Written by Featured Guest Blogger (and our friend) Beth Behrendt frequent contributor to The New York Times, mom, researcher and dynamic story teller.
Like many families across the country, we’re getting ready for Christmas at our house.
This past weekend, as the boys and Bill hauled the tree in from the top of the SUV to set up in its usual spot (crookedly, of course, but they eventually got it straight), I was busy hauling out the boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorations. As in years past, I tried again to convince the boys to let me retire some of them.
But, “No! We always put Broken Santa right there on the mantel!”
We’re also pulling out the favorite family recipes in anticipation of the shopping and prepping for our “Italian Christmas Feast.”
Boys: “You’re making Grandma’s Christmas Eve shrimp, right? And the braciole, right? Dad, remember the year you left the braciole on the counter and the dog ate it?!”
Bill: “How can I forget when you remind me every year?!”
Our favorite selections of holiday tunes are playing and inspiring loads of holiday cheer. Middle son to youngest: “If you play Rudolph one more flippin’ time today, I cannot be held responsible for my actions.”
And the daily mail delivery means shoving more and more boxes of incoming presents into a precariously tall pile in the spare closet. Me to Bill: “Just toss it in and shut the door! Really fast!”
Typical American family Christmas, right? Except… Bill and I are divorced. This will be our fourth Christmas as a divorced family. A “nesting” divorced family, specifically. And I don’t mean “a partridge in a pear tree” type of nesting.
Before we divorced, we decided we wanted the kids to continue to live in the house with as little change to their routines as possible. Bill and I are the ones who move in and out, trading places in the house to take care of the boys. (I wrote about our decision in The New York Times in “After Divorce, Giving Our Kids Custody of the Home”; and, here on this blog, explained more about the logistics in “Post-Divorce Parenting: What’s the Deal with ‘Nesting’”.)
Not that we went into nesting – or even divorce, for that matter – knowing exactly how we would handle the holidays. More pressing matters were on our minds, and the holidays were nine months away. In fact, our settlement ended up with the standard “each parent takes turns having the kids on alternate Christmases.” But as the first holiday season post-divorce grew close, Bill said he’d been thinking that having the kids to himself alternate years was not nearly as important to him as keeping their Christmas traditions alive and well. (I wish I could say I was the one who had such an unselfish thought… but I must give credit where credit is due.)
Once he voiced the idea, though, I knew we could make nesting work. We talked to the boys – who were 5, 9, and 12 at the time -- about what they hoped we’d continue to do as a family at Christmas-time. Here were their priorities -- and how we’ve come to handle them:
Decorate the Tree: No matter whose “parenting time” the day may fall on, we both come to the house to set up the tree. The first couple of years, we would all go to pick out the tree, but it’s evolved into an all-guys’ tradition with donuts afterward. Post-decorating, the non-parenting-time parent usually sticks around a bit to help clean up and admire the tree; then hits the road and leaves the “parenting” parent to focus on the rest of the day with the kids.
Christmas Eve: I still take the boys to my parents’ Christmas Eve church service early in the evening. (Now that I think about it, can’t say that I’ve heard Bill complain about missing out on this annual tradition….). Afterward, back to the house to set out cookies and milk for Santa. Then all the boys pile sleeping bags on the floor of the oldest’s room. He reads Christmas stories (and keeps the littlest boy from sneaking out of the room) until they go to sleep. Meanwhile, parents take care of the last-minute Christmas business that always needs to be done before morning, because….
5:30 AM Christmas Morning: They’re UP and heading for the tree!
The first couple of years, the out-of-the-nest parent would spend Christmas Eve night at his or her place and get up at an ungodly early hour Christmas morning so as to get to the house by 5:30 AM at the latest. After a couple of years of this – and after some mellowing on our parts about adhering to our regimented parenting-time schedule – we’ve switched to both sleeping in our separate bedrooms in the house on Christmas Eve. Then all we have to do is stumble to the coffee maker once the boys start running around.
The Christmas Feast is completely to recognize the boys’ Italian heritage through Bill’s family. Also, it’s delicious. We cook favorite holiday family dishes: homemade “gravy” (tomato sauce) with meatballs and braciole (stuffed, rolled flank steak), eggplant parmesan, and manicotti. Depending on schedules, Bill or I divide up the food shopping and some of the prep work ahead of time. So far, I’ve done most of the cooking and assembling a few days before. But this year we plan to have a day to cook together and start teaching the boys the recipes.
We always start the feast off with “Grandma’s Christmas Eve Shrimp” (that’s the name, no matter what day they’re cooked) which never actually make it to the table. The boys learned from their dad to hover around the stove and eat the shrimp as soon as they come out of the frying pan (and for years I saw it make his mother just as exasperated as it makes me).
Depending on our individual plans with our respective extended families, some years we’ve done the Feast on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas. Sometimes it’s early on Christmas Day, sometimes late. But we always make it happen.
And I hope to continue to do so for as long as the boys ask for it – and for any of the holiday traditions. We’re still a family. Nesting – especially at holiday time – gives us lots of opportunities to remember and recognize the history and traditions that will always be a part of who we are. I know some things will likely fall to the wayside as they get older, head off to college, and move into their own lives. But for their childhoods – that oh-so-limited time they are with us -- Christmas has been Christmas. Just like always.