Knuckleheads are funny things.
They’re clean slates, you see. Rarely do we get the chance in life to start from scratch, and a knucklehead gives us exactly that opportunity. A baby comes with no history, so everything is new. We come with baggage of course, every holiday another bulb in a very long string of lights. But a child brings a chance to start a new string, if we’re brave enough, and self-aware enough. I was determined to give my knucklehead the gift of a new tradition. What I didn’t know at the time, is that it was a gift I was to receive in turn.
We left off last week in some low holiday spirits. My memories of family Christmas were mostly associated with stress and strife, and as The Knucklehead came into the picture, my atheism had left the holiday empty of spiritual value. In fact, where as a Christian I had seen the holiday as a promise made, as an atheist, I saw it as a promise broken. Had it not been for The Knucklehead, I’d as soon as been done with Christmas entirely.
But knuckleheads have a funny way of pulling us out of our self-pity. It makes it really hard to wallow in your own misfortune when there’s this little person looking up at you, wanting to know if the world is just as full of joy and wonder as it’s been advertised. You can’t poison that kind of hope with your own unfortunate experiences. Your kid needs you to step out, and step up.
And, to be honest, there was another piece to this. I was a divorced dad by the time my kid was four. Divorced dads know this feeling all too well; no matter what the custody arrangement, people think of mom’s house as “home” and dad’s house as… well, “dad’s house.” Men have to fight harder to be recognized as legitimate parents, by schools, by communities, by society. It’s why fathers like me hate deadbeat dads so much; they obfuscate the real work we do as parents. Complicating this was the fact that on his mom’s side, my boy was growing up in a small town with grandparents and cousins nearby, and a large extended family at hand. On my side, there was me. My parents were gone, my siblings scattered.
And, I’d given away Christmas. When The Knucklehead’s mom and I separated, I agreed to let him spend each Christmas with his mom. I would have Knucks for the afternoon of December 23rd until the afternoon of the 24th. That would be “our Christmas” every year. His mom would take him for a few days over the “real” Christmas, and I would get him back for a few days over New Year’s. This was my idea. I felt it was only fair to let my boy spend a traditional Christmas with a larger family for whom the holiday meant something. It seemed selfish and pointless to insist on his company on a calendar day that I didn’t celebrate, but that others did.*
So on the one hand, we have Christmas with Mom, on December 25th, in a house filled with relatives, with food, cookies, decorations, and festivities, in observance of the Christian tradition. On the other hand, you have Christmas with Dad, off the day itself, just two dudes, the larger of whom has an aversion to anything traditional the holiday brings.
It’s a good thing that Christmas, like parenting, isn’t a competition. Because if it were a competition, Mom was way ahead on points. Again, when you’re a divorced dad in America, you get sensitive to those kind of things. Maybe in reality, you’re the only one who notices. Maybe not. But, you notice.
I could feel bad, or I could do something about it. So, we did something about it.
I decided off the bat that our Christmas celebration would be about us. Time together, time enjoying each other’s company. We were always better at that than the Better Homes and Gardens stuff, anyway. We had 24 hours together, and we weren’t going to squander a minute of it in service to something that wasn’t meaningful to the two of us. Over the years, this is how we shaped Christmas into our own image:
December 23, AM: I spend the morning doing prep work for our traditional meals, before The Knucklehead makes his appearance. I decided that while we would enjoy our own traditional meals, I wasn’t going to waste precious Holiday Knucklehead Time in the kitchen. Meals are planned around this idea. Over New Year’s, when we had more time, I took pride in preparing a full-on holiday meal; turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc.** I found that the “work” I did that morning put me in the greatest of moods. I realized for the first time the joy a true “labor of love” can bring.
December 23, afternoon: The Knucklehead has arrived! We play, we read, whatever. Whatever we feel like doing, we do.
December 23 dinner: Pizza, generally courtesy Dominoes, because for a long time they were the only ones that delivered. No plates, eaten straight out of the box, with a pile of paper towels.
December 23, PM: Go to the movies! This became an obvious tradition, because there was always something out around the holidays that we both wanted to see. Christmas movies that stand out in my memory are Elf, The Return of the King (the first of the LOTR movies I felt he was old enough to see in a theater) and King Kong.
December 24, breakfast: Beignets! I would usually splurge, and we’d have these with fresh strawberries. The beignet batter I’d made the morning before (you want it to sit in the fridge at least overnight, anyway), so rolling out the dough and frying them up took about 20 minutes, tops. Easy, and what a treat!
December 24, AM. Open presents. Play with toys. Play games. Stay in jammies all morning.
December 24, dinner: Puerco Pibil. This sounds nuts, but bear with me. Puerco Pibil is a Mexican pulled pork, a recipe that comes from the Yucatan. It’s what Johnny Depp chows down on in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and Robert Rodríguez himself shows you how to make the dish in one of the supplements on the DVD of the film (WARNING: This video, like the film, is not kid-friendly, unless you’ve seen it first and are lightning-quick with the remote). It became our dish because we both like Mexican food, and it’s undeniably cool. I favored it because I could make the achiote past the day before, so in the morning all you have to do is throw the pork and the paste into a pan, toss it in the oven, and forget about it for four hours. No stirring, no fussing. I would throw some baby spinach leaves on a plate, top that with rice, and top that with the finished pibil. Serve with lime wedges. Awesome.
December 24, afternoon: Scrub up the boy, turn him over to his mom for his traditional Christian American Christmas.
Here’s an interesting thing. In the weeks leading upon to our first Christmas together, the first one when it was going to be just us guys, I found myself growing increasingly depressed. Though I knew better, I couldn’t help comparing our lonely little celebration with the extravaganza in store at his mom’s house. As we all know, Christmas pretty much smacks you in the face in December in America. I was also painfully aware that we weren’t celebrating the holiday on the day itself. It wasn’t really “Christmas” we had together.
That feeling lasted ten seconds on that first Christmas, and I’ve never had it since. The joy on my boy’s face at our own private holiday honestly erased all doubt from my mind. When I turned him back over to his mom that first time, I had lost that feeling I was sure I’d have that we had missed Christmas. We hadn’t. We’d just had it a day early. That honestly made it no less real.
Over the years, I’ve come to believe that The Knucklehead’s mom and I have given our boy the best of both worlds. With his mom, he gets the traditional bash, including the religious observance (which will be up to him to eventually make sense of, or not). I like to think that I give him a sense of calm before the storm. More than that, the idea of not letting a holiday run away with you. However he chooses to celebrate a holiday with his own family in the years to come, I believe that the gift I’ve given him is one of choice. A way to gain a measure of control and focus on what’s really important over the holidays: we and the people we love.
And he gave me Christmas back. He helped me salvage a holiday that had painful memories and turn it into something joyful. Our new, improved holiday became a balm to heal the wounds of the past. The Knucklehead brought me peace, and in that peace, I was finally able to bring some perspective to my family holidays, and see that it wasn’t me who was really suffering. It was my mother.
But the woman had one last gift for me. It was because of her, and one of her Christmas traditions, that I was able to address a central dilemma Christmas brings. She gave me a way to introduce herself to the grandson she’d never met.
I’ll tell you how next week, when we conclude this series.
*Though I have had wonderful holidays with my boy, I would not do this again. In my attempt to honor my son’s mother’s side of the family, I inadvertently disrespected my own. I have no regrets, but if I had it to do over, I would alternate holidays.
**My stuffing, always a work in progress, I humbly submit, is epic. And Knucks once paid me the highest accolades a chef can receive when he proclaimed, “Dad, mashed potatoes are your wheelhouse.”