I ran into Sarah, a friend who also happens to be a former client, at a holiday party last week. As we chatted about her kids coming home from college, mine arriving from Brooklyn, and our respective plans for the holiday week, she suddenly got quiet. “I lost Christmas in the divorce,” she said. I had to ask her what she meant.
Sarah is Jewish. She was married to a man for seventeen years who is Catholic. Christmas, in his extended Italian family, was huge. Newly wed at twenty-three, Sarah immediately embraced the holiday. She had grown up with movies, Chinese food and a feeling of loneliness every December 25th. She loves big family celebrations; she loves cooking and entertaining and decorating. She and her former husband have three kids together, and they raised them with both Hanukkah and Christmas, the richness of the two traditions woven into the fabric of their childhood. When Sarah and her ex divorced and had to figure out how to share the holidays, it was a given that he got Christmas. Why shouldn't the kids continue to have the feast of the seven fishes and homemade ravioli at Nini's house? Why shouldn't they continue to be with him around the tree on Christmas morning, opening presents? After all, he is the Christian and she is the Jew.
Divorce lawyers always have a lighter load when negotiating custody agreements for couples of different faiths. Especially when it comes to Christmas, because no holiday holds more psychic weight on the parenting front. Everybody wants to have their children with them on Christmas morning to experience the magic of waking up to the heap of presents under the sparkling tree. So when Dad is Jewish or Muslim and Mom is Christian, we breathe a sigh of relief. No argument about who gets that Holy Grail of holidays.
What I never knew, though, until this conversation with Sarah, is how difficult that can be. She internalized those Christmas rituals. Over the course of nearly two decades of married life, they became hers as well as his. She perfected her frosted gingerbread boys and pizzelles. She stayed up into the wee hours wrapping and hiding gifts. She anticipated the traditions with pleasure every December. And now that’s gone, and despite the fact that she very much wanted to be divorced, it’s a real, and unanticipated, loss. Before she remarried (also to a man who’s Jewish and was formerly married to a Catholic), she spent several Christmases alone. Her kids were with their dad, and no friends thought to invite her to share in their Christmas rituals. Which she understood: why would they, when they know she’s Jewish?
It struck me that this is part of the unavoidable fallout of divorce, the part that occurs after we divorce lawyers have completed our work. After the real estate and the retirement accounts and the living room furniture are divided up, after the papers are signed and the divorce decree is issued by the court, these emotional losses reveal themselves, even to people who are happy to be divorced. The loss of family traditions particular to one spouse’s culture, like the disappearance of friends whose primarily loyalty lay with the other spouse, are intangible "assets" also subject to division.
But families do adjust and move on. Sarah told me that she and her children now find themselves every December 26th enjoying a new tradition, "Christmas Part Two," complete with gifts, frosted gingerbread boys and pizzelles.