It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year….Sometimes

Christmas, for those who celebrate the holiday, is supposed to be a happy, peaceful time to spend with friends and family, both immediate and extended. But for many, many families, it can be one of the most stressful and acrimonious times of the year.

When you have children and are separated from their other parent, the pressures of making sure the kids see grandma and grandpa, cousins, aunts and uncles, and of course, have the opportunity to rush down the stairs at your house to find all those gifts Santa left under the tree on Christmas morning, can seem insurmountable.  These pressures often lead to an angry or distressed call to one’s family law lawyer seeking emergency action to make sure Christmas goes off without a hitch. For those in a separated family, the reality is that if you haven’t addressed your Christmas plans with your ex early, that last minute, $300 telephone call to your lawyer is not going to fix things.

Parents in separated families need to plan for the holidays well in advance. As a family law lawyer, I cannot stress that enough. The courts will not, in most cases, deal with Christmas scheduling matters on an urgent or short notice basis. If you think you may have to go to court over a Christmas schedule dispute, you need to be planning for that in August or September, given that the courts are backlogged with other family law matters.

Notwithstanding how hard we try to protect our children from the grown-up disputes, children can tell when their parents are anxious or stressed. This in turn makes them stressed and worried. Avoid this by doing what you can to address the holiday sharing early in the year with, if possible, a written agreement between you and your ex about how to share the holidays. Be proactive with your lawyer, if you are using one. Start negotiating holiday sharing early and if you can’t do that because you have an uncooperative spouse, ask the court for an ordered schedule. But again, a request to the court for an order is something that you have to make several months ahead of time, because you will almost inevitably not get a hearing date on short notice in December.

So, what might you expect from a holiday sharing schedule? Well, there is no single answer, and it really depends on the family and what traditional plans have looked like in the past. For example, do you and your ex live in the same neighbourhood and have family in town? In those cases, it may be easier to create a schedule where one parent has the kids Christmas Eve overnight to Christmas morning and the other parent has them from late morning, early afternoon on Christmas Day to Boxing Day, and then rotate those annually. This is a very popular and common schedule.

Of course, there are some families where Christmas is more important to one parent than the other, or one parent simply does not celebrate the holiday. In those cases, what we often see is a compromise where the parent who traditionally celebrates the holiday will have the “Christmas days” every year, but the other parent will have another holiday or other time in the year carved out specifically for him or her and the children.

Remember too that just because you did something as a family before you were separated does not mean it can continue after a separation, because there are now two households to consider – even if you were the one to always get all the gifts, dress up like an elf on Christmas morning and make all the family plans – this does not mean you will always end up with the kids on Christmas morning post-separation, so be prepared for this likelihood.

In the end, there is no right or wrong schedule, but whatever it is, it has to work for both households and most importantly the kids. The first step to crafting a good holiday sharing schedule is to accept that when there are two households involved, you just won’t be able to do it all every year. Deal with this early on with your family law lawyer so that you and your kids can make the most of the time that you do have, to ensure that everyone has memories of egg nog and stockings rather than affidavits, judges and a hefty legal bill.

MartasSiemiarczuk (1)Marta Siemiarczuk is a member of Nelligan O’Brien Payne’s Family Law and Wills and Estates practice groups. She can be reached by emailing or by calling 613-231-8281. For more information on family law issues, please visit Article submitted December 18.