The holidays are a stressful time even when you have a spouse with whom you can sip cocoa and decorate your home. Going through the first one fresh off a divorce? That’s life’s way of cruelly testing a person. You can get through it though, and emerge with holiday traditions you and your kids actually look forward to every year. It might just take re-examining how you fill those short days until the champagne corks pop and it’s a new year.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Divorce and Kids
For example, you know all those family holiday traditions from childhood you hadn’t had the chance to make a part of your own household? Now’s the time to learn those recipes, serve those dishes, and play those Nat King Cole songs yourself. Because being responsible for all household duties means starting new traditions, and maybe picking up the slack to keep old ones alive under your inflated-Santa Claus-covered roof.
“This is your opportunity to create new traditions that incorporate pieces of you or your children,” says Gabrielle Hartley, who has spent two decades as a divorce consultant, lawyer and, mediator specializing in “non-toxic divorcing.”
“If your ex always cooked and doing that feels daunting, don’t beat yourself up. Go to a restaurant or get some easy recipes online,” Hartley adds. It’s the attempt that counts. Stability is key.
In terms of preserving old traditions, don’t go too crazy. Pick a few manageable traditions that you and the kids love that you can make sure happen, says divorce and health coach Pam Mirehouse.
“The continuity is important for kids especially but don’t feel you have to do all of them,” she says. “Change is a big thing during divorce so sit down and discuss with your kids what they want to continue or start. Their answers may surprise you.”
While you’re at it, it’s important to iron out the entire holiday or holiday season early. Email your spouse if talking isn’t a good idea yet, says Hartley. “Be sure that both of your needs and concerns are addressed.”
As a part of that, make sure the kids are in one place for the entire holiday — no splitting holidays down the middle. (If you celebrate Chanukah, in which case it’s okay to break up those eight crazy nights with your ex.) Why? “Having kids run around on the busiest travel days is not ideal and doesn’t allow the family bonding time they need,” adds Todd Spodek, an attorney who handles divorces and criminal cases.
But just because you should stay in one place doesn’t mean you should block your kids from other relationships. While you may never have to deal with your aunt-in-law Hilda again, your ex in-laws are still your children’s family, and it’s on you to make sure they can maintain those relationships.
“Encourage communication with extended family who care about your kids and treat them with the respect and dignity they, too, deserve despite the divorce,” says Rosalind Sedacca, a divorce and parenting coach. “Divorce shouldn’t rob your children of connections with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and others from the other side. Particularly if they’ve been a part of family traditions.”
The holidays are an exhausting time of stupid gift exchanges, crappy cookies, and reruns of the Home Alone franchise. And this time around, you’re required to do a lot less of it. Bask in that freedom. Don’t go to any function you don’t want to, advises Caleb Backe, a professional life coach specializing in relationships and health.
This includes staying with family — something that might seem mandatory or like a good idea when it’s probably not.
“If all you are going to hear the entire time is people feeling sorry for you or endlessly talking about the divorce, leave it,” he says. “Seriously. Politely decline. You have enough of that going on in your head. You don’t need it on Christmas, too.”
For that matter, you might realize that is the first holiday in several years — or ever — when you have a Hall Pass to bail out on a holiday. (Ditto for spouse-mandated events like holiday parties for work and friends.) In which case, you could think about buying a plane ticket someplace where Christmas and Chanukah are about as foreign as the idea of shoes and socks.
Should a plane ticket be out of the question, it’s okay to settle for binge-watching something on Netflix for the ninth time. Pour another eggnog and enjoy it. It’ll be spring soon.