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FAMILY LIFE

New Realities Test Holiday Perceptions

December 07, 1989|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At some point each Christmas Day, we could count on my mother to gaze out at the clear blue skies and 72-degree weather and say, wistfully, "It just doesn't seem like Christmas, does it?"

Considering that she was born and raised in Orange County and never spent the holidays anywhere other than Southern California, it was an odd comment--almost as if she expected snow and a family sleigh ride.

She was a perfect example, I think, of how we become programmed by movies, books, magazines and television.

Christmas is snow, sleigh bells, a roaring fire, family togetherness and all our wishes coming true. It's peace and good will, a time when even the Scrooges of world have a change of heart, mend their evil ways and join the family of man.

At least that's what we've been programmed to believe.

Of course, many of us end the holidays on a hollow instead of hallowed note because none of the above happened.

Family togetherness is hard to come by now that the nuclear family barely exists.

Divorced parents obviously no longer live in a Norman Rockwell world, if they ever did, and should take conscious steps to change their expectation levels, says marriage and family therapist Karen L. Watson of Newport Beach.

"Often (they) have a view of a traditional family celebrating a traditional American holiday, and in a desperate attempt to make that a reality for themselves and their children, they are setting themselves up for a dismal holiday," she says.

She maintains that "coming to grips with reality" will open the way for them to enjoy "loving, memorable holiday experiences . . . (just) not in the traditional manner." Realistic expectations, she says, can be met and often give birth to "ingenious and clever plans" that guarantee their fulfillment.

After you've accepted reality, it becomes a fairly simple matter of changing habits. What, after all, are traditions but habits that have become institutionalized?

For instance, while preparing to serve dinner to my 11-year-old and his guest this past weekend, my son told him, "Don't sit there; that's my place." Then seconds later, "Sorry, not there either; that's my dad's place."

And the friend understood, because it's the same at his house.

I'm sure we could all change seats without any permanent damage; it would just be uncomfortable the first few times is all.

The same goes for the major habits we have. I know that my first Christmas after divorce was my most miserable. The kids were at their mother's house and I was alone--just me and a bunch of empty boxes and used wrapping paper.

Before day's end, I erased the fact it was Christmas. I put all the gifts away and stripped the tree of lights and ornaments and got it out of the house. I even turned down invitations to join friends because I wasn't interested in their Christmas, either.

Now, Christmas is again a most pleasurable day for me. Radically different from what it was 10 years ago, surely, but a day to which I again look forward.

After the kids and I have finished opening gifts, I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm somewhat anxious to get them off to their mother's.

I have my traditional golf match, you see.

Each Christmas for the past four or five years, my regular golf partner and I have played one, sometimes two courses. While it's the only day of the year that all courses are closed, most leave the flags in the holes so that play is possible.

And since I've become so adroit at making the kinds of changes Karen Watson says we must make, I have my eye on a really big one.

When this holiday is over, I plan for the first time in my life to carefully put away the tree lights so that next year I won't have to spend a solitary minute untangling them.

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