I'm a divorced dad. How do I make Christmas special for my children?
November 29, 2020 6:25 AM   Subscribe

My two children are sixteen months and three years old. They are with me from 2:45 PM daily until 5:45 the following morning, when I drop them off with their mother; I also have them around the clock every other weekend.

Most days are quiet, with them playing while I alternate between entertaining them or preparing meals and working on my laptop. What kind of variation should I add to our day on Christmas to make it seem special? Something more than our quotidian routine? I'd like to impart the kind of sanctity it represents to me, i.e., a time for reflection and meditations on kindness and solidarity. I know the kids are too young for a deep understanding of these things, but maybe you guys have some ideas of how I can begin.
posted by jwhite1979 to Human Relations (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
They are young and won't need much other than a loving, happy, and attentive parent. That's the kindest thing you can do.

When my kids were little (and to this day) I play Christmas music, watch Christmas specials, visit Christmas light displays, and make fun things to eat. You could buy two very special decorated cookies if you didn't want to bake. Read them a Christmas story. The three-year-old can help you decorate the tree --especially with non-fragile items like candy canes.
posted by loveandhappiness at 6:57 AM on November 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

If your three year old is anything like my (then) 3 (now 8) year old then they'll LOVE a little advent calendar with candies or cookies or toys or what have you inside.
posted by saladin at 7:09 AM on November 29, 2020 [15 favorites]

I mean...is Santa Claus too obvious? Anticipating gifts from Santa was our kids’ favorite aspect of Christmas at that age. Seconding the idea of Christmas cookies (and you can make or buy these, as you please), decorating a Christmas tree (even a small tabletop one, if space is a concern), listening to/singing Christmas songs. Christmas breakfast with special treats you only have on that day, even if it’s just a can of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls you bake in the oven and a “fancy” juice.

Every experience is new when kids are that small, and you can keep it simple and they will still be delighted.
posted by little mouth at 7:19 AM on November 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

This is a little harder during the pandemic, but maybe choosing items to donate to a needy family together? During non-pandemic times it’s a little easier on kids if they can choose a toy and then physically drop it off someplace to be collected, since it makes it clear that the toy is not for them, but even finding items on a charity’s wishlist online might be meaningful. Then maybe on the day itself you could talk about how you hope that it’s a good day for everyone, even people we haven’t met because those people are important too.

You could also make cards or small ornaments to give to the people in your life. People love getting cards made by little ones—they can color, you can trace their hands, etc. Another small way for kiddos to make someone happy with their own effort.

Whatever you decide to do, keep it simple and make it repeatable because the three-year-old will remember the details til the end of time (“Dad, remember you used the green crayon and then the red one?”) and will hotly anticipate doing the same things again next year.
posted by corey flood at 7:37 AM on November 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

What you are doing now is starting a tradition that your children will remember when they grow up. What things do you remember from when you were little that you want to recreate for your kids?

My very favorite thing I would do with my kids when they were tiny was to change them into brand new pajamas as they slept- so they would wake up in something completely different.

I always loved digging through my stocking as a child, and I wanted my kids to love that too. I would hang their stocking on their beds, so they could open it when they woke up (always too early!) The stocking always had a big orange in the toe, a chocolate santa, some sort of practical item like a fun toothbrush, nail brush, or bath bomb. Maybe some crayons or playdough. And other little fun and practical gifts. As they got older the gifts changed but followed the same ideas- so maybe a manicure set and better markers etc. Pottery Barn has lovely stockings that you can have their name embroidered on.

My cousin's mom and dad bought each of their four girls a special ornament each year, that they brought with them when they had their own homes. I always thought that was a sweet idea, but never got around to doing it!
posted by momochan at 8:14 AM on November 29, 2020 [7 favorites]

Bake cookies together, write a letter for Santa together, listen to Christmas music, put away your laptop and do other work around the house which leaves you more "available" to their interruptions?

But more important than "doing" is "being". Be present for them and be present with them. Observe them, take pride in what a great job you're doing raising these kids. Notice their capacity for play, persistence, silliness, destruction. Let them take the lead on what to do minute-to-minute while you just keep an eye on the basics of their feeding, naptime, and a few festive rituals. It's a wonderful rest for your soul, I promise. I hope you have a lovely time!
posted by MiraK at 8:15 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

So there's Christmas season--advent calendars, charitable giving, decorations, walking around the neighborhood to see the lights; these are all great. And then there's Christmas Day, setting that day apart from other days. My answer if you could do social things might be different (religious services, visiting family, etc.). But for just staying home, how to make the day "different?"

At my house, we always stayed in our pajamas very late or all day if we wanted. Floor picnics with special foods (hot chocolate, Christmas cookies, etc.) A nice centerpiece for the table, especially if there's something symbolic you can say about it. In the evening, lighting candles and singing songs (I will admit that this was not spiritually meaningful, but something my sister and I started doing in our late single digits because it seemed exciting to sit in the dark). We always got a new board game and the whole family played it together.

Bake cookies and drop them off for the neighbors. If the weather is nice, maybe a walk in a beautiful place. I always find a bonfire is a nice special occasion feeling, if that's something you can do where you live.

With kids that little, whatever you do will feel tiny and fragile. But in three years it will be their tradition and take on its own meaning.
posted by gideonfrog at 8:26 AM on November 29, 2020

Spend part of the day out in nature, preferably in motion so your rhythm is set by your bodies, not your voices. Look up, often. Enjoy the crunch of dried leaves underfoot and resist the urge to teach them about deciduous trees. Stop whenever they want to explore something, even if it means you don't reach your original destination. Pull out a thermos of hot cocoa wherever you end up. Afterward, talk about your favorite parts of the adventure.

A contemplative, unrushed meander through quiet woods is a gift they will be able come back to whenever they want, not just on Christmas.
posted by headnsouth at 8:27 AM on November 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

It's never too soon to begin new traditions that are special to you and them that they'll treasure and look forward to over the years. It can be as simple or elaborate as you want. Just have fun with it, and don't over-think it. They'll love whatever you that makes them feel special and loved. Enjoy!!
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 8:35 AM on November 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I did a picture book “advent calendar” when my daughter was small. I purchased 24 winter themed or holiday picture books and wrapped them individually and put numbered labels from 1-24 on them. Each night before bed we opened one and read it as our bedtime story. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was #24, naturally. Since you have them overnight, this would would work great for you!

At the end of the holidays, I put the books away and they were fresh for next year. We did this for at least 5 years with basically the same books, maybe a couple swaps each year.

This is a little involved to pull together at this late date, but maybe for next year? Or maybe you can borrow some winter and holiday books from the library for this year?

By the way, our favorites are Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, The Mitten and The Christmas Quiet Book. I like Rachel Isadora’s Night Before Christmas.

Enjoy the season!
posted by kittydelsol at 8:40 AM on November 29, 2020 [8 favorites]

don't detach, but take a few photos. my adult children *love* the prints of holiday photos they have. tangible.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:47 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

If reflecting on Kindness and Solidarity are important for you, then do that. I think that's a great way to spend time together. Find books on those topics. Read them on Christmas. The books and topics can grow more complex as your children grow.
posted by aniola at 9:07 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Then decide together how you will implement what you've learned throughout the year.
posted by aniola at 9:09 AM on November 29, 2020

If COVID wasn't doing its thing this year, I'd recommend Midnight Mass or some other evening candlelight service if you are religious. Growing up, I always found it to be a magical experience.
posted by Fukiyama at 9:13 AM on November 29, 2020

you're right they're too young for "reflection" exactly, but they are not too young to understand a special day that is peaceful and charmed - and that will be foundational for later.

They can help decorate a tree. Christmas jammies mark the day as special. Decorating cookies together is happy work. A traditional movie (I like a Christmas Movie) is nice, but your baby is maybe too young for it. It might work for you to watch with the 3 year old while the baby naps, if the baby naps.

I think that presents would be conspicuous by omission, so have something nice for them, but try not to make them the focus of the morning. Wrapping paper tearing, toy-focused Christmas mornings are, I think, the opposite of what you're looking for.

A walk is good if weather permits (hot cocoa thermos idea above is A+.) When I was little we loved being driven around the neighborhood to see the decorated houses after dark.

Readings from scripture are nice, if you're not averse. The most pleasant and spiritual Christmas gatherings I've been at, our hostess has read us one or two special passages.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:32 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

If the brisk sale of Christmas trees is indicative, it will be a lavishly decorated at-home Christmas for many families. I bet the houses in your neighborhood will be DECORATED and gorgeous for after-dark walks. You could start your own tradition, perhaps buying a plain wreath and having the children help you decorate it (ribbons, candy canes, berries, unbreakable ornaments) and then hang it on your house or apartment door. This is a wonderful time to start yearly traditions, and your children will want to return to them year after year.

If you're not much into baking, there are logs of holiday cookie dough in the refrigerated aisle in your supermarket that you can slice and bake. They usually have a molded holiday shape embedded in the dough, like a santa or snowman. For instant cookies they're not bad, and each year you can repeat or elaborate on the cookie theme. My kids loved for me to make a glaze (just confectioner's sugar and a few drops of lemon juice, whisked to a thick cream consistency) and when brushed on the baked cookies they enthusiastically spooned colored sugar on top. This was hands-down, their favorite cooking activity, and it's easy.
posted by citygirl at 10:16 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Here are a few more ideas to cull from; I will share that part of my nuclear family tradition of Xmas was actually to de-emphasize Christmas itself a little bit. I grew up with a lot of pressure for an over-the-top Christmas and part of our family's approach has been to be just a little calmer...still joyful. And we've kept the presents not like, absent or anything but to a manageable level. And Yet. :)

- Santa brings sugared cereal which is one way my kids used to know he's not me. :) Eating it is a part of the morning.
- We do a fair bit with candles and we light candles for peace and we blow them out with wishes for the world, which even at very young ages my kids loved to do (the blowing out).
- We do go for a winter walk - for us it's stockings, laze around, eat some things, walk, and then prepare the big meal
- We read specific works; Xmas Eve is Twas the Night Before Christmas and from there it's varied
- Music is a big part of things and we have specific albums we play that cover the day; when the kids were little we did a lot of dancing and clapping. If there's snow this is the best, but climate change etc.
- in pre-Covid times we had a few gifting/etc. routines - for a few years we delivered meals on wheels and sang carols (obviously out this year and that particular group dissolved); we usually do something food bank related; this year we're actually picking the drive items up next weekend.

We have a few other related traditions:
Christmas Eve - we have tourtiere and this is actually kind of the main event in some ways in terms of fancy food, talking about peace on Earth etc., and in the years we have invited others into our home this has been the day; on this day we do a craft, read aloud, decorate more things, place our gifts under the tree, leave goodies out for Santa, and everything else we can fit in - I used to work this day so it started pretty late, but my business now closes for it so it's kind of growing
Boxing Day (Canada) - we watch movies and only eat things from boxes, from the aforementioned cereal to appetizers to whatever.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:45 AM on November 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Special Christmas jammies and a drive around the neighborhood (near or far) to see the lights is a tradition maintained by my family to this day, and I am 32. :) I remember doing it as a toddler. It was and still is wonderful.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 10:49 AM on November 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

For kindness and solidarity, there’s always a form of Boxing Day - after the Christmas gifts, choosing some old clothes or toys to put in to donate to others, so you’re linking the joy of receiving with the joy of giving.
posted by corb at 11:06 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Lots of good suggestions above. Thinking back, the best thing for us at the holidays was spending time with our parents, outside of the normal stress of their work lives. We did stuff like decorate the tree together, while playing Christmas albums. We sometimes made our own ornaments, like paper chains, or we cut out snowflakes.

We made cookies, and left some for Santa (Santa always left a nice thank you note in reply). If you are not a baker, the Nestle premade doughs are good - the chocolate chip cookie dough is really tasty. For a bit more work you can also get the Nestle premade sugar cookie dough and some premade icing (the kind that comes in a bag or bottle that you just squeeze to use) and add some decoration to the sugar cookies.

We read books. You might look for stuff they would only have at your place. I can recommend The Lost Gift, which has a bit of a message without being too heavy handed, and Santa Rex is just fun.

We also drove around to look at the lights. (Our local NextDoor is always helpful for finding where there are good lights to go look at in the surrounding neighborhoods.)

We always tried to do something to give back - hard to do in person during the pandemic, but maybe try to find a way to incorporate giving back into the holidays. Toys For Tots lets you donate/pick toys online, for example, and they could help pick?
posted by gudrun at 11:30 AM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would let any pressure off yourself. Three is still too young to begin to remember traditions, or to really make the day super special. Some Christmassy decorations, at literally any level of halfassed-ness, special food treats, again at any level of low-effortness and whatever you think is appropriate for them, put some Christmas music on and that’s as much as they’ll be able to process.

This is still the age where if you get them awesome presents, they’ll probably be more excited about playing with the box. Your being contented and not-stressed about the day is the best thing you can do for them.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:35 AM on November 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Start as you mean to proceed. Start traditions, like a walk after Christmas lunch. Pancakes or waffles for Christmas breakfast. Make a holiday playlist, add to it every year. Watch holiday mobvies together, drive around and enjoy light displays. Take them shopping for stocking stuffers or gift for the other parent, and wrap gifts together. 16 months - will enjoy lights, music, and almost any gift. 3 year olds are super fun to give gifts to.
posted by theora55 at 11:41 AM on November 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Candid photos in a memory book for each child. You keep it and they get it when they are adults (have extra photos for your own memory book).
Handprints in clay, on cloth for a picture frame, on an ornament. Adult children are amazed at how small these things are.
"Not for children under age three" is a thing, so crafting ideas should be age appropriate. Ornaments can include the latest photos.

This might be a good time to check with relatives about your own memory box of photos, videos, and other shared memories. "This is the picture of me and my family getting a Christmas tree on my grandpa's farm." "This is the hat my sister knitted for me -- let's hang it from the mantlepiece." Pass the memories along.
posted by TrishaU at 6:39 PM on November 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

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