When Jennifer Magnus' husband died 15 years ago, she had no idea how tough her next few Christmases would be. "Everything about the holidays reminded me of his absence."
Signing Christmas cards without her husband's name was upsetting. Going alone to her children's school pageants was "a real downer." Family traditions disappeared. Their live Christmas tree was replaced by an artificial one that is stored -- partly trimmed -- from year to year. The children, then 11 and 13, noticed fewer gifts.
"I stopped making Christmas cookies," says Magnus, 55, of Takoma Park. "We haven't had a whole turkey in the house since I became single."
Most of us have experienced, to some degree, the holiday blues and personal turmoil of schedule hassles, unfulfilled expectations, longings for Christmases past.
The dramatic increase, however, in numbers of single and divorced parents and stepfamilies in America has made the usual holiday dilemmas even more complex.
"Parents facing the first few holidays without their spouses suffer a profound loss of family," says Herbert Freudenberger, a New York psychologist who examines the issues of holiday stress in his book Situational Anxiety: How To Overcome Your Everyday Anxious Moments (Quality Paperbacks, $8.95).
"Simply by watching TV and listening to other people at work, they figure everybody is happy and in the holiday spirit -- but them. A holiday can become a special trauma for kids of divorced or single parents. They once expected to visit certain grandparents, and now that may not be possible. Traumatic shifts like that point out to them, all the more, the disruptive changes in their lives."
Similar problems confront reconstituted families where "time-sharing" of the children can be particularly painful during the holidays.
"The logistics become a lot more complicated, and so do the emotions," says Dr. Emily Visher, a Los Altos Hills, Calif., psychologist and cofounder of the Stepfamily Association of America. When she and her husband Dr. John Visher were married in 1959, they each brought four children from previous marriages into the new family.
"The children were at the other households Christmas Eve and then came back for Christmas Day. These holidays carry so much emotional weight. Children and adults all have strong needs and expectations around the same date. It's difficult to work it all out."
One reason that holiday dilemmas are particularly difficult, say mental health experts, is because they often center on year-round issues suddenly magnified by the season. For instance, money problems.
"If you're a single parent, especially a woman, you usually have less to live on than before," says Abby Sternberg, coordinator of Prevention Services for Children and Youth at the Mount Vernon Center of Community Mental Health, Alexandria.
"If you're a stepparent, you may be supporting two families. Come the holidays, you probably can't afford the gifts you want for your kids."
Pressure builds if the parent without custody turns into Santa Claus and tries to "buy the kids" with expensive presents. "Divorced kids," says Sternberg, may complain that the noncustodial parent doesn't know them well enough to buy them gifts they want. "It's hard for a parent who isn't with the kids every day to shop.
"And to make it harder, they feel that if they don't buy their child that Transformer or Cabbage Patch doll, that very special gift, it'll be a negative mark on the holiday."
The logistics of juggling schedules and a new roster of relatives also takes their toll. "Dad gets you on Christmas Eve and Mom gets you at 10 a.m. Christmas Day -- it can make children feel like they're not really wanted," says Sternberg. "Just pawns moved from here to there because it's expected, not because they're loved."
Getting used to new family members, such as a new spouse for a mother or father, multiplies problems for children and adults. It can be, says Sternberg, like spending the holiday among strangers.
"The parent is often occupied with other relationships, and that makes the child feel neglected -- and angry. On top of it all, the parent who doesn't get to see the kids from a previous marriage has a really bad time of it."
Fewer -- or new -- hands in the family also mean a change in the way a holiday is celebrated, which can undermine the security of traditions. "There are all sorts of little family rituals that aren't going to be observed," says Emily M. Brown, a family therapist and director of the Divorce and Marital Stress Clinic in Rosslyn.
As in the case of Jennifer Magnus, some rituals lose their meaning when the family loses one member. Others simply require too much time for a single parent.
"You can't bake the homemade cookies, trim the tree, shop, wrap the presents, clean the house and have friends over while holding down a job and raising the kids by yourself," says Sternberg. "You can no longer do everything that has come to mean the holidays for you."
Psychologists say the added complexities of disrupted family life can turn a simple case of holiday doldrums into an emotional maze. But, they add, a few assertive steps can help simplify, and even prevent, many of the problems. Almost always, the solutions involve creativity, flexibility and communication.
Magnus, now an active member of Parents Without Partners, healed some of her holiday wounds seven years after her husband's death when she decided to host an annual open house at her home for friends and acquaintances who can't stand being alone on Christmas Day. "If you're lucky, you develop some traditions that are easier and as satisfying," she says. "I resolved many of my problems by having guests over."
"Give yourself permission to try something new," says Sternberg. "Join together with people who aren't in your family. Tie yourself into a larger community so that you're not an isolated little family hovering at home in pain."
Freudenberger recommends involving the children in starting new holiday customs. "Predictability is important to them" to help make the transition easier and to minimize the anxiety, he says. A seemingly insignificant -- but special -- dish for dinner, or a recording of certain music can make a lasting difference.
And sometimes establishing new holiday rituals requires compromise. Visher recalls counseling a woman who had married a man whose family traditionally tied strings from the toes of Christmas stockings near the fireplace leading to gifts hidden throughout the house.
"The woman thought it was just too much," says Visher. As a way of gently adjusting a ritual to new circumstances: "I said 'Why don't you just shorten the strings a little each year?' "
Better communication -- although difficult -- is also critical, says Sternberg, who conducted a recent workshop for single and divorced parents facing holiday troubles. Only a few people showed up.
"The dilemma," says Sternberg, "is that they need to take time out to talk it over, and too often they don't. They need to let the children know how and where they'll be spending the holidays, and find out from them what they want. The child needs to be involved in talking about the options so he can have a better idea of what is expected."
For instance, if children will be spending part of their holidays at a second home, they must be prepared for it, adds Freudenberger. "I like parents to use photographs and letters, even audio or video tapes, that they send through the year so kids will know a little about the stepfamily they'll meet.
"To reduce anxiety during the holiday season, you've got to work on holiday problems all year round."
A good New Year's commitment, say family counselors, is to evaluate the holidays afterwards -- including the time the children spent at the ex-spouse's.
"Many parents feel conflict about asking what happened 'over there,' " says Sternberg. "They don't want to put the child in the middle and they don't always want to know the details. But the child needs to know you are a parent he can talk to when things are going well -- and when they're not.
"Talking it over, ahead of time and afterwards, allows you to make plans now and correct problems next year."
A decision to celebrate the holidays in two homes can be both good and bad news to children. "I tell parents to be honest to the kids and tell them Christmas won't be like it used to be," says Brown. "Eliminate faulty expectations. For instance, if there are going to be fewer gifts, tell them so -- and tell them why.
"Don't create false hopes. Separated parents should never spend Christmas together 'for the kids.' That's just a cruel joke. But do tell them they're going to have two Christmases every year. Most kids like that idea."
Visher warns that some parents who try to assure happy holidays for their children may forget themselves in the logistics.
"Help your kids," she says, "but make sure the holidays are special for you, too. Adults have their own needs. That's an important message for your kids for the future. And children will worry if they think a parent isn't having fun.
"And remember, what you're doing now, this year, becomes the memory of tomorrow's holidays."