and morning with one parent and go to the other just after lunch; the next year, the other parent gets the Christmas eve and morning.

    I used to fantasize that we could do Christmas morning and part of the day together, but he’d never go for it. My sister does manage this, but she’s got a much more amicable relationship with her ex than I do with mine.

  5. carole permalink
    September 23, 2010 11:37 am

    I’d move things about a bit. Have the long ceremonial breakfast on Christmas Eve, followed by the one present. Hang stockings, sing carols on the way to Dad’s (mid afternoon). You have a fantastically self indulgent evening and lie in. Kids come home Christmas afternoon, have ceremonial tea then presents under the tree. More carols if you like and group snuggle at bedtime.

    But as an earlier poster said, ask the kids what they would like and where they would like it.

  6. September 23, 2010 12:05 pm

    I should probably say now that, as the adult child of a tortuously long separation and divorce process, my ringing in on stuff like this, especially Christmas things, which I have come to hate and dread with every molecule of my being, is going to kid-centric. What would your kids like to do? How would they like to spend that time? Even if it means everyone being together (but not you and your ex and his family exchanging presents), what would make it feel like Christmas to them? It seems as though your parents were very cool about giving you room and authority to create Christmas traditions and grow something you loved into something you LOVED. Maybe this is an opportunity to pass on that gift from your parents to your kids, let them design the holiday in their own image, to what extent you can. It could be really great for all of you.

    That being said I hope I don’t sound like I’m saying that all the pressure of the decision about who to spend time with and how equitable that should be should be set on smaller shoulders. That’s even worse than adults designing a holiday kids don’t like. (Which I don’t think you’re doing either.) But to give them some measure of control without too much weight of responsibility for the feelings of others. That would be the ideal magic trick to pull of, I think.

    But I hate Christmas. 🙂

  7. Cheryl permalink
    September 23, 2010 12:37 pm

    I have no ideas on how to navigate this well, since we never did manage it when I was a kid, but I do have a thought on how to spend the parts of it you’re alone. One year I was completely solo for Thanksgiving. Parents in Hawaii, siblings off at their in-laws, friends out of town, whatever, point is I was totally alone. I chose to spend the day volunteering at a homeless shelter serving dinner to people. I can highly recommend this, as it does take you out of your element and the people I met there were priceless. I will caution you, however, that at some point in the day, no matter how busy you are, you will be lonesome and you will probably briefly lose it. Hopefully you’re better at it than I was and don’t end up with a homeless drunk person telling you to “cheer up, honey, next year will be better for you”.

  8. Lisame permalink
    September 23, 2010 1:03 pm

    My two cents worth should be taken with these thoughts. My “real” father died when I was about 8. His mother and my mother’s new hubby’s mother lived blocks from each other. They were friends. I spent big holidays going back and forth between grandmothers. Loved it!

    My current beau has a nine year old son and his ex-wife is a doll. We have too many families to please everyone so we alternate years. One year Cameron spends xmas eve with her and xmas day with us. The next year xmas eve with us and xmas day with her. Cameron loves it! We ask him every year what he wants. He said this year … “well, whose turn is it?”

    I wholeheart agree that you should ask the kids. I also encourage you to change your own scenery. Try it this year. Next year there can be changes. Change is good.

  9. Jen permalink
    September 23, 2010 1:08 pm

    In addition to the excellent suggestions already listed, you could:

    Find some Jewish friends and celebrate non-Christmas Eve with them.

    Find Christmas-celebrating friends who will be in town and ask to join their festivities. (Good friends will be happy to have you, especially given your reason for asking.)

    Have the kids celebrate with your ex on Christmas Eve/Christmas, then you celebrate Christmas with them on New Year’s Eve/New Years, and then next year you switch, and so on. (And then you go out of town…to your partner’s, parents’, siblings’, etc.)

    Do you live in Minnesota? You could come celebrate with me? : )

    I am being slightly tongue in cheek here, but the point is this: just because it’s Christmas Eve on the calendar doesn’t mean you have to celebrate it then. Likewise, you don’t need to celebrate any certain way (and I wholeheartedly second the suggestion of creating new traditions). Because my soon-to-be ex works a crazy work schedule (nights, 7 days on, 7 days off), I had to learn how to celebrate Christmas when it worked, rather than on the day the calendar said we should. I also learned to ask other people in my life to celebrate with me or to join their festivities. I’ve done all of these options (with the exception of celebrating w/ Jewish friends…all my Jewish friends celebrate a secular Christmas.)

    Two things NOT to do, IMHO:

    Be by yourself on Christmas Eve/Christmas. That is a recipe for collapsing in a heap of despair (or at least, it would be for me.)

    Ask your children what they want, have them say they want you to celebrate as a “family” and indulge them in this request. If you do ask (which I think is a great idea), be prepared to have a hard conversation about why you won’t be celebrating as a “family,” if necessary.

    You can do this; and I’m betting (based on my experience) that it won’t be nearly so bad as you think.

    Jen

  10. Libby permalink
    September 23, 2010 1:10 pm

    My ex and I split up when my daughter was 5 – she’s now 13. We both still live in the same neighborhood. After a couple awkward Christmases trying to do it together, we now work it out like this – she has Christmas Eve with him and his parents and family, and then late that night she comes over to my house. She stays at his house until the time she’d be going to bed anyway. That way she gets all the festivities with his family and still gets to wake up Christmas morning with me. It has worked well.

  11. Libby permalink
    September 23, 2010 1:23 pm

    Oh, and I get to have Christmas Eve dinner with my boyfriend and finish up last minute present wrapping etc without my daughter around – that works well too!

  12. Michelle Lewis permalink
    September 23, 2010 1:44 pm

    We alternate Christmas and Thanksgiving having the kids. The kids end up with two of each, just one later than the other. I don’t mind either one — Thanksgiving I can take or leave and when it is not on the regular day we have a big meal but fiddle with the food choices and I love, love having a Christmas later because I get to buy all my presents at the “after Christmas” sales! But then the next year I have a “normal” one. It really doesn’t bother me . . .

  13. September 23, 2010 1:50 pm

    I never comment, but this is a sore point for me, because first my grandparents divorced — with whom we’d spent every Christmas in my life — and then my parents divorced, and it got pretty messy for a while. We’d have a Christmas with my grampa and his first wife the Saturday before Christmas. We’d have Christmas Eve with my mother, who was the non-custodial parent, along with all Grandma and the rest of the family. Then we’d go home and have Christmas Day with my dad.

    This worked because we spent Christmas Eve night in the place where we’d open the stockings on Christmas Day. Also because we were in Minnesota, where Christmas Eve tends to get a bigger celebration than Christmas Day (at least among the Lutherans). So based on that experience, I like Libby or Carole’s ideas — either play around with the timing as Carole suggests, or have the kids come home to your house late on Christmas Eve.

    What I would not do is let the presence of the grandparents affect your decisions on this one. Yeah, they’re in town until mid-afternoon, but the fact is, post-divorce, they’re going to have to get used to the idea that their time with their child doesn’t ALWAYS include their grandchildren. It’s nice when it does, but it’s not always going to happen.

    It was very important to me (and still is) that I had half of Christmas with each parent. If the kids end up spending ALL of the celebration time with one parent or another, well, that just seems like a sucky foundation for future years. But then again, there was a time when I thought it sucked that we had to celebrate Christmas with my grandpa on some non-Christmas day, and then that became the best Christmas celebration of the whole bunch. You never know.

  14. Celeste permalink
    September 23, 2010 6:22 pm

    Haven’t read the comments, but I just need to know if you are my MIL. She has your Christmas Fascist ritual down PAT.

    Because of my husband’s intense devotion to her, we always had “her Christmas” with her on the weekend either before or after Christmas, in order to accomodate the fact that as a nurse in the ICU (and the rest of all working) she would seldom have Christmas Day off. She retired and we kept up the weekends for a while, then we had a child and started taking vacation around the holiday so as to go have her Christmas with her on Christmas.

    It can totally work, so long as you can flank it on one of the weekends. I’m not sure it would be as good to have two Christmases in one day.

    As to what to do on your leftover Christmas day with no celebration to hold, may I suggest brunch at a Jewish bagel place, a matinee at the movies, and dinner at a Chinese restaurant? In our town it’s like we and the Jews caravaned together, as we saw several of the same families at both venues. If you go through with this, start a new tradition of singing FA RA RA RA RA RA at the Chinese place, a la “A Christmas Story”.

  15. September 23, 2010 8:05 pm

    I like Carol’s idea. I think the main things you need to consider are: what traditions/aspects of the holiday are most important to you (the tree, or the one present on Christmas Eve, or the stockings, or the breakfast, or . . .) and what is most important to the kids?

    Another thing to keep in mind is that things will change. You are setting precedents, yes, but they won’t last forever. My parents split up when I was in college, and they tried to keep things as “same” as possible. We kept our Christmas Eve traditions the same, and switched off Christmas morning at my dad’s house or my mom’s house every year, but the routines were the same. But then, I started dating my boyfriend. We got married. Then we had a baby. Now, it’s a matter of juggling the my husband’s parents, my parents (in two locations), and trying to start our own traditions. These things evolve, so try to nudge it in the direction you want and realize it won’t be perfect again like it once was, but it can still be good. Great, even.

    Good luck! (from a fellow – former – Christmas fascist)

  16. Anna permalink
    September 23, 2010 9:59 pm

    I have to comment because these will be my first holidays as a separated co-parent. In fact, here in Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated the 2nd Monday in October (it falls on Oct. 11 this year), so I am reading with great interest all the comments.

    Here is my take so far: since Thanksgiving falls on a weekend they are with me, their dad can have the kids for the day on Sunday, bring them back on Sunday night and then they are with me on holiday Monday.

    For Christmas, am loving the suggestions about switching the kids late Christmas Eve. This works well because my ex’s side was always more into Christmas Eve. Whereas, I think I will love that they wake up here and we can open presents and have a leisurely breakfast and relax and take our time cooking up a feast for Christmas dinner. Now all I have to do is get the ex and kids on board! And figure out what to do with myself on Christmas Eve!!

    I also agree with Jody – just because his parents are here does not mean that your kids need to spend every moment with them. May I suggest that you switch Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning, whichever is best for your kids and/or they would prefer. That way you can plan Christmas day with new traditions just for you and the kids.

  17. Fatso15 permalink
    September 23, 2010 10:02 pm

    Be a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army, it would bring joy to so many.

  18. September 23, 2010 11:05 pm

    while i can totally get down with the whole “do something conscious and kind for others on christmas,” i’m also going to have to say: the incessant bell-ringing of the salvation army folks leaves me pretty much joyless *and* the salvation army has wholly effed up policies and views on queer people.
    that said –
    our family has scrapped christmas altogether in the past 7-10 years. (oh god. are you still there?) no, it’s just – we could never get everyone together on those “right” days of the 24th and 25th, plus the whole holiday held little meaning to us as it’s largely commercial and only my mom is loosely christian. that said, i hear you asking about the *traditions*, which for you is where the value lies…
    so just move the traditions? to the 26th, 27th, 20th, 21st? whatever works. cuz you can still open that one teaser gift before you all go to bed, still do stockings in the morning, still eat a holy and delicious breakfast and still gorge yerself on presents afterward. and next year – *you* get them on the 24th, 25th cuz you were such a good sport this time around. as for the real christmas eve/christmas? i second queenbee – if yer on yer own, start a new tradition solely for yer bad mama self. you deserve it.

  19. minoti permalink
    September 23, 2010 11:18 pm

    there are some good suggestions in there. i too will be considering all these while arranging the holiday schedule this year … first year in 2 different households.
    thanks for bringing this up – gives one time to contemplate and decide.
    cheers!

  20. Julie permalink
    September 23, 2010 11:29 pm

    Being a product of a wholly dysfunctional family, I tend to stay away from my family get-together. So when I found myself freshly separated, I didn’t know what to do. At all. I contacted an old, good friend, and spent X-mas eve with his family. Had a wonderful time. Came home all rosy-cheeked, and popped in all three seasons of Strangers with Candy on DVD, and snuggled with the dog.

    It was blissful.

    Alone doesn’t have to mean despair.

  21. September 24, 2010 6:26 am

    Yes, yes yes to all the above (which will not surprise you). I am also a Christmas totalitarian, with very firm ideas about how it should be done (identical to yours, actually) and a great love of the ceremony of it. My ex – being French – had a whole other set of customs he was far less wedded to.

    Last year – first Christmas – we spent the day in our old house, now his, trying to replicate the family Christmas. It was surprisingly humane, actually, after a hideous start: he and I fought in the morning, made up almost instantly, got drunk and spent the day fairly companionably thereafter. I wouldn’t want a repeat though. This year, his family is doing some big party in France, so he and the boys will do that. I have absolutely NO idea how I will manage with my solitary Christmas, but I agree, the umbilical cord of the fake family Christmas must be cut, and welcome it. Shame we’re not on the same continent or we could get together and get trashed on festive cocktails before settling down to weep in our respective corners.

    xxxx

  22. September 24, 2010 9:14 pm

    Well, I like Carole’s idea, though I agree that it all depends upon what bits of Christmas your kids are most attached to. When I was a youth we spent Christmas Eve with my mother (festive! delightful!) and then Christmas Day with my father (depressing! anticlimactic!), with the result that I still cannot abide Christmas Day. So my personal experience is really no help at all. Although, when I was going through infertility and found the holiday season unspeakably sad, I used to spend Christmas Day volunteering at battered women’s shelters and the like. This was more successful some years than others (remind me to tell you about the saddest game of limbo ever played).

    Of course you could always just come spend it with me. There will be pfeffernusse! I’ll even keep Schmutzli from beating you with his cane.

  23. September 28, 2010 12:16 pm

    I was going to say almost exactly the same thing that Carol said. Big breakfast/brunch and the single present opening on Christmas Eve, then send the kids to the ex while you stay nestled in front of the fire with a hot cocoa (pour some brandy in that for me) and have a lazy morning Christmas day. Then after the outlaws leave and the kids come home have the present opening at your house. I think that sounds lovely.

    Traditions can be changed.

  24. Take 5 permalink
    September 29, 2010 4:54 pm

    Hard as it may seem, I think that giving up this year’s holiday so that you can have next year’s with the kids in your own special way is the neatest way to go. You and the kids are a family. Your ex and the kids are a family. But the twain don’t have to meet. Get your friends on board with your decision and let them fight over who gets to sing Chrismas carols in bed with you on Christmas Eve.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      September 29, 2010 8:13 pm

      THAT is the best advice yet! There’s room for everyone…may the best friend(s) win!

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