When I first was separated from my ex-wife, Arlene, my three kids were all under 10 years old. When Christmas came around that year I knew it was going to be hard — maybe not so much for the kids, but for me (selfish).
Christmas with the kids had always been Arlene and I wrapping their presents after they had all gone to bed. We drank red wine and watched A Christmas Carol with Alistair Sims (all others truly pale in comparison). By six a.m. (what kid sleeps late on Christmas) we would be down to tear open the presents that we painstakingly wrapped just a few hours before. Once the batteries were put in, and any assembly required completed, favorite toys were selected and joined us at the table for Christmas breakfast. After that, all wrapping paper and ribbons disposed of, we headed off to church (I put that in here for my brother’s reassurance that I may just make it to heaven when I die).
Of course, after the separation, all that changed.
On that first Christmas I woke up about five-thirty in the morning, got into my car with my presents for my kids, and started the twenty-five minute ride to their house. Out of my complex I turned onto the main road. Two minutes later I was sitting at a red light. I looked left, right, and then in my rear-view mirror — there wasn’t a headlight or taillight to be seen. It was dark and it was cold and ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ was playing on the radio (no, not really, but how ironic if it was?). Either way, I felt like I was in my own country western Christmas song — all I needed was a dog that would, at that point, jump out the window and runaway.
When I finally got to their house, I went in and put my presents under the tree. A few minutes later the kids came down, opened their presents and, for a few moments, all was right with the world.
It didn’t last long.
A short time later Arlene gave me two bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches (to go) and in no time I was back on the road, and headed home. Later that day I had planned to go to my brother’s for Christmas day, but decided to just stay home. He told me to stop feeling sorry for myself and come on over. I assured him I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself (I was)and spent the day alone. I had bought a Christmas wreath and drove over to the cemetery where my parents were. I planned to put it on their graves but, sadly, I could not find them. I walked around the cemetery in the bitter cold trying to remember their plot (I did not visit often — I did mention that I was selfish) but had no luck. At that moment I thought the bitter cold and being alone on Christmas was my penance for not visiting my parents more often. On my way back to the car I spotted a tombstone with a name that was familiar — the last name was the same name as a bar I often went to. I laid the wreath on the grave with specific instructions to its inhabitant to tell my parents that I had stopped by.
It was late on my way home and knowing I had no food at home I was frantic to find someplace that would be open. Then, like a star in the east, at the back of a strip mall, the lighted sign of a Chinese restaurant caught my eye. It was wonton soup and egg rolls for Christmas dinner that year.
A few years later, the woman I was dating at the time, had an idea that would change Christmas forever.
“Why not celebrate the day before Christmas Eve as Christmas Eve,” she said, “and then celebrate Christmas Eve as Christmas Day?”
It was brilliant in its simplicity, so that’s what the kids and I have been doing. Although she also had the idea that we all wear matching outfits so there are those awkward photographs of everyone wearing identical Old Navy black shirts and red-and-black sweatpants. That idea only lasted the one year. Her first idea, however, had the legs to go the distance.
The very next Christmas the kids and I went to The Buck’s County Playhouse and watched a musical version of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre was crowded and hot and for some reason a twenty something-year-old actor played Clarence in a white tuxedo and top hat. It was odd, but the kid was really good. The next morning (Christmas Eve) we woke up, wished each other Merry Christmas, opened presents, and then I made pancakes. The year after that we went into New York City, saw the tree at Rockefeller Center, walked around trying not to lose each other in the crowds. The next morning, we opened presents, and I made pancakes (I can only make pancakes).
It went on like with only slight modification over the years. My kids are older now so they have their own schedules and it gets a little tougher to have the full two days. This year on Christmas Eve night we went to church, went to dinner, then opened presents and watched Elf on pay-per-view before the kids headed home to have Christmas with their mom.
Divorce changes everything, especially holidays, and you have to find a way to reclaim them. I’m sure as my children get older and have lives of their own, Christmas will continue to change. Even with that change I am happy with the fact that we will always find a way to celebrate the holidays together.