Surviving And Thriving Christmas As A Divorced Family
On Christmas Eve 2000, my husband and our three children (ages 5, 3 and 10 months) headed home after a hectic day of last-minute Christmas shopping, the Christmas Eve service at church, and his extended family’s annual white elephant party.
We completed the obligatory routine of setting out milk and cookies for Santa and spent the next hour wrangling our sugar-hyped kids into bed. After they were finally asleep, we frantically wrapped the last presents, filled the stockings, and turned off all the lights in the house except for the Christmas tree.
We paused for a few minutes to admire the peaceful glow of the tree and high-five our parental achievement of successfully getting three kids to bed and finally completing all of our Christmas-to dos.
Neither of us realized it was the last Christmas Eve we’d ever celebrate together.
On Christmas Eve 2001, I sat alone in my living room and waited for my now ex-husband to bring the kids back home from his family’s Christmas Eve gathering. Since he wouldn’t be around for Christmas morning that year, we decided to extend Christmas Eve with his family so they could create a new tradition of opening presents with him on Christmas Eve.
It was one of the darkest moments of my life, only rivaled by the next day when we “did Christmas” for the first time without him. My older kids struggled to adjust to a new normal, and my youngest son would never know anything but two separate Christmases.
Celebrating Christmas as a divorced parent was certainly NOT the picture of my life I’d always had in my head.
Fast forward 14 years. Both of us are remarried and parents of step kids, and Christmas still doesn’t resemble a Norman Rockwell painting. But it is our reality, and it is OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. It’s good.
We’ve worked hard to overcome the stereotypes of bitter ex’s battling over sharing Christmas and other holidays. It's been an effort of joint teamwork and finding our groove; not all that different, really, than when we were married.
Here’s what we learned about surviving and thriving Christmas as a divorced family:
We didn’t divorce our children.
Our kids didn’t ask for a divorce; it was a decision their parents made about their marriage. We “undid” our union as husband and wife, but would never "undo" being their parents. It meant we still had to work as a “parental unit” and prioritize how to best support their Christmas experience with two separate households. It required intentionality, consideration, and communication—without putting the burden of choosing on the kids.
If you “win,” your kids lose.
This ties into the first point: it’s not about you—it’s about the kids. If they “win,” you win. This requires mutual sacrifice and a positive attitude from both parents. And yes—it sucks because it means you won’t get to spend the entire holiday with your kids, which is one of the worst feelings in the world. But focusing on the quality time they have with both parents is a more hopeful strategy than trying to command the most time, or upstage the other parent. Kids don’t want to see their parents as one winner and one loser.
Celebrate new traditions—including ones that honor or include both sides.
When divorce happens, a lot of family traditions die with the marriage. We tried to maintain some of the “old” traditions with a new spin. We still meet up together for the 4PM Christmas Eve service at our old church as a big, extended, blended family, and then my kids go home with their dad and his family for their white elephant gift exchange. After the white elephant party, they stay later to open presents together with their dad, stepmom, and grandparents. Around 11PM I pick them up and we make it our annual Christmas-light-viewing celebration by driving around our favorite decorated neighborhoods on the way home.
Sometimes circumstances throw a wrench into the “new normal.” Whether it’s a sick child or family member, a snowstorm, or some other drama, it requires teamwork and cooperation from both parents to figure out alternative plans that honor time with both sides. Being unwilling to change itineraries or mandating a schedule that leaves one parent losing out usually comes back to hurt you in the end.
Be full of radical grace and kindness.
Christmas represents Christ’s birth—the celebration of our savior who came to earth to sacrifice for our sins. We don’t deserve his love, but he loves us anyway. If there is one single time of year to put away grudges and bitterness and celebrate peace, love, joy, and what’s good in the world, it’s Christmas. Kids notice the nuances of our actions, and making the choice to show grace and kindness in even the smallest details matters. It might mean making sure their dad is aware of the time and date of their school choir concert—and saving him a seat. Or taking the kids shopping to help them buy Christmas gifts—for their dad AND stepmom. Or communicating with their dad to coordinate Christmas gift ideas for the kids—and maybe offering to go in jointly on something really special.
Let go of the picture in your head that haunts you.
Your life probably looks a lot different than you dreamed it would. But being a divorced parent does NOT mean you’re a failure. Stop comparing your family to the families who are not divorced. Don’t torment yourself by reflecting on “what once was” if it causes you pain. It’s OK to mourn, cry, or vent when you need to—but do it with a trusted friend or therapist, not with your kids. Instead of seeing what is broken in your family, look for what you’ve overcome and where you’re going.
Above it all, know this one thing for sure:
You are NOT alone. You are a beloved child of God, and he wants a relationship with you. Lean on him, reach for him, talk to him, read his word. Trust him enough to let his love heal your wounds and fill the gaping hole in your heart. Because God’s never going to leave your side—he’s with you and your kids every step of this journey.
This Christmas I'm praying for all of our families, whatever shape they're taking this year. My prayer that in all things we will trust God with our hearts (and families), and surrender our worries, favoring his ways over our own. I pray that we would search for his love and wisdom in everything we do, and follow his lead for us. (Proverbs 3:3-5)