Celebrating Holidays When You’re Separated

Well, it’s officially November, which means that the holidays are literally right around the corner. For most people, it’s a pretty joyful, exciting time – looking forward to some extra time off of work, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade in your pajamas, enjoying Christmas breakfast with the extended fam, avoiding that annual family drama or too-long hugs from your weird uncle.

If you’re newly separated, though, the holidays can be a really difficult time. Even though you probably knew that changes were afoot, Christmas looming on the horizon doesn’t make it any easier. And fighting over who gets the kids and what family traditions take center stage (which can be difficult for even happily married couples to successfully manage) doesn’t make things any easier.

If custody and visitation drama is rearing its ugly head, what can you do?

Well, it’s probably safe to say that, at this point, it’s officially too late to file any petitions or get any relief judicially. The court’s docket is super backed up, and, if you wait until November to file, you won’t see the inside of the courtroom for awhile yet. (And, remember, in custody cases, you typically have an initial appearance before your actual trial date anyway – so you’re probably at least 6 months off once you file.)

You can file an emergency petition, sure – but the judge is NOT going to find that Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or any other holiday is worthy of an emergency hearing. In the nicest way possible? You’re going to have to work this one out for yourselves.

That’s good, and it’s bad. I mean, there’s certainly some sense of relief that can come from knowing that, at some point, a judge will rule on these things that you just can’t decide for yourselves. But, in general, I find that litigation – you know, pitting the two of you across the room from each other like adversaries – is counterproductive to coparenting. It certainly doesn’t ease tensions to declare one of you the winner and one of you the loser, which can have a damaging impact to your relationship over time.

Though it’s not easy, particularly if your separation is new, working things out yourselves can help to diminish the possibility of future conflict, and help the two of you pave the way towards more successful coparenting in the future.

Holidays aren’t easy for anyone, and it’s easy to feel emotional about it. After all, having children – and watching their joy – is one of the single greatest things about the holidays. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t make something new and different your tradition, adjust your expectations, and, ultimately, find that, whatever you do, it’s just as special as it was before.

A couple suggestions:

1. Accept that Christmas (or Hannukah or Thanksgiving or whatever) is NOT just a day on the calendar.

December 25th is NOT the only day you can celebrate Christmas. If your child’s father ends up with the kids this Christmas (or any other Christmas – which, let’s face it, is bound to happen eventually), celebrate on another day.

You can write letters to Santa, telling him when and where to deliver presents instead. You can plan for new traditions (both for yourself, if you find you’re going to be alone on a major holiday, or for them, if you find that you’re celebrating an important holiday at a non-traditional time).

The important thing is celebrating it – not celebrating it according to the generally-accepted calendar. A random day of the week is arbitrary, but you can make it Christmas (or Thanksgiving or Hannukah) any old day you want. And it can still be every bit as magical as you’d like for it to be.

2. Supporting family traditions is important.

If his family always exchanges gifts on Christmas Eve, and yours always does Christmas breakfast, you may want to write into a custody and visitation agreement that you’ll keep these traditions alive.

Often, I find that doing these things – respecting these traditions – can go a long way towards promoting harmony and successful coparenting later. Sure, you probably want some Christmas Eves (heck, who doesn’t?) but maybe giving them up can help show your soon-to-be ex that you can respect the things that are important to him. Not only will that help support your argument that Christmas breakfast should be sacred ground, but it’ll show him that certain things can stay the same, even at a time when it feels like everything else is changing.

3. You CAN celebrate together.

Can’t reach an agreement this year? Why not keep things the same, at least for one more year? You may hate each other every other time, but Christmas (or Thanksgiving or Hanukah or whatever) may be a good time to come together just for the sake of the kids.

There’s no rule that says you have to do it separately as soon as you separate. Showing the kids that you can be together as a family, that you can celebrate important events, will probably also demonstrate to the kids that their futures are secure. When it comes to other important events at other important times, you may very well be able to work together to celebrate them, too.

It’s not easy, but it’s often a first step towards creating a blended – rather than a broken – family.

4. Consider repercussions for future years.

So, yeah, celebrating together is wonderful, if you can do it, but sometimes you just can’t. I’ve seen lots of families that split the time up so that everyone can get some important holiday real estate, and so that no one ends up without the children for an entire holiday.

You could split the day in half – with one getting Thanksgiving morning and one getting the evening, and then alternate in odd and even years. Lots of people do it. And, if all your family is local, that may seem to be the most reasonable solution.

But, keep in mind, too, that if your family is out of town (or his family is out of town) one or both of you may eventually like to do some travel during the holidays. If that’s the case, you may want to negotiate a longer period of time for the holidays so that you can allow yourself the ability to take a trip with the kids. Whether that means that one of you gets the entire Thanksgiving break in one year (and then has no time during the Thanksgiving break the following year), or whether you split the Christmas break from school into two longer chunks (which may mean that you miss out on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day one year – or even THIS year), it may be worth it to you to have a little more freedom in your years.

And, at the end of the day, this is all food for thought. You don’t have to do it any one of these ways; you can come up with a creative solution that works for your family. I just know that the holidays are a time where tensions run high and people start to clamor for unavailable court dates.

To the extent that you can work it out, it’s better for everyone involved. Besides, at this point, it’s really too late to get into court anyway, so you may as well do what you can to make the best out of a bad situation.

As someone who has always celebrated Thanksgiving the day BEFORE the actual holiday (because my mom wanted to do something just with our family as opposed to the entire extended family), I can tell you that, after awhile, when you modify tradition – it feels just the same anyway. I’ve always loved OUR Thanksgiving more than the actual day, and that’s something that holds true to this day. And, once upon a time, though I don’t actually remember, it was just a decision my mom made and then kept up for the next thirty plus years.

A holiday is what you make it, and you have the power to keep the magic alive for your kids, no matter what else is going on.

For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.

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