“Christmas!” The very word conjures up cosy images of cheerful times, presents, twinkly lights, and sentiment, and, for the most part, happiness, a time for family to come together, and enjoy the festive spirit.

Not wanting to put a dampener on proceedings, that is, of course, not the case for too many people for whom Christmas can be extremely difficult – not least the separated parent in dispute with their “co-parent” about the care arrangements for the children. The lead up to Christmas for me and doubtless for many other family lawyers can be fraught with clients struggling to agree with whom little Tommy should spend Christmas Day, at what times, and frankly, the remainder of the holidays. It is not uncommon for a client to contact me in the week leading up to Christmas seeking an urgent hearing in court to determine the matter because they have reached an impasse. Awful.

Very sadly, family lawyers do not have magic wands and whilst all efforts can be made by solicitors, and worst case scenario by the court, to determine the matter I do wonder if a lot of heartache could be avoided by trying to head the difficulty off at the pass.

Sharing the Christmas holidays

Often clients say “I want to split the holiday equally” but what does that mean practically? We all know that the school Christmas holidays roughly last for a period of two weeks, or significantly longer in the case of some private schools, but the all-important Christmas Eve into Christmas Day does not fall at the same time within that period. Children stop school for the Christmas holidays on different days leading up to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The last week of school leading up to Christmas Day is typically packed with Christmas parties, trips to the pantomime and other shows that understandably each parent will wish to enjoy with the kids.

As such, simply stating that children should spend one week of the holidays with one parent, and one week with the other will likely deny the children and the parents the enjoyment of all this time of year has to offer – more creative solutions have to be considered and hopefully agreed. The flash points in my experience are from Christmas Eve over to Christmas Day and then into Boxing Day. If geography allows I do wonder if a starting point should be that agreement is reached allowing the children to spend at least part of Christmas Eve over until Christmas Day with one parent and in that same year, with the other parent from Christmas Day over until Boxing Day. That arrangement should alternate on an annual basis. That may not suit all families but it is a positive, inclusive starting point.

Planning in advance

I would suggest that parents undertake to indicate to the other parent no later than say four weeks in advance of the holidays, earlier if required, their proposed plans, including any thoughts of Christmas shows etc. If they are unable to speak civilly then communication can be by email in order to avoid any “confusion”. If each parent has this information in advance then potential clashes can presumably be identified and hopefully avoided.

Thereafter and depending upon the respective parents’ holiday arrangements the remainder of the holidays could be shared between the parents. When I say “share” I do not mean in a precise 50/50 down to the last minute sort of arrangement which so many try to insist upon. Children cannot be divided in two. They should be allowed the love and support of both parents but not made to choose or feel torn between them. I accept that to achieve this will require a degree of sense on the part of the parents and a setting aside of their personal feelings for each other. That is easier said than done but if children are to look upon Christmas as a time of joy and anticipation instead of anxiety and discord, then it is all too vital.

Standing outside Court 14 at Edinburgh Sheriff Court waiting for your Child Welfare Hearing to call in order to determine the care arrangements for your children for Christmas (down to the hour and the place of handover) is never a welcome addition to advent.