People in just about every form of business find a time of year when life becomes difficult. For accountants it’s tax season. Firefighters have August when forest fires rage. For family lawyers it’s Christmas or just about any holiday after Columbus Day/Native American festivities end. The reason is simple; the battles over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years’ are always the same. And lawyers are called upon to try to explain to hearing officers such things as how this year’s Christmas Eve requires the schedule to be modified because dad was given tickets and plane fare to see the Eagles meet the Cowboys in Dallas. Why even Jesus would understand how that warrants a change in the schedule, right?
How does this happen? Insight comes from the December 12 podcast of Shankar Vedantam’s radio show “Hidden Brain” where the host tries to help us understand what makes homo sapiens “tick.” The guest was University of Connecticut anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas and the topic wasn’t Christmas but an “Ancient Guide to Modern Problems.” The root of Dr. Xygalatas point was that every society loves to celebrate group rituals and will often go to absurd lengths to replicate traditions which long ago lost their common sense utility. His examples included firewalkers in Spain (yes you can walk on 1500 degree coals when it’s a tradition) and groups in India and Greece who think nothing of contracting huge debt at usurious rates to fund a wedding event they cannot afford. Xygalatas gave a nod to the celebrations associated with the World Cup where communal celebrations inside the stadium often delay the game. No one cares because it’s not about the game but the shared moment with 45,000 other fans. Xygalatas just published a book titled “Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living.”
What is Thanksgiving? Ritual. Christmas? Ritual. Dad actually enters the kitchen and produces not just a beer but “the Seven Fishes.” We binge watch movies about Christmas; make forgettable tomato aspic or latkes. We endure Aunt Betty’s stories about her annual trek to Radio City. And, there is the inevitable question of “lasts”. This could be gramps last Christmas, right?
So, we become invested in these rituals just as the world embraced the importance that Lionel Messi (an Argentine soccer player for the couple of us who don’t know) bring the World Cup home for his native Argentina even though he has lived in Spain most of his life. Ritual is about perception and not reality. If you are a parent who is separated or divorced with kids, we can accept the fact that you cannot or will not walk on hot coals. We can even accept the fact that your World Cup aspirations were thwarted by that planter fasciitis you developed in high school. But you mean that you can’t even produce the grandkids for the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve? Why by this time next year Gramps could be swimming with the fishes; he’s 90 something isn’t he?
Now you are mad. Your family doesn’t ask much of you. No world cup trophy. No gains on the crypto you told the family to buy last Christmas. That’s forgivable-maybe. But where are the adorable grandkids? Why are they with that worthless person with whom you procreated. And that probably means they will be eating peanut butter and jelly and getting lottery tickets for Christmas and drinking beer with other 40 somethings while your Gramps is drawing his last breath in the living room wondering where his great grandchildren are. No one remembers that last Christmas Eve was with your kids and they didn’t like any of the seven fishes and had to be reprimanded when they suggested that “Gramps smells weird.”
There is a lot to be said for ritual. 25,000 Argentines live in New York City. Many of them gathered spontaneously in Times Square on Sunday when Argentina won the world cup. Endorphins were raging. But we tend to forget that Sunday was also an important day in France. They were the “losers”; the ones who didn’t get the kids Christmas Eve even though they put up a good fight.
Now to conclude. Kids don’t care about “the fishes”. They tend to yawn when Aunt Betty describes the costumes at Radio City and they will notice that Gramps smells like mothballs “again” as he has for as long as we can remember. For young kids, hour long sit down holiday dinners are comparable to walking on hot coals. And for many, the peanut butter your ex may serve will be as tasty as your mom’s tomato aspic. But something even worse occurs. They have to endure listening to the parents they love brawl over where they will be and when for the holidays. For adults this is ritual. For children, even teenagers, it’s all an uncomfortable blur.
2022 has an added disadvantage. The weather forecast for Christmas weekend is nasty. Wet, then windy and bitterly cold. And kids will have to sit in cars, in traffic, so they can “celebrate” their families. Parents transporting the kids will be upset because it may be a rough ride from Family “A” to “Family “B”. Parents waiting to receive the kids will be nervous because a rough ride means cranky, stressed out children.
Years ago, I was trying case involving two little girls. My client, the father, was insistent that he have 3-4 days after Christmas with the kids. The other side wouldn’t agree. Innocently I asked, “If you’re splitting Christmas Eve and Day why are you wanting additional time afterward?” My client snapped back “I never take Christmas Eve or Christmas. Children belong at home for Christmas.” He was an unreasonable fellow in some ways but to this day I credit him with understanding that Christmas rituals are focused almost entirely on adult needs and not child needs.” So, walk the hot coals if you must. Chant with the Argentines in Times Square if that floats your boat, but the benefits of driving from one house to another to celebrate two Christmases or two Thanksgivings in one day has nothing to do with helping your kids. The only drama they want is the one where a bunch of people congregate in a manger 2000 years ago and some magic occurs. Gramps, Aunt Betty and the fishes don’t really measure up.
Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah. Credit Jewish folks for making their Christmas equivalent seven days so the pressure isn’t as great. But even then if someone gets four and the other parent gets three nights, by definition someone is the “loser” in child custody world.