I love Christmas. It is hands-down my favorite time of year. When I was pregnant with my son, visions of family Christmases danced in my head. I looked forward to sharing longtime traditions with my son as well as creating our own new ones.

Things didn’t quite work out as planned. My son’s father and I divorced, and I was now facing the reality of my son spending summers and every other Christmas with his dad.

My son was only three during our first Christmas apart. That was definitely a tough Christmas for me. My son is now 13 and I’ve long since adjusted to the situation but the truth is, it’s always tough. However, I’ve developed some strategies that have helped me get through the holidays with both my heart and my sanity intact.

Celebrate early.

Many holiday celebrations and activities begin in early December or even late November. Take advantage and enjoy the season with your child (or children) early—whether it’s tree lightings, photos with Santa, decorating gingerbread houses or whatever it is you and your kids love to do during the holidays.

When it comes to opening presents, there have been times my son has opened his gifts from me before he’s gone to his dad’s for Christmas and there have been years I’ve waited until he comes home. Either way, the most important thing is to create memories with your bub that will make the season special for you both.

Start your own traditions.

One of my favorite things to do during the holiday season is to go looking at holiday light displays. There are some neighborhoods near ours that always go all out and there’s nothing like eating popcorn and drinking hot chocolate while wandering through a winter wonderland with my son. No matter what, I make it a point to keep our tradition of looking at lights together.

Whatever your own traditions might be, make them something special for you and your child, something you love to do together that you both look forward to.

Send along a gift.

Don’t send your child to the other parent for Christmas empty handed. My ex and I have always made sure our son has a gift for whichever parent is missing Christmas that year. It doesn’t matter if you’re amicable with your ex or if you don’t speak to one another at all. This gift isn’t coming from you, it’s coming from your child. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive, just something from the heart. The spirit of Christmas is all about giving and it means more than your child might be capable of expressing to be able to give, not just receive. I can tell you first-hand it means a lot to my son to always have something for both of his parents.

Give yourself permission to handle the holiday however you need to.

Whether it’s binge-watching all eight seasons of your favorite television show while drinking eggnog, getting out of town for an adventure or skipping Christmas altogether, do what you need to do to get through the day. Some years I’ve had movie marathons while others have found me at my friends’ church services. Whatever you do, I recommend spending at least some of Christmas Day with family or friends. While you certainly may need some time to yourself, having the support—and the distraction—of loved ones is a tremendous help.

Touch base on the day.

Even if it’s just a five-minute phone call or Skype session, being able to hear my son’s voice and wish him a merry Christmas goes a long way toward bridging the physical distance and making my day feel complete. Make sure you schedule at least a little one-on-one time with your kiddo on the day.

Celebrate after the holidays.

If your schedule or circumstances just don’t allow for a celebration with your child before Christmas, it’s never too late to celebrate after. Keep that tree up a little longer and enjoy an extended Christmas once your child is home. There have been times where I’ve done this and it’s just as special because it’s not about a date on the calendar—it’s about the spirit of the season.

Focus on the time you do have rather than on the time you don’t.

It’s easy to get caught up in feeling down on the years I don’t have my son on Christmas, but that’s not the feeling I want to convey to him. The best thing I can do both for him and for myself is to celebrate the time we have together, whether or not that happens to include Christmas Day.

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