The first holiday season after divorce, I found myself — on more than one occasion — crying in the car, the bathroom or a random closet I could find.
I did this all while assuring everyone around me that it would be fine. We would still celebrate; not that much would change. It would be a happy time and Christmas would come.
I repeated this pattern for the next few years — over-planning and reassuring myself and everyone around me that the holidays would be great. It would all be fine.
But who wants Thanksgiving and Christmas to be just fine? Absolutely no one.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are supposed to be warm, joyful, magical, spirited and sparkly. They're all about family. But can it really be that way in a new version of a family? Those first couple of years after divorce, I wondered, "Can it be Christmas if you're not with all the people you love on Dec. 25?"
I do believe the answer is yes. Even at my worst moments — when I just wanted the season to be over — I was fortunate to have a little boy who helped remind me to keep my attitude and Christmas spirit in check. We added some new traditions, like an annual ice skating excursion over the long break and viewing Christmas lights with my parents.
After my husband and I married, and began to blend our family of my son and his two daughters, this question came up again.
Last year was our first official year as a blended family and, while we made it work, it wasn't always easy. We were faced with the challenge of sharing traditions, coordinating gifts and schedules, and still making things merry and bright. My husband and I also found ourselves without kids on Christmas and wondering how that would feel.
Like most things in life, this particular season required planning, coordinating and equal doses of letting go and extra compromise with grandparents, extended family and biological parents.
And I won't sugarcoat it — there were some hiccups and hurt feelings. For some reason I had thought a series of shared "group" gifts for the kids would be a good idea, and it wasn't. They were grateful, but it didn't quite garner the reaction I had hoped for. My husband and I also had a big miscommunication on the timing of attending Christmas Eve worship, and we rushed in the door of church five minutes late, exhausted and disheveled. Not exactly the perfect picture of blended bliss and sparkly Christmas clothes I had imagined.
But looking back, there were so many more good days and new memories shared, especially when we chose to let a few things go and focus on the joy of the season.
Perhaps my favorite new tradition from last year was the evening my husband and I just decided — on the spot — that we'd let the kids open gifts from each other and from us. Santa hadn't arrived yet. It wasn't Christmas Day. It was a quiet Sunday evening in pajamas.
But it allowed our kids to have time to enjoy the moment in excitement and thankfulness. We were all able to be present instead of hustling from one thing to another. We weren't caught up worrying about creating a moment.
It was during this time that it felt most like Christmas. And that's the biggest lesson I learned through all of this — it doesn't have to be Dec. 25 to be Christmas.
Going forward, there will still be lists to make, gifts to buy and calendar dates to figure out for special activities. But this year in our house, Christmas may or may not happen on Dec. 25. It'll happen when it just feels right. But it doesn't really matter to us as long as we can all be together.
After all, that's what the holidays are all about.
Jessica Janssen Wolford is a mom and stepmom raising three kiddos with her husband, Eric, in Elkhorn. You can read more about her experiences on her blog, “A Step in the Right Direction.” You can also follow her on Twitter @jessljwolford.