With some creativity, and openness to future adjustment, separated and divorced couples can preserve key ingredients of the holiday season by pre-planning the children’s shared visits ahead of time. With a flexible plan in place, all family members can maintain the spirit of the season and enjoy the holidays.
Telling children of an impending separation is one of the most difficult tasks facing separating and divorcing couples. The anxiety that precedes the conversation and the imagined responses of the children preoccupy the minds and hearts of parents. Parents worry about the impending emotional reaction - tears, hysteria - that they anticipate will come with the shock of the unexpected, and typically unwanted, announcement of parental separation. Yet often, unpredicted by parents, children’s responses constitute more mundane, practical questions; what is going to happen on Christmas? Who will make my costume for Halloween? Am I still going to have a birthday party?
Holidays and special events play a key role in the lives of children and so an announcement of a separation of their parents, the key actors and organizers of their lives, throws into question how these highlights of family life will be managed. It therefore goes without saying that it is important for parents to plan for how they will share or divide holidays and special events during separation and after divorce.
There is no one “right” answer or one division of events that is superior to another. The important point is that parents need to work together to figure out a plan that will work for the family and to remain open and flexible enough to agree to changes if future developments render the plan uncomfortable or even unworkable.
Let us consider some variations for two of the major holidays:
Here we have a one-day holiday, which is part of a four and a half day school break, beginning Wednesday at 12:00 or thereabouts and ending Sunday night (through grade 12 in Massachusetts’ public schools and different in some private schools)
The most common practice is to alternate annually the day or the 4.5-day school break. Yet other parents consider some of the following options:
Alternating years the “holiday” parent has Wednesday after school to Friday morning and the “non holiday” parent has Friday through Sunday.
Annually one parent, whose family has a major celebration, has Wednesday afternoon through Thursday every year and the “non holiday” parent has Friday though Sunday every year (or the division includes more time for the holiday parent, especially if travel is involved).
One parent has the children from Wednesday after school until, say 3:00pm on Thanksgiving, and the other parent has the children from 3:00 pm on Thanksgiving through Friday. The weekend follows the regular schedule. In this version, the pre-holiday parent often has a special activity planned. Seeing a football game or perhaps going to a homeless shelter to help prepare dinner belong in this category.
Parents have two holiday celebrations: one for dinner and one for dessert. In this version, each parent’s family/friends celebrate Thanksgiving at different times of the day or accommodate the parent with a change of celebration times. Others even have a Thursday celebration with one parent and a Friday celebration with the other parent.
Parents may decide to have a shared celebration for as long as it is comfortable for all family members—sometimes including new partners/ spouses in the event.
Another option, if Thanksgiving is more important to one parent than to the other, the holiday is traded for another holiday or special event.
Christmas and Chanukah
For those who celebrate Chanukah, sharing the time for celebration is generally not as problematic because of the length of the holiday.
There is perhaps no other Christian holiday that has more ceremony, family, and emotional association for children than does Christmas. Divorcing individuals will often describe in great detail the traditions associated with the preparation and celebration of this holiday, from tree decorating, caroling, and Santa Claus, to Christmas Eve rituals, church attendance, and numerous extended family reunions.
It is perhaps easiest to the divide this holiday, exclusive of the school vacation period, into three parts: Christmas Eve, Christmas Morning, and Christmas Day. (This is not to say that a pre-Eve or post-Day event is not equally as important for some families.)
For some Christmas Eve and Day are alternated annually with the biggest decision being based on where the will children sleep on Christmas Eve. If the parents can be comfortable together, it is not uncommon for both parents to be present on Christmas morning, at least as long as the children believe in Santa Claus,
Similar to Thanksgiving, some parents alternate Eve and Day annually, sometimes extending through the entire school vacation period. In this version, in alternate years the children will be with only one parent. This practice can be somewhat tempered by building in some time for the “non holiday” parent to exchange gifts or enact some part of the Christmas ritual.
One parent always has Christmas Eve and the other parent always has Christmas Day. At times, here too, the morning is shared.
One parent has the holiday and the other the school vacation period, beginning on December 26th. This, of course, can be alternated or the same every year.
Similar to Thanksgiving, one parent may devise a new tradition such as a celebration on the Eve of Christmas Day or a New Year’s bash. The variations are indeed almost endless. It takes a bit of flexibility and creativity to put aside existing traditions and create new ones. And, too, the younger are the children, the easier it is to begin a tradition that will last as long as the family celebrates together.
Holidays are important times in every family’s life. Separating and divorcing couples need to make it joyful for their children by agreeing on how to share the holidays in a manner that focuses on their children’s needs, while remembering that parental needs and feelings also require consideration. Have a creative plan, and try to be open to changing it, and cherish the holidays.