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Celebrating Holidays Anew

Traditions can be one of our favorite parts of holidays: going to Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve, eating turkey at Uncle Charlie’s house and banging pots and pans at midnight on New Year’s outside with neighbors. When a major life change interrupts those traditions, families adjust, although it’s not always easy.

When my sister’s family moved to Central New York from Seattle last year, they tried to focus on celebrating in their new home, which has more room for decorations, and having family nearby to join them for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. They still missed their old friends, their traditional pumpkin patch and their former home.

But new traditions are being made all the time. My kids and I took them to our favorite Christmas tree farm, where the children can pet horses, avoid chickens running around and see a family of domesticated deer and other wildlife, all while sipping warm cider. (In the meantime, my sister was picking out the tree.) We’re all looking forward to going back again this year.

It’s important to acknowledge the change, not ignore it, says Christine Hirsch, a communication professor who divorced when her daughters were 2 and 5. “If kids are little, sometimes creating a new tradition can be framed as an adventure: Now we get to do something special that we haven’t done before. For example, Santa followed my daughters to our ‘new’ house, but I still went to their dad’s for the first Christmas so they knew that there was familiar with the strange.”

Now that Hirsch lives a thousand miles from her grandchildren, she uses Skype or videochat at least once a week. Her granddaughters are growing up seeing Grandma on the computer screen while they eat their breakfast in Colorado or play with their toys.

Another idea: Adult relatives who live far away can record themselves reading aloud a special book that can be sent to younger children. Before my other sister died of breast cancer last year, one of her daughters had the foresight to ask her mother and her father to read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” into a book that tape-recorded their voices. We all cry listening to it now, but we treasure hearing the sound of my sister’s voice, and having a book that will literally speak to future generations of our family.

Adam Wolfe says he doesn’t remember when his parents divorced because he was almost 3. But he knows the story that his mother moved him and his sister to a new home and threw a birthday party for him and more than a dozen relatives a few days later. Now 20, he realizes how tough that must have been for his mother. Normal for him is that holidays are never celebrated in one place.

“What I remember most is people saying they wish there was more time.” Mostly that was said by his father’s relatives as Adam had to return to his mother’s home for the remainder of the holiday.

Jessica Hester of Oswego is trying to make sure everyone sees enough of her son Rufus at Christmas and especially that he enjoys the holiday. “We try to work it out so everybody gets to see each other around that time,” she says now, three years after she separated from her son’s father. This year Rufus will be spending Christmas Day with her ex-husband. But on Christmas Eve, “We have a new tradition,” she says. For the second time, she and her 7-year-old will see an afternoon movie before he heads to his father’s home. Rufus will return to his mother’s home on Dec. 26.

“It’s hard for the parents, but it’s harder for the kids. It’s always harder for the kids,” says Hester, whose own parents divorced in her youth. “Every Christmas (Rufus is) missing one (parent),” she says with teary eyes. “That’s the one thing that he’s said he really, really misses.”

Asked what he thinks about celebrating Christmas in two places, Rufus points to the section on doing just that in the book he’s carrying, titled Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families, written by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown, the author of the “Arthur” series of books and TV cartoon shows. Rufus, a second-grader, recommends this book for other kids whose parents may be separating. (In 2009, more than 800,000 marriages in the United States ended in divorce or annulment, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.)

With extended families in Kentucky and Texas, Hester says, “We’re lucky that we didn’t have any set holiday tradition to begin with. It’s difficult in a different way for parents that I know that there was such a huge tradition.”

The notion of a traditionally shaped family all gathering with relatives in the same place each year may be uncommon for many families. The closest relatives for Trisha Schwartz, of DeWitt, live near New York City, and it’s not always feasible to get together. This year she invited two international students from Syracuse University to join her family of three for Thanksgiving. “I thought we could try to make someone else’s holiday special,” she says. Next year, who knows what the plan will be?

When my father-in-law died three years ago, my mother-in-law decided to join us in Central New York for Dec. 25 rather than wait for our family to drive to her house in southern Pennsylvania on Dec. 27 for a “second Christmas.” A new tradition was born as my brother-in-law and his wife visited as well. Last year we made more room at the table for my sister’s family—fresh from Seattle and excited about all the snow. We are looking forward to everyone making it to our house for Christmas again this year.

As Hester notes, “I think it’s important to be continually flexible.” Discussing how many folks find holiday family gatherings tense even if no one is divorced, she adds, “Sometimes the best thing for a family is a major change.”     

Eileen Gilligan, a mother of two and award-winning writer, lives in Baldwinsville.

Picture above: © Nyul | Dreamstime.com

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