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Women (and Men) Reveal How They Juggle Holidays With Their Exes

Here are some creative solutions for blended holiday celebrations.

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gif animation of blended family enjoying the holidays together
Zack Rosebrugh
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The nice thing about holiday traditions? Well, they are traditions. Carried on by every generation. Not questioned. The dates, the food preparation, the scented candles, the squabbles — there is a rhythm, an expectation, a level of predictable comfort that hits you deep in your heart.

However, divorce, death, remarriage and other life events can turn blended family traditions into a gut punch. If you and yours are facing a holiday calendar that has been torn to bits, dig deep: a blended family, guided by the wisdom that comes when we embrace growing older, can present unique opportunities to teach true family values, giving everyone the chance to learn, or relearn, the importance of patience, flexibility, compromise and family unity.

In my case, after clinging to holiday traditions for over five decades, at 58, I’ve finally decided none of the details of when/where/who matter. Post-divorce, two realities matter more than my holiday fantasies: I don’t own my kids, and I don’t dictate how they celebrate holidays.

My ex-husband remarried into a large family with their own Thanksgiving traditions. My grown children want Turkey Day with the new cousins. They also want my turkey and mashed potatoes. So now, they have a regular Thanksgiving with the new blended family, and we enjoy “our” Thanksgiving the following Saturday. Each year, I pick a different friend or relative with whom to spend the actual Thanksgiving day, and I treasure those special times of parachuting into others’ traditions.

Sarah Creutzinger’s New Jersey family includes her mom and stepfather, both in their 60s, who are helping to raise Sarah’s daughter, Ayla. They stay at the house several nights a week while Sarah, a pediatric nurse, works. The foursome’s holiday priorities include accommodating Ayla’s dad, which means Sarah can end up solo on the holiday dates.

“As a single parent with a sometimes-present ex, I’ve learned that the date does not matter,” Sarah explains. “It was hard at first when everyone else is with family, having Christmas Eve traditions, kids waking up to Santa. But, Christmas Eve can be any eve. Christmas morning can be December 26. It took a while, but we finally realized that what makes something a tradition is what you decide to do with your family, as conventional or unconventional as you want.”

Valerie Price, a Jewish New Englander with two adult daughters, faced the holiday shuffle in the mid-1990s. Her brother married the love of his life. She happened to be Catholic. Valerie’s solution was to start a new tradition, one that included the extended family’s religions.

“We moved Chanukah to December 18 through 25, every year, no matter the Jewish calendar,” says Valerie, 56. “Day 8 always coincides with Christmas so we can do one big celebration. It’s easier than having a rotating holiday, and feels festive at a time when the rest of the population in our largely not-Jewish area is also celebrating.”

Another option: find new meaning in the holidays by giving back to your community, regardless of your marriage status. Captain Jeremy Norton, a 56-year-old Minneapolis firefighter and author of the memoir Trauma Sponges, is a married dad with two grown daughters. Norton estimates he’s worked Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for 85 percent of his career.

“It’s a way to help other firefighters get off to be with their young kids; to serve the public … we are the ones who catch all the terrible holiday calls,” he starts out “We witness the poor, the unhoused, the struggling, the suffering: it forces humble clarity and a perspective that helps give more to others. It is a fierce grace we are allowed to be part of.”

Finally, consider escaping the festivities altogether. Jennifer Egan Silver, 50, a single mom who lives in Tampa, Florida, gets out of town. Her ex-husband is remarried, and while her daughter stays with her father during the holidays, Jennifer organizes girls’ getaways. “Holidays are so much better for me now,” say Silver. “I’ve used the time off to travel with girlfriends to Iceland, Mexico and India. If I didn’t travel, I would be spending Christmas and New Year’s home alone.”

If you are confronting disordered holidays this season, try these tips to create a new advent calendar:

First, decide what matters most. Your non-negotiables. My post-divorce priorities became radically simple: to feel good about myself as a mom, and for my kids to enjoy the holidays without drama or parental infighting. Your short, clear-cut wish list becomes your new holiday road map.

Second, solicit the cast of characters. Where do they want to spend the holidays? How much time off do they get from school or work? What traditions matter most to them?

Pause. Try not to get (too) caught up in the emotions of the holidays, or your attachment to traditions. Try and flow with the change, however much of a Heimlich maneuver some of these transitions feel like. Unless there is a true break from one of the parents, children of all ages want, or need, to spend time with whomever they consider “family.” Honor your disappointment without letting it carry you away, or ruining the holiday fun for others.

Fourth, think creatively about solutions. Can you Zoom part of the holiday to include everyone? Have two meals on the same day? Shuffle the dates? Combine two or more traditions? Try something completely new?

Finally, relax. Let go of the outcome. Don’t try to control the uncontrollable.

I’m not saying it’s easy. At least once every year, I get caught by emotion and try to conceive the perfect holiday. This season, I tossed out a range of exotic Christmas locales ranging from Stowe to Madrid. Then my ex, who is Jewish, suddenly wanted to celebrate Christmas Eve. So we’re gonna flex and will go to him.

With this compromise, I am reminded of how freeing it is to let go of trying to control other people’s actions. My presents to myself, every year, are the resulting multiple, memorable holidays, completely detached from my nuclear family’s original traditions.

I focus on the bigger, more beautiful gift of the holiday season: the values you are trying to convey to future generations. For me, the bottom line is that parental love doesn’t change when the family structure does. That’s the real tradition here, the only tradition that matters in the long run.
 
*Some names have been changed for privacy reasons.


Do you have a blended family? How do you make the holidays work for you? Let us know in the comments below.

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