Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace and goodwill, a time when families get together to celebrate in accordance with their faith, exchange gifts, enjoy each other’s company and (sometimes) eat a little more than we should. Unfortunately, as family lawyers know only too well, Christmas can instead be a battle ground, where warring parents fight over their children. The sometimes tense discussions a newly married couple may have about how to share Christmas with their parents and the in-laws are nothing compared to the heated disputes which can flare up between separated parents about where the children will spend Christmas.
You may have to take turns playing Santa
In making decisions about where a child lives and with whom a child spends time, the court must determine what is in the child’s best interests. In determining the child’s best interests, the court must take into account the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both parents and the need to protect the child from physical or psychological harm. In cases where family violence is not an issue, it is usually considered to be in a child’s best interest to be able to share Christmas or other special, religious or cultural occasions with each of their parents. Such sharing may involve dividing the special day in half or the children spending the special day with one parent one year and the other parent the following year. Most separated parents take the view that they want to have the children wake up at their house on Christmas morning, at least once every two years, so that that parent can “play Santa” and enjoy the Christmas morning experience with their children.
When considering what Christmas sharing arrangements might best suit your children, you may wish to take into account factors such as:
• The children’s ages;
• What parts of Christmas day or the Christmas period are usually celebrated by and/or important to your children. For example, is the Christmas morning experience still important to the children or have they not been interested in Santa for the last few years, is church attendance important for your children, do they enjoy spending time with extended family members?
• What are your and your ex-partner’s families’ usual practices in relation to Christmas meals and religious services? For example, if your family usually celebrates together on Christmas eve and your ex’s family normally has a big lunch Christmas day, both should be able to be accommodated most years. If, however, Christmas day lunch is a tradition in both families, you and your ex-partner may each have to compromise to allow the children the benefit of spending Christmas time with both their parents.
• How far apart you and your ex-partner now live, with a view to considering whether it will be in the children’s best interests to travel back and forth between your respective homes, and perhaps the homes of your former in-laws, on Christmas day.
When trying to negotiate arrangements for Christmas that are in your children’s best interests, the children will ultimately benefit from you and your ex-partner trying to take into account how best to enable the children to continue to take part in those Christmas traditions that are important to them, your ex-partner’s family and your family.
Don’t overdo the gifts
When thinking about gifts for your children, it may also be in the children’s best interests for you to liaise with your ex-partner. When parents are newly separated, there can be a tendency to buy children excessive or expensive gifts to try to make up for perceived distress arising from the breakdown of their parents’ marriage. However, it is not necessarily in a child’s best interests to be spoilt with too many or too costly gifts, even at Christmas. It may be more beneficial for the children in the long term if you and your ex-partner attempt to agree on some gift buying parameters, such as how many, what sort and what price of gifts. If you cannot agree on those things, you might like to discuss gifts for no other reason than making sure you don’t both buy the children the same thing.
If you need a Christmas parenting application, apply early
Of course, some separated parents are not able to communicate and agree about Christmas or any other issues. If you find yourself in that position, the court can and will make a decision for you and your ex-partner about Christmas arrangements for the children. In making such a decision, the court will take into account the children’s best interests, the benefit to the children of having a meaningful relationship with both parents and the need to protect the children from harm, not necessarily the wishes of the parents or the parents’ extended families. Except in cases of family violence, in all likelihood, the court will try to reach some sort of compromise arrangement whereby the children will be able to enjoy Christmas and other special occasion time with both of their parents, at least once every two years.
Indeed, there are so many court applications by parents about what the Christmas arrangements should be for their children that the court puts on extra staff during late November and December in order to deal with the extra case load. The extra case load is so great that the court imposes a deadline for filing applications in relation to Christmas arrangements for children, such that, if an application is filed after the deadline has passed, the court is unlikely to be able to make a decision in those parties’ case in time for Christmas.
The deadline for filing Christmas parenting applications for the 2010 Christmas period expired on 12 November 2010.