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Mrs. Sharp's Traditions

Have Yourself a Single-Parent Christmas

December 16, 1987|SARAH BAN BREATHNACH

Christmastide! What visions of good cheer and family happiness this wonderful word recalls--from lighting the Yule log on Christmas Eve to 12th Night! Don't you agree?

But what is this grumbling growl, Mrs. Sharp hears? Surely it wasn't "Bah, humbug!"

Oh, dear. 'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the land, some of Mrs. Sharp's readers dragged around a heavy-laden spirit to rival poor Jacob Marley's chains.

Many people assume that Christmas is hardest for children who have stopped believing in Santa Claus. Mrs. Sharp disagrees. She believes the holidays are most difficult for single parents, particularly if this is the first or second holiday season after their separation.

Sometimes Mrs. Sharp's single-parent friends will tell her their holidays are emotionally charged because of their former spouse's behavior toward them and the children. Other times single parents admit to feeling uncomfortable at Christmas: Our contemporary culture--as modern as it acts the rest of the year--wraps itself in old-fashioned "family" sentiments each December requiring Mother, Father and the children to dance around the Christmas tree happily together.

Mrs. Sharp believes one of the reasons single parents experience difficulty during Christmastime is because deep in their hearts they think holiday traditions should belong only to perfect Currier & Ives families. The first time a single parent has to open the ornament box alone, he or she experiences such a great sense of loss that the formerly married parent decides rashly not to engage in customs the family once enjoyed together because the comparison will be too painful.

"What's the point?" they say.

The point is that single parents and their children need the reassuring and powerful message that treasured rituals provide: We are a family. A loving, close-knit family shares traditions together. Our family is measured by the love which unites us, not our size or shape.

Just as Victorian traditions can be updated for 1980s family life, so too can family holiday rituals be adapted to fit new circumstances, whatever they may be. No one parent should have sole custody of family customs. So unpack those beloved family Christmas traditions. They are as resilient as your loving hearts.

Yet single parents should also try to introduce new holiday customs into their family's new repertoire. Here are two Victorian Christmas traditions sure to please everyone. They are ideally suited for single parents to make their own.

The Christmas stocking: Of course decorative stockings can still be hung by the chimney with care, but Victorian children who found their Christmas stockings bulging at their bedstead knew true joy. What a thrill it was to reach out for it in the darkness, pull it under the covers, clasp the contents with the imagination running wild, until by dawn's early light it could be emptied onto the bed and the wrappings furiously pulled off with glee.

There is much to be said for the custom of bedpost stockings. First, the youngsters are always wide awake Christmas morning long before the oldsters. An interestingly filled, amusing stocking buys a much needed 40 winks. Christmas stockings are also popular with children of all ages: tots, teens and 20s home for holiday visits. Lastly, when stockings are filled and hung at the mantle, their contents--however clever--are usually viewed as an afterthought. No bedpost stocking ever experienced this sorry fate.

Victorian parents filled each stocking according to a magic recipe that still works: "Something to eat, something to read, something to play with and something they need."

Christmas Crackers: Many of our Victorian Christmas customs originated in England, including the Christmas cracker, a festively wrapped cylinder, which when pulled at each end, gives a "snap" pulling apart to reveal delightful surprises.

No Victorian Christmas dinner table was complete without crackers. They are delightful novelties and are sure to enhance your Christmas dinner table merriment as much as they do Mrs. Sharp's and the Queen of England (from Victoria to Elizabeth II). Their proper moment of glory arrives at the end of the main course, while waiting for the Christmas pudding. Included in each cracker is usually a paper hat, a motto or fortune, a tiny toy and a balloon. Today you will find imported English Christmas crackers available.

One last tradition is for parents beginning to feel a bit harried from the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations: It is to stop whatever you are doing, take a deep breath and gather the children around you.

Next take a long look at them. See how their eyes sparkle with excitement, how flushed their cheeks are with joyous anticipation. Isn't their happiness contagious? How children love Christmas! If, for whatever reason, you find yourself not enjoying the holidays to the fullest, let a child lead you.

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