Tipped off by Elvis Presley that not everyone is merry at Christmas, churches are increasingly tending to those who are hurting over the holidays. Their “Blue Christmas” services acknowledge that pain rarely takes a day off and, in fact, can intensify at precisely the season when the whole world seems happy.
But churches should also look to the needs of another suffering class: those who are about to be blue. They are the children who, blissfully unaware, are enjoying their last holiday season as part of an intact family.
It’s the dark underbelly of Christmas, the reality that, while most of us are preparing to celebrate during the last week of the year, hundreds of American couples are preparing for a New Year divorce.
Their grim holiday to-do list includes figuring out what (and when) to tell the kids, lining up an apartment (the second home they previously thought they couldn’t afford), setting up new bank accounts and closing joint credit cards. These are tasks performed with the secrecy of Santa, so as not to steal the children’s Christmas joy. Or so they say.
Couples who split – or begin to split – on the first Monday in January grit their teeth for one last family Christmas photo because they don’t want to ruin anyone’s holiday, be it their children’s or their parents’. This is among the many lies they tell themselves to justify the coming separation, because they’re not saving Christmas, but only procrastinating. They may not ruin this particular holiday, but certainly the next year’s, and possibly many more, as they thrust their children into a future in which their holidays are divided up like garments at the foot of the cross.
In divorce, living children assume the awkward status of frozen embryos: marital property that must be equally shared.
Parents who wait until after the holidays to split – so many that lawyers dub the first non-business day of the week in January “Divorce Monday” – say they’re doing so because they want to do what’s best for the kids, another untruth that David Schel, founder of Kids Against Divorce, repeatedly points out. When parents sincerely want to do what’s best for their children, they stay together, trusting that their problems (if not violence or serial adultery) will erode over time. As many long-marrieds can attest, they usually do. The Institute for Family Studies reported that 80 percent of unhappily married couples report being happy again within 5 years.
Schel is one of the few voices crying in the wilderness on the matter of divorce, particularly at this time of the year. For a few years, his group has been producing an online Advent calendar for marriages, which Schel calls 25 days of marital praise. The idea is to get married couples to spend a few weeks before Christmas appreciating the precious gift they already have, lest they throw it away in the new year like so much crumpled wrapping paper.
Unfortunately, it’s the sort of exercise that will likely be done by those who don’t really need it. But credit Schel and Kids Against Divorce for trying.
With the divorce season about to commence, many marriages are existing on life-support, and the time is ripe for intervention. Pastors could play a critical role. Even when they are busy readying their holiday sermons (and people expect to hear the Christmas story, of course). But with churches bulging with people who sit in a pew only twice a year, pastors have a holy obligation to prepare messages of consequence and import.
How many about-to-be-blue families might still be together next Christmas if they heard a message that spoke to the holiness of their own family? One that spoke of the importance of their own messy journey, slouching toward Bethlehem like Yeats’s rough beast? One that spoke not only of birth, but resurrection?
Meanwhile, the value of a long-term union is glimmering in Boston and its suburbs, where people are slipping diamond rings and wedding bands into Salvation Army kettles. When it first happened a few years ago, the donation made the local news, and now there’s a full-on trend of “kettle rings.”
At first blush, it seems as though the rings are being discarded, perhaps out of disdain for a failed marriage. But what’s happening is far more significant: People are leaving notes saying the gift is in honor of their late spouse, or the long marriage of relatives who have passed. The rings of divorce, presumably, are at the pawn shop. ‘Tis the season. But it doesn’t have to be, if more people would pay attention to marriages in trouble, particularly at this time of year, and reach out to help.