Christmas is a season that evokes a lot of memories.
Some memories are sweet.
Some memories are bitter sweet.
Some memories are just bitter.

I’m fortunate enough to have some of every variety but one from Christmas Day 2002 stands out particularly vividly in my mind.

My younger sister and I were on the winding road that took us over Blood Mountain from Gainesville, Ga. to Murphy, NC. We had made the same drive for seven years. Although, it wasn’t always this particular drive. After the divorce, my dad lived first in one apartment, then another, then his own home, then in the home of my new stepmother—the one in Murphy, N.C. The locations changed but the drive was the same.

We woke up in one home for “morning Christmas,” then jumped in the car and rushed to another home for “afternoon Christmas.” The picture of post-divorce Christmas had become predictable.

Pre-divorce Christmas? That was another picture.

Pre-divorce Christmas was my family of four: Mom, Dad, me and my little sister. It was about opening one present each on Christmas Eve. It was about being woken up before dawn by my little sister, and pretending like it bothered me when I was just as excited as she was. It was waking up our parents—under the same roof, in the same room, in the same bed. It was my dad messing with the video camera while my mom squealed in delight watching my sister and me open gifts. It was gifts from both sets of grandparents while sitting on the same couch. It was watching my parents open the presents they’d picked out for each other. It was spending the entire day in our PJs, playing with new toys, listening to Christmas music and drinking egg nog.

Until one night, the day after Christmas 1993, the fighting—which was in the picture every other day of the year—quieted from passionate screaming to hushed conversation. That evening, my sister and I sat on either arm of the recliner in the living room, our mom between us, as my dad carried a small suitcase and garment bag out the door.

And our picture of Christmas—and life in general—was changed.

So, for the next seven years, we had “morning Christmas” and “afternoon Christmas”. The “morning Christmas” parent would plan an extra special breakfast, or envision watching a new movie together, or want to see one of us try on our new clothes.

The “afternoon Christmas” parent would wake up with our step-parent and step-siblings to a Christmas tree and presents, only to wait, and wait, and wait for us to arrive. A special lunch might be cooked—and then cooled—while they sat waiting.

So here we were, Christmas Day 2002 driving the path over Blood Mountain, and we were already in trouble. In fact, we were in BIG trouble. This particular year no one was happy with the amount of time allotted for their Christmas and my sister and I were stuck in a no-win tug-of-war.

I don’t know if it was the sight of my younger sister completely despondent on what should have been the best day of the year, or if it was because I was lashing out, but I’d had enough. I pulled over and from my new Nokia cell phone, I drew one of the clearest boundaries I have ever drawn: this was the last time we would pack up and move on Christmas Day.

For seven years we had all tried to do everything we could to re-create pre-divorce Christmas. The problem was, things had changed. And seven years into what started out as good intentions, my sister and I were caught trying to maintain a picture of Christmas that wasn’t maintainable.

What I started to realize that year was this:

We never hold our expectations, traditions, or pictures of family tighter than we do during the holidays.

All of us. Married parents. Biological children. Step-parents. Foster Children. Single Parents. Adopted children. Whatever your label, whoever you are, whatever your family story, it’s never more tempting to demand that the people you love most live up to your picture than it is at Christmas. It’s like something begins to rise up inside us to say, “Okay, I will go with this broken picture 11 months of the year, but just give me this one month for us to be normal.”

And, when divorce is part of your family story, it’s also true that holidays have a way of bringing pain to the surface of our lives. Whether you’ve been divorced ten months or ten years, holidays can have a way of making it feel fresh all over again.

The holiday cards with pictures of smiling families.
The twinkle lights hanging on everyone’s houses—because apparently, they have enough adults in the home to both hang lights and watch children at the same time.
The tree farm you always talked about visiting together.

It all highlights the painful fact that the picture you had for your family has changed.

Over the next couple weeks, we will write more practical responses to being divorced during the holidays. But, maybe it starts with just this one thing:

If we want to find joy this season with the people we love most, we may have to lower our expectations, hold our pictures loosely, and embrace our story—exactly as it is in this season