For many children, Christmas is a magical time, filled with presents, time off from school, and time spent with friends and family. For many parents, Christmas helps them turn off some of the chaos of the world and focus on gratitude and loved ones. But for other children and parents, Christmas becomes a source of anxiety, arguing, frustration, and disappointment – all because of divorce. But divorce need not ruin the holidays, it just takes effort, forethought, and compromise.
Physical Custody Time
Typically, parenting plans take winter break – the time from the last day of school in December until the return to school in January – as either a time to divide in half and alternate every other year, or simply to alternate the entire time every other year. Obviously, this leaves one parent “out in the cold” every other winter.
To get around the default split, parents should first think about how they have celebrated the holidays during the marriage. Did you celebrate by traveling to one family’s parents? Did you host your whole family? Did you keep it small and personal? By identifying your own history, you can highlight which parts of the holiday may mean more to one parent and try to address it.
The easiest solution is where one parent essentially had the holiday, whether to visit family out of town or simply because that parent spent the most time preparing for and celebrating the holiday. In this case, the time around Christmas can go to that parent, and the time before or after can go to the other parent for a break.
But what happens when both parents have some attachment to or history with Christmas? At this point, the easiest option is to divide Christmas into a five-day holiday, one that starts on December 23 at the end of the workday and extends to Christmas at noon, and one that begins Christmas at noon and runs through the end of the workday on December 27. If one parent prefers one “night” over the other, allocate that night to that parent. If both parents cannot decide or want both, the parents can agree to alternate each year who has the kids on Christmas morning when they wake up to open presents. In this way, each parent gets time with the children on Christmas, can exchange presents, and not feel slighted.
If one parent lives out of town, Christmas becomes a bit trickier. In this situation, if the holiday is very important to both parents, the parents should investigate travel options that would allow an exchange on Christmas morning. If that is not possible, the fallback tends to be alternating who has Christmas every other year with the exchange happening on December 26.
Similarly, if one parent tends to travel to be with family on Christmas, an exchange on Christmas morning might work, otherwise, the parents will have to alternate years.
Remember that Christmas fits into a larger winter break, and that should be considered in dividing time. If both parents want to take trips, one parent can have the first half, and the other parent the second half, with the exchange on December 27 or 28.
In the end, no one plan can fit every family. Each family should think about what works best to give the children a great holiday experience with minimal conflict and upheaval and maximum quality time with each parent and each set of extended families.
Though society tends to make Christmas a rather commercial holiday, for many of us Christmas remains an important religious holiday, and this can become problematic in divorced households. Why? Not all families after divorce celebrate at the same church, or even in the same denomination, and these interreligious squabbles can become magnified at a major holiday.
Courts generally stay out of religious custody issues – unless it is a threat to the physical or psychological welfare of the child, courts will allow each parent to expose the children to his or her religion and place of worship. But parents can make agreements that courts cannot otherwise order, and we have found this route to be the most effective, as each parent helps form the solution.
Where parents are of the same faith and denomination but attend a different church, a compromise may involve nothing more than who gets a Christmas eve and who gets a Christmas day. Again, looking to history can be a good guide, following what the family did while intact.
Where parents have the same faith but different denominations, traditions may vary more noticeably, and each parent should try to be sensitive and accommodate where possible. If the parents have already agreed to raise the children in a particular faith, that decision should guide celebrating Christmas.
Where parents have different faiths, Christmas can bring up difficult issues that may have even contributed to the divorce. If the parents have not agreed on a faith in which to raise the children, they should try and respect each other’s religions and allow the children to experience the same with each parent, at least until the children reach an age where they can articulate a choice of faith. Since one faith will not celebrate Christmas, it is less the time that is at issue than the celebration itself. Again, the courts cannot take sides here, so it is best for the parents to reach some level of respect on this issue.
Beyond religion, many families had a variety of traditions during the marriage that might continue after, from gift-giving to dinner at a certain home. Ideally, families should try and continue these traditions to the extent they mattered a great deal to the children and give them a sense of togetherness and continuity during the marriage. It also helps ease tension between the extended families of each parent.
What if only one traditional event can take place? In this situation, parents should see if they can share this event. In some families, the acrimony may be too deep to have a joint celebration, or even invite the former spouse. But in families where this is not the case, bringing both parents together can make life much easier for the children and help them see that their parents can come together at important events for them.
Another common issue involves gift-giving – what if one parent earns more money and has a greater ability to spoil the children? Again, the best way to approach this issue is to discuss it openly. If one parent feels the other trying to make one look bad, the parents can reach a solution by agreeing to spend the same amount or having the higher-earning parent provide some extra gifts to the lesser-earning spouse to give to the children. Parents can find many solutions that keep money issues out of the holiday experience, but they must acknowledge them and discuss them first.
Should you need the advice of an experienced divorce and child custody attorney or have questions or concerns about your situation, know that we are here to help and ready to discuss those issues with you.