12/16/2011 01:44 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2012

A Post-Divorce Christmas In Miami (And How It Helped Loosen My Grip On Tradition)

My childhood Christmases were steeped in tradition. Every last detail, it seemed, was carefully thought out, packed with meaning, and then re-enacted, year after year.

There were cookie decorating rituals, candle lighting traditions, and family carol singing as we drove to the midnight Christmas Eve service (after which we always went to Grandma's for shrimp cocktail, a nut-encrusted cheese ball and ginger ale). On Christmas morning there were specific stocking procedures, followed by a much-anticipated (rarely-altered) breakfast and present opening.

The entire season was all about doing things the same way, every year, and somehow I never tired of revisiting every favorite ornament and well-worn tradition. That's why, when I got married and had my own children, I fully intended to create a similar holiday culture. Maybe I wouldn't encompass all the same rituals, but we would be steeped in traditions, nonetheless. And that's exactly what happened...until the year I decided to flee to Miami for Christmas.

Actually, I didn't just lose my mind and hop a plane to Miami. My divorce took place in there, somewhere between the cozy family scenes around the Christmas tree and my very un-Christmas-like escape. Divorce sure has a way of throwing a wrench in our visions of how things "should be," doesn't it?

My decision to go to Miami for Christmas surprised everyone, including me. As a Michigan girl who has never been fond of Florida, I have always been of the opinion that Christmas must involve snow. And of course it must involve family! But sometimes seeking the exact opposite of what we are used to is the best coping mechanism for dealing with unhappy change.

In my case, I was anticipating my first Christmas without my two young daughters. As the autumn leaves were falling from the trees two months earlier, the realization that I could not "do Christmas" without my daughters hit me hard. I mean, I could mark certain aspects of the season without being physically with them on Christmas day -- we still made cookies and put up a tree -- but I couldn't go to my parents' house and spend the 25th going through all the holiday rituals without them. If Christmas had to be different, I was going to make sure it was very different. Miami did the trick.

That was seven years ago, and it was the only Christmas I reinvented to that extreme. But Miami helped break a cycle of intent sameness, teaching me valuable lessons about flexibility and the importance of holding traditions loosely. Because even though life has since settled into a new normal, it's clear that a stubborn determination to make traditions happen will only cause more grief during a time of year that stirs up enough sadness on its own.

Change, after all, is the great constant. Even without a divorce in the mix, things change. Our kids get older. Our siblings get married or move away. Climate change means you can no longer rely on a white Christmas, even in Michigan. Changing religious beliefs or preferences ripple out, causing holiday practices and traditions to change, too. Life will change, so it seems the healthiest approach to the holidays is found somewhere between firm tradition and constant flux. Here are a few examples of how you might find that happy medium:

- Determine which traditions matter the most to you and figure out how to work them into the holiday season, even if they happen on a smaller scale or within a different time frame. If you're divorced and have kids, keep in mind that you probably get to spend less time with them--trying to do everything you used to do will probably be an exercise in frustration.

- Talk with kids and family members about old traditions that don't always happen any more. It's natural to feel defeated or frustrated by the memories, but try instead to think of the act of remembering them as a new way to keep those traditions alive. An evening of "remember when" stories can be a great family bonding experience, even if some of the stories are tinged with sadness.

- Think of new things to do that will make the holiday special and fit your current family structure (your kids' ages, your schedule, your budget, etc.). Maybe some of these new things will become traditions (and maybe they won't--that's OK too). The point is to break the cycle of rituals that have become too deeply entrenched, opening the door to new ideas and possibilities.

- Make the season meaningful on a personal level. You, after all, are always with yourself, whether you're at home or in Miami, remarried or not, with or without your kids. Rather than relying on so many factors you can't control to make the holiday special, find some small meaningful practices you can control. (For instance, I'm participating in a daily Advent photography project on Instagram, and I'm knitting some gifts for friends and family. I can usually make both of those things happen daily, no matter what else is going on around me.)

- Focus on giving to others, and find new ways to go about it. It's easy at this time of year to be hyper-aware of what we want. After all, that's how most of us grew up experiencing Christmas anticipation--in the form of our wish lists. But as adults--especially divorced adults--we need to set aside this focus and replace it with something else. Not only is it mentally and emotionally healthy to focus on giving rather than getting, it's also refreshing to move away from traditional forms of gift giving. Find ways to give your time through volunteering. Take your kids shopping to pick out food for a food bank or gifts for families in need. And maybe even go out on a limb and think about what you might want to give to the people in your life who represent some of the hurt you feel at the holidays. It's very likely that more compassion, forgiveness and grace are what we all need most this season.