The Christmas Shuffle

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The Article

A DJ on a radio station recently asked listeners if they would dump Christmas if they could. Perhaps not surprisingly, quite a few said yes. It’s too commercial. It’s too busy. It’s too complicated.

For many people in my generation, it’s also too tense. Demographic trends show that Christmas all too often involves walking on eggshells. Today, nearly half of families with children have at least one set of divorced grandparents, compared with one fifth twenty years ago. In fact, it’s more likely that children will have some divorced grandparents than divorced parents. 

Not only do today’s parents have to make Christmas fun for their kids, then, they also have to navigate complicated relationships with their own parents. It’s hard enough when you first get married to try to decide whose family to spend Christmas with. What if it’s not a choice just between two families, but between three or four? When it’s the parents who are divorced, Christmas is still a big shuffle for the kids, but at least it’s usually spelled out in the custody agreement. When it comes to grandparents’ divorces, though, Christmas too easily becomes a free for all, with guilt trips more common than candy canes.

One couple I know, let’s call them Peter and Judy, go through this every year. Judy’s family is functional, happy and fun. Peter and Judy would love to spend Christmas there, surrounded by nieces and nephews and cousins. But Peter’s mother is fragile after being left by her husband ten years ago. Rather than just join in the celebrations at Peter and Judy’s house, though, she insists everyone visits her so that she can cook Christmas dinner. But if they arrive on her doorstep before they alight on her ex-husband’s, Peter gets very angry phone calls from his dad. They can’t win.

When grandparents still don’t talk to each other, but both expect to be part of the grandchildren’s life, then every event in those grandchildren’s lives becomes a nightmare. Instead of one graduation reception, there are two. Instead of one Christmas, there are three. And it never stops, until the parents have the courage to say enough is enough.

Even if the grandparents are largely absent from your life, and not causing inconvenience during the holidays, they can still cast a pall over the family. Once you have children, a lot of the rejection you may have felt as a child of divorce comes flooding back. You realize you missed out on dad’s time because he was busy with the new family, and now your children are missing out on having a grandparent for the same reason. Somehow it seems easier to accept rejection of oneself than it does to accept rejection of one’s children.

Of course, divorce doesn’t mean all Christmases are necessarily nightmares. In many cases, like mine, I was only close to one parent anyway, so she reaps all the benefits. But when grandparents, divorced or not, start making unreasonable demands on parents of young kids, Christmas can be robbed of the joy one is supposed to feel by relaxing with family. It is not fun spending the Christmas holidays back and forth on a highway, with kids in the backseat announcing “I have to go to the bathroom” and asking “are we there yet?”. But parents do it anyway, thinking it’s easier to bear the kids whining than to bear the anger and resentment that their parents will throw their way if they try to bow out of the hectic Christmas shuffle. 

My family is blessed with three wonderful grandparents. They make Christmas fun for my kids, not complicated. I like to think most grandparents are like that, but I know far too many are not. The best grandparents are not the ones who throw the biggest Christmas dinner or the ones who buy the biggest presents or the ones who insist on the biggest chunk of their grandchildren’s time; the best grandparents are the ones who go out of their way to ask how they can make Christmas fun for the grandkids. The only ones who are supposed to be acting like children at Christmas are kids. Everybody else should just grow up.

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