When you’re divorced, Christmas is a ticking time bomb. It’s a dangerous combination of nostalgia and expectation with all the trimmings. You can no longer watch Love Actually without plainly seeing that a third of the storylines are about infidelity. You can’t hear “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” without knowing it’s about a child stumbling upon mother locking lips with a stranger in a red suit.
Let’s face it, you can’t just stick a pretty bow on the fact that you’re living with a painful loss while others are celebrating. To compound your grief, there are visitations by ghosts of Christmases past while so many of the things that used to define the holidays have simply vanished.
I remember shedding a lot of tears on my first unmarried Christmas. For the first time in 21 years, I was not with my in-laws on Christmas Eve. I wondered if anyone would even notice that I (and my famous meatballs) were not at the table. At least my meatballs would be missed. Sniff.
And then there were the decorations. Just 11 months before, all of the personalized stockings and cherished tree ornaments had been carefully wrapped in tissue paper and tucked away for the season. When they came out of storage, it was like they’d been kept in a hermetically-sealed time capsule, oblivious to the turmoil that had taken place during the year. They stood as a reminder that our family of four once celebrated Christmas under this roof – and never would again.
Although I had six months to prepare for that first Christmas season of my new life, the tradition triggers and resulting emotions still came roaring at me like an avalanche. It’s hard. But like any challenge, there are things that can be learned from it.
Accept that Christmases will never be the same. I think it’s only natural to mourn what you used to have at this time of year, especially when you didn’t know that last Christmas was going to be your last Christmas with an intact family. The truth is, everything in your life is changing and so too, must those holiday traditions and the expectations that come with them. After all, expectations are so often the fuel feeding that let-down feeling. I needed to let go of what I long believed Christmas must be in order to embrace what Christmas could be.
Set your boundaries. My ex’s parents divorced when he was young. As a boy, he would wait until his father came over on Christmas morning to open presents. When our marriage ended – under different circumstances – he assumed that we’d do the same. But having to share the joy of Christmas morning with someone who abused my trust did not sit well with me. I didn’t want the stress of seeing him on my couch, sharing in the gift giving (meaning he’d pitch in a few bucks while I made the lists, shopped, bought and wrapped) nor playing happy family for the kids’ sakes. I knew such behavior would set back the progress I’d made since we separated. I told him no and felt good about that. It was still my Christmas too, after all. It’s okay to turn down invitations (or impositions) if you need your space.
Do something different to shake up the routine. That first Christmas Eve was unseasonably mild and my mom and dad invited me take a winter hike with them. It was something we’d never done before, but it sounded good just to get away from my empty house. Being in the fresh air, surrounded by a forest of towering aspens dusted in snow, enjoying the beauty and solace of nature with two people who love me unconditionally was exactly what my soul needed. My advice is try to find something fun and different to engage your spirit. Take a hike. Try a new restaurant. Volunteer at a shelter. Make a snowman. Swap out It’s a Wonderful Life for Die Hard. And if you can do it with someone who adores you no matter what, all the better.
Realize that others are hurting too. One thing that has always helped me is finding perspective, and that means looking beyond the lonely bubble I isolate myself in. Once I wiped away the tears, I saw that I was not the only one struggling with the holiday season. During the year, countless people have lost a loved one, moved away from home, divorced, suffered with poor health or have been laid off. By reaching out to someone also having a hard time, I gained new perspective. Talk it out, cry it out, hug it out. Trust me, it all helps you get to a place where you see you’re not alone. By connecting with someone in a meaningful way, you’ll be helping each other survive Christmas.
Surround yourself with what you love. One of my favorite things about Christmas is the colorful lights. String lights, rope lights, icicle lights, flood lights, net lights – you name it. If it sparkles, I love it. I’m just in my happy place basking in the luminous glow of an elaborate holiday light display. One of the new traditions I have with my partner is driving around our city, enjoying the seasonal lights. It pleases my inner childlike-heart to see twinkling trees through front windows and the radiance of a well-planned yuletide yard spectacle. Find something that helps you get out of your head and into a simple, joyful, marshmallow world.
As always, cut yourself some slack. Emotions are running high at this time of year and are as unpredictable as ever. You can’t help what you feel, and it’s normal to feel it with even greater intensity this season. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to sleep, sleep. At the same time, remember that you still have control over how you spend your time during the holidays and that you have the power to choose what feels right and healthy for you. It’s the gift you can give yourself.
Although Christmas always has been and always will be my favorite time of year, I recall that getting through that first unmarried holiday season was one of the most challenging times of my life. But I survived it by surrounding myself with love and with light – and every year since has been measurably better. In fact, when I look back on my Blue Christmas, I marvel at how far I’ve come. I bet you will too.