Celebrating Christmas in a single-parent household

Even though my daughter had never celebrated Christmas day with her father, I found myself with the need to make up for his absence.

I would make my list and check it more than twice. Surely, I thought, children of divorce need more presents to compensate for the lack of presence, right?

As much as I disliked the commercialism that comes with Christmas and had shown my 6-year-old that material things don’t matter regardless of the time of year, I still sometimes had flashes of “I wish I could buy her everything” while I perused the toy aisles. You don’t have to be a single parent to mull around this question as Christmas Eve approaches: “Have I bought my child enough?”

As I thought back to being a kid unwrapping gifts in my 2-parent household in rural Maine, I couldn’t recall one toy that knocked my socks off. Partly because I liked them all, but as I grew older I figured out the real reason I couldn’t remember what I’d opened: “Christmas” was never about December 25th.

My memories from the days leading up to Christmas- and even from ones that followed- were what defined the holiday season for me.

I never knew how much money my parents had or didn’t have, nor did it matter because they surrounded Christmas with such joy and excitement. I remember making lists with my mom, filling every line of that wide-ruled paper. I never got all of those gifts and didn’t expect to, it was just fun to leaf through the thick holiday “ad papers” in the weekend edition of the Bangor Daily News, circling whatever caught my eye.

I remember learning to wrap presents. It was so much fun to personalize each package with paper we thought the giftee would enjoy. I’d place a finger, sometimes two, to help my mom hold ribbon in place before it transformed into a beautiful bow.

As we gather in late November to help my parents decorate their tree, I am filled with nostalgia. Each ornament has a story that I only recall this time of year; the majority having been carefully removed from their tissue paper cloak and hung over 30 times.

Moments. Christmas was made of moments.

My mom and dad showed me the magic of the season had little do to with gifts or believing in the big guy in the red suit, but believing the cliche phrase of “holiday spirit” was indeed real. I wasn’t heartbroken when I found out the truth about Santa, I was grateful my parents masterminded plan after plan to keep “tradition” alive. Feeling special during the holiday season had nothing to do with the gifts they bought, but their intention behind these surprises.

Recently Lexi came home from school telling me a classmate was struggling to figure out what to get her Mother for Christmas. “I told her to just give her mom love,” Lexi recalled from the backseat of the car. As I beamed with pride inside, I realized her story wasn’t done. “She and another girl told me that was mean.” I told Lexi they must have misunderstood what she was saying. “No. They said it wasn’t a real gift. Why don’t they understand?”

I wanted to stop the car, get out and hug her. She understood the meaning of Christmas better than most. Certainly better than me.

From that moment, I stopped thinking that I had to make Lexi feel more special to take the focus off her dad not being there on the big day. Not only did she remind her friends, but she reminded me, that love is what powers the season. And she certainly has a lot of that.

This year we will be with grandparents, aunts and uncles on December 24th. Lexi and I will spend December 25th with my parents, my brother and his wife, my niece and nephew. On December 29th we will travel to New York to celebrate Christmas again with Lexi’s dad and his family.

After all, it’s not about who Lexi sees on which dates. It’s about celebrating Christmas in a way that makes us forget the details of gifts or family dynamics and cherish the big picture of being surrounded by memories-in-the-making.


Having a little pink tree, somewhere in our home, has been a tradition since Lexi’s 2nd Christmas.


Erinne Magee

About Erinne Magee

Erinne is a Maine-based writer and freelance editor specializing in first person essays, poetry and picture books. Her work has appeared in publications like: The Washington Post, Redbook, Yahoo News, The Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping and The Toronto Sun. For more, visit: www.erinnemagee.com