Despite what they say, the holidays are almost never the season of unmitigated jolliness. For almost all adults, in fact, holidays are seasoned with a goodly dose of sadness, nostalgia, and a yearning for the lost joys and innocence of holidays past.
For families, in particular, divorce and the holidays represent a time when the loss of family togetherness is brought home by the memories of earlier times (perhaps more glowing in memory than they were in life) and grief at the loss of shared Thanksgiving turkeys, or the opening of gifts, or the annual trek to the grandparent’s house for a gathering of extended family and friends.
Children, particularly, can have mixed emotions as the holidays approach, and they may find themselves looking back and longing for happier times. But disappointment over the lost illusion of fairy tale endings, like our lost belief in Santa Clause, is an inevitable part of growing up. And the antidote for these holiday blues is the same as the cure for blues of all kinds – express the sad feelings, move forward with life, retain the best of the old ways, create new ways to honor ourselves and each other, and celebrate the new sources of joy and aliveness in our lives.
When families cannot celebrate the holidays together – and there are many reasons for this, including the unhealed wounds of divorce – we recommend they make an effort to schedule the holidays so that their children spend time with each parent. This can mean Christmas Eve with Dad and Christmas Day with Mom, alternating nights during Hanukkah, Thanksgiving breakfast with one, and dinner with the other, etc. Sometimes, families weave new family traditions around this arrangement (shifting the gift-giving at one household to Christmas Eve, for instance), while others agree to alternate the “prime” holiday time (Thanksgiving dinner, e.g.) from year to year.
But what about families who CAN celebrate together? Families who successfully navigate the tricky waters of divorce often emerge with harmonious – if not friendly – relationships intact. This opens the possibility of creating new rituals – involving, perhaps, the original family along with new relationships, new friends, and new locations. If it’s done well, these new rituals can retain some of the magic of cherished family traditions, while adding new family members and new traditions to expand the circle. This bigger, more inclusive celebration can buffer any difficulties or submerged conflicts between the ex-spouses, to the benefit of everyone… especially the children.
What are the special pitfalls to watch out for during the holidays? Because holidays can be a time of heightened emotions, look out for the old triggers that may cause conflict between you and your ex-spouse this season. You know what they are – anything from his chronic lateness to a dismissive tone about the activities you’ve planned. Use extra willpower to resist the urge to engage. And don’t ask your children to deliver messages between you. This is stressful for children, especially during the tension-prone holiday periods.
Finally, build on the joy of this season to enrich your relationship with your children. Don’t stint on the “I love you’s”. Energize every moment with the holiday spirit. And err on the side of generosity and self-expression whenever you can.
Russell Collins, MFT and Laura Collins, JD, are a psychotherapist/lawyer co-mediation team specializing in child-friendly divorce. They live and work in Santa Barbara.