Family Law Unraveled

The latest from Margaret's blog

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Shoppers hurry by, red cheeked and purposeful. Salvation Army Santas jingle their bells in front of Macy’s. Cookies arrive in offices from clients and vendors and are promptly eaten, accompanied by the obligatory groans about too many sweets. And for us family lawyers, the holiday season calls to mind a unique stress otherwise known as The Christmas Holiday Schedule.

No matter what the regular custody schedule is, whether parenting time is equally shared or the kids only see dad every other Sunday, parents care about celebrating holidays with their children. They care a lot. And the vast majority of them – including many Jews, Muslims and atheists I’ve represented – really really care about Christmas. There are lots of ways to split it, but the ugly fact remains that all parents who celebrate the holiday want their children to wake up in their home on Christmas morning. The magic of the stockings, the tree, the shiny presents tied up in ribbons – that capsule of fantasy and wonder that we so carefully construct for our children on Christmas – it’s priceless. And chances are, if you care about it, so does the person you used to be married to.

So we slice and dice. Here’s a common variation: in odd numbered years, Mom has Christmas Eve at noon through noon on Christmas Day, Dad has Christmas day at noon through noon on December 26. In even numbered years, it flips. Imperfect, but fair. But entire custody agreements, easily negotiated down to the last detail of the other 364 days of the year, have been known to fall apart over Christmas. Judges have been enlisted to decide whether a Christmas day transfer should take place at 12 or 2 p.m. Mom says she should always have the kids on Christmas Eve (and therefore Christmas morning) because she takes them to Mass and Dad won’t. Dad says Mom must have just gotten religion – she never went to Mass when they were married. The variations on this theme are endless, and the intensity of emotion unwaveringly high.

Other holidays just don’t cause the same conflict. Jewish holidays have a nice way of dividing up. Passover has first and second Seders. Rosh Hashanah has two days and two nights. Hanukah has more than enough days to go around, and no one cares enough about it to insist on having all eight days anyway. (Want to know when that second Seder will be in 2013? Check out the handy holiday website for Jews, www.hebcal.com, friend to family lawyers everywhere).

I understand why Christmas is so poignant for divorced parents. The loving family gathering in their pajamas around the tree on Christmas morning is no more. It seems like the ultimate loss – a loss of innocence for kids, and a loss of that intimate joint venture, that joy shared by parents in the manufacture of memories which will last their children a lifetime. But kids are resilient and will, for the most part, be fine regardless of the specifics of the arrangements. In this instance, I think it’s actually the adults who suffer more.

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