Five years ago, my then-husband and I moved into separate homes within a short drive of each other and began the second phase of our forever-joined lives. Learning to be co-parents with the attendant emotional acrobatics of disentangling our souls through divorce wasn’t easy after 15-plus years together. But I was at least proud of the way we behaved.
By the time we reached our first Thanksgiving as divorcees, we had both pivoted into dating. He invited over me and my new person for a turkey dinner that also included our own kids, his new person, and her kids. We cooked together in a kitchen and then happily feasted together, never a lull in the conversation. My date, to whom I would become engaged years later, left the dinner saying something like, “They’re pretty great. This might seem weird, but it would be nice to hang out with them more.”
I remember saying, “I think that’s too much.”
Even though I had enjoyed the evening, I couldn’t imagine things evolving in that way. And no matter how much I liked my ex-husband’s new partner or how much he liked mine, trying to jimmy together this new way of being together was awkward.
Since then, our holiday routines have gone through a lot of changes that have felt like a devolution at times. A suggestion last summer that we not even try to make it possible for the kids to spend holidays with both of us left me unraveled for a few weeks. But we eventually agreed the kids would spend every Thanksgiving with their dad and every Christmas with me. After all, their dad slays cooking in a way I never will, and I had always delighted in Christmas traditions in a way he never will.
But as Thanksgiving neared last year, it hit me like a 25-pound frozen turkey that I wouldn’t ever share that holiday with my kids again—maybe wouldn’t spend it with any family, because I’m so far-flung from my parents and only sibling. It was a terrible feeling, so I came up with an idea to help.
That day, I set out our usual foam-form wreath and colorful construction paper leaves for the kids to write on. For years, we’ve been doing this thing where they write what they’re thankful for on these leaves and pin them to the wreath during the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. But this time I also set out a second wreath, one wrapped in black fabric, and added a pile of black paper leaves.
“Write down your grievances on these,” I said. Then I showed them the Seinfeld episode about Festivus, the fake holiday celebrated by George Costanza’s family. My partner even bought a metal pole to place in the Christmas tree stand, just like Costanza had.
The kids were unexpectedly thrilled, far more than I ever expected they would be. They seemed almost giddy to air their grievances. And it was harder than usual to get them to fill out the gratitude leaves.
When our arbitrarily chosen Festivus date arrived, I cooked a festive meal and set a festive table: the good china, candles, silver, crystal goblets, fresh flowers, and artfully folded cloth napkins. We all got dressed up for the meal. Then we took turns reading the leaves aloud to each other as we ate, laughing and nodding– maybe an AMEN or clapping here and there–and voted to see which grievances we could all really get behind. Once we’d narrowed it down to two, the kids arm-wrestled for the championship grievance, a nod to the “feats of strength” portion of Festivus. And the winning grievance was written in permanent black marker on the pole, which we brought out again today.
This year, the kids were beyond excited about Festivus, so full of complaints are they from dealing with the pandemic since March. They actually started asking about the black wreath before Halloween. When was I going to set it out? How many more days until Festivus? My pathologically kindhearted son has really surprised me in all of this, taking great and obvious relief from having an official occasion where complaining is not only sanctioned but encouraged.
“People who say like all the time.”
“People who loudly enjoy their food.”
Those were a few of the popular ones from last year. Here’s some on the wreath this year:
“Getting headaches from being online all day.”
“When you’re forced to work with a stupid person.”
“Cancelled Top Gun.”
“Video meetings when you’re required to keep your camera on.”
The kids awoke today with an almost Christmas-like glee. They were excited to get to turkey time, so we could finally read through all of the grievances and vote while we ate. Several times, we had to resort to feats of strength to hash out which grievances should advance during the bracket portion. Then we were evenly, passionately split between the two finalists, neither of which accurately represented what’s deeply important to any of us. Sound familiar?
Zero lawsuits later, we agreed to a tie, a somewhat-dissatisfying-conciliation we found apropos of 2020. My daughter wrote both grievances on the metal pole for posterity, right under last year’s winning complaint.
“Hey, mom,” my son whispered to me this evening, after making sure we were alone. “You know how Grandma and Grandpa figured out which things you and Aunt Kristin will get after they die? I WANT THE POLE .” And I don’t think it’s an overstatement at all to say this made me as grateful as I can ever remember being on Thanksgiving.
It’s been five years since our family experienced divorce, a few years since we began struggling to figure out new blended family dynamics, and just hours since I felt like the holidays are going to be okay — and so are we.
P.S. The tie was between (a) anti-maskers and (b) the Tiger King being jailed while “that bitch Carole Baskin” roams free, in case you were wondering.