Tina Wargo
December 24, 2014 8:00 am

My parents got divorced when I was a toddler. Because I was in that stage of life when I still thought it was acceptable to step on my sister’s neck while we took a bath together, it didn’t faze me at all. As I got older, it was something I came to understand and accept, but never worried about. It was just a fact about me, like my brown eyes or my oddly long tongue. Then my parents both remarried, and suddenly, I had two new, fully formed families.

On a day-to-day basis, it was fine. It was great, actually. I suddenly had two new siblings, two houses, two rooms (one with BUNK BEDS!), two summer vacations, two sets of neighborhood pals. The whole two-of-everything was really working out for me! I could have it all! But then the holidays rolled around. I came to realize that though I had two Christmas trees and two sets of stockings hung by the (metaphorical) chimney with care, there was only one Christmas Eve, one Christmas day, and one of me to go around.

That first year, it seemed like it would be terrible to be without one of my parents on Christmas morning. Of course I wanted to scurry down the stairs to find my mom AND dad under the tree, surrounded by piles of presents. I wanted them both to tuck me in the night before, and lie with me in bed while we guessed what Santa might have left for us the next morning. I wanted to have a “normal” holiday, with my normal family, which up until then, had included only myself, my sister, my parents and grandparents, and a couple of aunts and uncles whom I’d seen at every special occasion since my birth. But instead, like everything else in my life, my holiday time was split into two. I saw my dad, my stepmom, and her huge extended family, which was suddenly now my huge extended family, on Christmas Eve. Christmas day was for my mom, my stepdad, and the aforementioned aunts and uncles. This wasn’t what it was like in the TV specials. This was not addressed in “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” As a five-year-old, I spent much of my energy focusing on how this wasn’t how it was “supposed” to be.

I now realize that rarely is anything ever like it’s supposed to be. And when divorce is your reality, you learn that nothing is static. Even your family, which seems to be reliably and firmly constructed, can change in an instant. That first Christmas post-divorce, the one I so dreaded having to figure out, the one I thought would be my Ghost of Christmas Future, showing me all the miserable Christmases that were to come, turned out to be the Christmas I couldn’t wait to replicate year after year. I got to go to two family Christmas parties, open two piles of presents, and nestle into two different beds while visions of sugar plums danced in my head. I didn’t have the kind of holiday I recognized elsewhere, but I had the one that I recognized as mine.

Of course, I was lucky. I was met with warmth and openness and holiday cheer not only from my pre-existing loved ones, but from a brand-new family I would soon come to call my own. My new grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins included my sister and me in their Christmas traditions without hesitation, and the presents with our names on them were in the pile along with everyone else’s.

Back then, I didn’t give this much thought. Now I realize how that small gesture, and the many others that were extended to me that Christmas by people whose names I was still trying to commit to memory, meant more than just a new pair of pom-pom mittens. It meant that they weren’t step-anything. They were a part of a family that didn’t have to be narrowly defined by bloodline. My patchwork clan and I didn’t have the luxury or the option to have a “traditional” Christmas, so we made our own traditions. And every year, when I have to leave my dad’s house to go to my mom’s and do it all over again, I never feel like my family has been cut in half. Instead, it was multiplied, and that’s reason to celebrate.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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