Like many families across the country, we prepare for Christmas in our home.
Last weekend I was busy getting out the boxes of Christmas decorations when the boys and Bill pulled the tree up from the top of the SUV to put in the usual spot (crooked of course, but they finally got it straight) and decorations. As in previous years, I tried again to convince the boys to retire some of them.
But no! We always put Broken Santa right there on the mantelpiece! “
We also pull out the most popular family recipes to prepare for shopping and in preparation for our “Italian Christmas”.
Guys: “You make grandma’s Christmas Eve prawns, right? And the braciole, right? Dad, do you remember the year you left the braciole on the counter and the dog ate it ?! “
Bill: How can I forget when you remind me every year ?!
Our favorite selection of Christmas carols plays and inspires lots of holiday joy! Middle son to the youngest: “If you play Rudolph again today, I cannot be held responsible for my actions.”
And the daily mail delivery means pushing more and more boxes of incoming gifts into a precariously high pile in the replacement cupboard. Me to Bill: “Just throw it in and close the door! Really fast!”
Typical American family Christmas, right? Except … Bill and I are divorced. This is our fourth Christmas as a divorced family. In particular, a “nesting” divorced family. And I don’t mean “a partridge in a pear tree”.
Before we got divorced, we decided that the children should continue to live in the house without changing their routines as little as possible. Bill and I are the ones who move in and out and swap places in the house to look after the boys. (I wrote about our decision in the New York Times in “After Divorce, We Will Give Home Custody to Our Children”.)
Not that we went into bird nest – or even divorce – to know exactly how we’d handle the vacation. We had more pressing questions and the vacation was nine months away. In fact, our settlement ended up with the standard, “Each parent takes turns when the kids take turns having Christmas.” But as the first holiday season after the divorce approached, Bill said he thought it wasn’t nearly as important to him Taking turns having the children to themselves rather than keeping their Christmas traditions alive. (I wish I could say I was the one who had such a selfless thought … but I have to give credit where credit is due.)
After he came up with the idea, I knew we could get it working. We spoke to the boys, who were 6, 10, and 13 years old at the time, about what they hoped we would continue as a family around Christmas time. Here were their priorities and how we planned to deal with bird nests for Christmas.
This is how my family treats bird nests during the Christmas season
Decorate the tree
Regardless of whose “parental leave” the day falls on, we both come to the house to set up the tree. For the first couple of years we all picked the tree, but it has grown into an all-boys donut tradition. After decorating, the non-parental leave parent usually stays around a little tidying up and admiring the tree. Then he goes on his way and leaves the parent to concentrate on the rest of the day with the children.
I still take the boys to my parents’ service on Christmas Eve in the early evening. (Now that I think about it, I can’t say I heard Bill complain about missing out on this annual tradition …). Then back to the house to serve cookies and milk for Santa Claus. Then all the boys pile sleeping bags on the floor of the elder’s room. He reads Christmas stories (and keeps the littlest boy from sneaking out of the room) until they go to sleep. In the meantime, we parents take care of the last-minute Christmas business, which always has to be done before the morning because….
5:30 a.m. Christmas morning: You are up and walking towards the tree!
For the first few years, the parent spent Christmas Eve with him outside the nest and got up on an ungodly early Christmas morning by 5:30 a.m. at the latest. After a few years – and after pausing a little bit about adhering to our regulated parenting schedule – we both slept in our separate bedrooms in the house on Christmas Eve. Then all we have to do is stumble to the coffee machine as soon as the boys walk around.
Christmas is designed to fully recognize the Italian heritage of boys through Bill’s family. It’s delicious too. We cook favorite family dishes: homemade “sauce” (tomato sauce) with meatballs and braciole (stuffed, rolled flank steak), aubergine parmesan and manicotti. Depending on the schedule, Bill or I split up the grocery shopping and some of the prep work in advance. So far I did most of the cooking and assembling a few days earlier. But this year we’re planning a day to cook together and teach the boys the recipes.
We always start the festival with “Grandma’s Christmas Eve Shrimp” (that’s what they say, no matter what day they’re cooked), which actually never make it on the table. The boys learned from their dad to float around the stove and eat the prawns as soon as they come out of the pan (and I saw for years that his mom was just as upset as I was!).
Depending on our individual plans with our respective extended families, we held the festival on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas for a few years. Sometimes it’s early Christmas Day, sometimes it’s late. But we always make it possible.
And I hope I can do this for as long as the boys ask for it and one of their favorite holiday traditions. We’re still a family. Bird nesting at Christmas gives us many opportunities to remember and acknowledge the history and traditions that will always be part of who we are. I know some things are likely to fall by the wayside as they get older, go to college, and move into their own lives. But for their childhood – that oh-so-limited time they are with us – Christmas was Christmas. As always.
A version of this article was originally published here.