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Leaders in Family Matters

How to Handle Holidays in a Divorce


By Rayna Brachmann, Esq.

For lots of parents, while many things about divorce are extremely difficult, one of the most heart wrenching is the thought of spending holidays apart from their children.  There is no way around it, being away from children on the holidays can be heartbreaking.  Unfortunately, for most people going through a divorce, it is a reality.  While some lucky families are able to reach a place where they share holidays together with their children, the majority of divorced families divide the holidays and the children transition between parents’ homes.

There is no one “right” way to design a holiday schedule.  What works for some families will not work for others.  Some families prefer to exchange children on major holidays so that children spend time with both parents on the holiday.  Other families agree to alternate holidays so that one parent has Thanksgiving while the other has Christmas, with the holidays flipped the following year.

Many parents cannot abide the idea of not seeing their children on Christmas and agree that one parent will have Christmas Eve until late that evening, with the other parent having the children from late on Christmas Eve and waking up on Christmas morning in that parent’s home.  Some families add another exchange in the afternoon on Christmas Day for Christmas dinner.  While parents are free to agree on a schedule like this, as a family lawyer, I don’t recommend a holiday schedule structured in this way.  First, multiple exchanges in a short time period are difficult for children, and place stress on everyone during an already stressful period of time.  Children of divorce often reflect that this type of schedule puts them in a position where they cannot relax and enjoy Christmas with one parent because they feel (real or perceived) pressure to hurry up and get to the other parent’s celebration.  Smaller children will often want to stay and play with the new toys and gifts they get at one parent’s home rather than packing up and heading to the other’s parent’s home.  This can cause unnecessary pressure and make difficult transitions more so, even though no parent intends this when they agree on this type of schedule.

An additional issue many parents don’t consider at the time of divorce is what happens in the future when one or the other parent has a new partner.  What if the new partner has family out of town?  Or likes to travel for the holiday?  A split Christmas schedule ensures that a divorced parent will never be able to take their children to Disneyland or another family celebration out of town unless they have an agreeable former spouse or give up their holiday with their children.

Clients always get to decide for themselves what holiday schedule works best for them.  However, I recommend that parents not split holidays and instead alternate major holidays.  So if Dad has Thanksgiving this year, then Mom gets Christmas and Christmas Eve.  In 2020, Mom has Thanksgiving and Dad has Christmas and Christmas Eve.

There is no magic to December 25th.  If children celebrate Christmas with one parent on the actual calendar day, that does not diminish their special holiday celebration with the other parent on December 28th.  I often tell clients children don’t generally know if one parent has an extra day or two of time with one parent here and there.  But they definitely do know if Mom and Dad are constantly battling about every minute of time the other parent has with the children.  They will pick up on conflict between parents far more than they will feel slighted by a second Christmas a few days after the calendar designated holiday.

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