There is a Christmas picture printed, indelibly, on my psyche: it is the one with little children, eyes bright as stars, gazing up at Daddy, standing by a loaded Christmas tree, in a well-tied dressing gown. Mummy, wearing a tender smile and sensible apron, is in attendance. It is a freeze-frame of how family life ought to be, and it is an image that makes Christmas particularly painful for the newly divorced.
That scene from the Fifties, where the generations are gathered together, was from a time when marriage and the nuclear family were celebrated as never before or since. So powerful is it that we return to it every Christmas.
The first year after separating, my ex-partner and I tried to stick the bits back and have a reconstituted 'family Christmas' for the sake of the children. I cried into the sprouts and will never forget the feeling of renewed betrayal when, on the stroke of 5pm, with obvious relief, he left.
This year, I hear, that most famous of single mothers, the Princess of Wales, is making the same mistake and going with her children to Sandringham. She should be warned that it will be ghastly.
Claire Hershman, a north London counsellor who is providing a short series of workshops for the newly divorced to help them to cope with the festive season, says that pretended harmony is a common response to the crisis of Christmas when the loneliness of separation suddenly weighs more heavily than ever.
Having been through all this herself, she warns: 'Coming together for the sake of the children requires the acting skills of a member of the National Theatre.' Yet she does recognise that gluing the family back together for the day can be an act of mercy: 'Being miserable together can be better than feeling worse apart.'
One man was attending the first of her drop-in Christmas workshops just six weeks after his wife left him for another. He told us he had agreed to spend Christmas with his ex-wife because 'the man she is with is spending Christmas with his children. She doesn't want to be alone so I agreed to stick to our original plan to go away together.' He smiled ruefully: 'I suppose it sounds as though I am grabbing at crumbs.'
His presence here is evidence of his determination to put the past behind but, given the opportunity for one last Christmas with his wife, he couldn't say no. After all, he is used to loving her and the river doesn't run dry as soon as the rain has stopped.
Yet sometimes the magic of Christmas can weave cruel spells. I heard one story of a woman who leapt at just such a chance of togetherness and spent a romantic, snowbound, night with her ex. She cherished hopes of reconciliation but, in the crueller light of the New Year, he apologised for misleading her.
It is not only the habit of loving that keeps people together in the festive season. One of Hershman's clients, currently awaiting her decree absolute, could be sunning herself in Florida with her married daughter but she prefers the misery of the familiar. 'My husband and son don't speak to each other but I can't just leave him out. It wouldn't be fair. I mean, you've been with this person all these years. I feel so sorry for him.' So this unhappy trio will spend the day together having 'a silent pig-out in front of the TV'.
This is not as irrational as it sounds. Setting up a situation in which you will inevitably end up wallowing in your own misery may feel easier to cope with than being a bystander in someone else's happy family. A friend told me about the agony of spending her first Christmas as an ex with a lovingly bonded couple: 'They kept touching each other. It felt like having salt rubbed in the wound. I got more and more miserable. They must have thought I was an appalling wet blanket, but I wanted to gather my children round me and shrink into a small hole.'
Looking in on someone else's festivities is not the only alternative. My most successful Christmases have been spent with other lone parents and a collection of children, peeling potatoes in harmony and drunkenly reminiscing about the worst aspects of Yuletide celebrations of old - Christmas is also the time when the biggest cracks appear in the facade of family life.
One woman attending the seminar is brittle with anger and the sense of betrayal. After a year spent locked in battle with her husband, she is approaching her second Christmas without him: 'Last year on Christmas Eve I got pretty weepy, taking the kids out to see Santa and feeling very lonely, but a friend pointed out that it was really no different. He would never have come with us anyway. In six years he didn't attend even one of his own daughter's birthday parties.'
She has already taken part in 10 weeks of divorce recovery sessions and is beginning to find her feet, to look more dispassionately at the life which she lost and to recognise that she can set a direction of her own. Hershman stresses that everyone needs the opportunity to feel the grief that is the inevitable accompaniment to separation, but that people need support from others if they are to be able to move on. She encourages her workshop participants to provide that support.
A father living alone and dreading his first Christmas in exile announced he would be spending the day under the duvet. Two other men promptly invited him to join them. One woman made it to last week's session only because another participant had found her curled up in a blanket, and encouraged her to come along. Support from people who understand what it feels like to go through a divorce can be life-saving.
Friends and family who interfere, pity or criticise can be worse than useless. This woman, whose misery lay around her shoulders like the blanket she had crawled out from under, told the group: 'I won't go to
my sister's at Christmas because they
will all start criticising him and I can't bear it.' There was instant agreement.
'Yes, it's a personal slight.'
'If they criticise the man I was married to, that feels like a criticism of me.'
The man who is spending Christmas with his ex-wife smiled, with the quiet relief of someone who has finally found people who understand how hard it can be to untangle that ball of feelings - love, mixed up with anger and pain. He is still hoping for a Christmas miracle. If it doesn't happen, at least he knows that he won't be the only one for whom this is not the season to be merry.
Divorce recovery seminars are held in St John's Wood, London NW8. For places on the pre-Christmas course ( pounds 15 per session) or future 10-week courses ( pounds 125), phone 071-226 9218.
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