This year, for the first time in 15 years, I am not celebrating Christmas with my former husband's family in New York. This is a big change in my life and in our life as a post-married family. But what felt like the "right" way to celebrate the holidays changed this year. The fact is, our holidays and rituals always evolve. They must, in order to stay meaningful, whatever our family structure. These changes can feel wrenching when they're due to divorce, or to one former spouse gaining a new partner. But traditions change to stay relevant.
I'm not going to Christmas with my ex-in-laws this year mostly because my ex wants to bring his girlfriend, along with our son. I feel a little conflicted about this change. A little sad to say goodbye to this tradition that has become a staple of my December, sorry not to see my son open presents with the other side of his family. Weird to think about some other woman who isn't me being there instead. But I also feel a little relieved. A little hopeful. Christmas is not my holiday. Also, not going feels like a kind of opening.
Does not going to Christmas with my ex magically free me up more to meet someone new?
I'm still flying to New York though. Our son has never flown alone with his dad, and he felt nervous about the long flight and being so far away from our home in California—on top of the first Christmas without Mommy. So we're all flying to JFK together, and then I am not going to Christmas, which they actually celebrate on December 26th to accommodate the Boston in-laws who drive down. This year, I'm going to a spa in Koreatown to get a body scrub with a friend instead. I feel weirdly excited about moving a little further away from my old marriage. Maybe I'll meet the next man of dreams over Bulgogi, after the spa.
Christmas at my ex-in-laws has actually been changing steadily since the first time I went, back in 2000, when I'd just started dating the man who later became my husband. Back then, the adult siblings still bought presents for each other. A few years later, they decided to limit gift-buying to the kids. This felt sort-of un-festive to me, but his older siblings were in their 40s by then; did they really need to keep getting each other books they would buy for themselves anyway?
A few years later, I began cooking the entire Christmas meal with my then-husband's oldest niece. She was a little girl when we met, and when she reached her pre-teens, she and I developed a "tradition" of our own of making the most elaborate three-layer cakes imaginable for dessert whenever my husband and I visited for dinner. This dessert-making grew into dinner making which became Christmas-dinner making, for 16.
After my ex and I split in 2012, I continued our new tradition of making Christmas dinner for his whole family. For the last four years.
But not this year. Instead, I'll visit friends, and then have a few days with my son in the city. This is a new holiday tradition I began last year—spending a few days with our son running around Manhattan—going down to Chinatown, up to the Diamond District, seeing the tree at Rockefeller Center, and revisiting some of the places I'd lived, with his dad and also alone, before we met.
As much as we love traditions and value the way they tie us to our heritage, we need to be flexible with the details. The value in these rituals is the connection, rather than a strict adherence to some script. A holiday is a break from routine and busy-ness, a chance to give thanks and celebrate what we do have. It's an opportunity to splurge, to indulge, to relax, to cherish. To see ourselves and those we love in a different setting, in different roles.
Check out this great story by Washington Post reporter Lisa Bonos, "How to survive the holidays while single or divorced." She spoke to me for insight, and a handful of others. I loved her quote from Sara Eckel, author of “It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single,” about how she started making a list of things she accomplished during the past year to avoid feeling stuck in a rut merely because she remained single.
I also liked the input from Laurie Davis, founder of online dating consultancy eFlirt Expert, on what to do when you don't have a "plus one" for the office holiday party. In short: you can bring someone you're just dating, if you could see a possibility of a future real relationship with that person, but remember that the point of these parties is to strengthen your ties to your co-workers. Meaning, it's fine to go solo.
Want more ideas? Read my 3 Tips for Getting Through the Holidays During Divorce.
Here's a piece about last year's decision to go to ex-in-laws once again, and how to navigate Christmas with your former in-laws.