The holidays are a magical time of year for me, and always have been. As a family, we would fill the weeks before and after Christmas with loads of activities, dining, entertainment, decorations, and presents … each offering a unique photo op as the kids grew up year after year.
When you’re in a divorced family, it’s a little more challenging to squeeze in the time to celebrate properly. Throw into the mix that dad is gay, and you have a whole lot of shaking going on. Especially back in the 1990s and 2000s. Times were different back then. There was no Gays With Kids and the gays with kids were pretty quiet about it.
My children are now grown, 20 and 22, in college and graduate school. While it wasn’t ever easy, we cherished the holiday season the most of any time of the year, despite the shuffle and expenses that came with it.
So as a dad who has made it to the other side as an empty-nester, I encourage you to celebrate the holiday season with all the might you can muster. You’ll remember it for the rest of your life, and so will your children.
I’d like to share a chapter from my new book “Out & About Dad,” where I talk about my love for the holiday season. You’ll quickly see how much I loved being a family during the holiday season, something I continue to hold on to even today.
Happy Holidays, Gays with Kids!
Reprinted (with a few adaptations) is a chapter from “Out & About Dad”:
CHAPTER 20: Photo Op
Christmas: it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
You know the saying, “Like a kid at Christmas.” Well, that’s me. I love Christmas, always have.
For me, Christmas starts two weeks before Thanksgiving, which is when we start planning our Thanksgiving dinner.
As a kid, I would beg my parents to put up our Christmas tree earlier and earlier every year. Which is why I have no problem when Christopher wants to put the tree up the weekend before Thanksgiving. I’m in!
As a kid I would hand-string garland of popcorn and cranberries to mix in with our ornaments to fill up the tree. Which is why I love that Christopher has the largest collection of Christmas ornaments that I have ever seen. Literally thousands.
Last year we put up seven trees. I kid you not.
As a kid, I would spend hours wrapping my presents so that they would be the most uniquely wrapped boxes under the tree. I learned it from my sister, who is a master at accessorizing. Now I have handed over wrapping duties to Christopher, whose papers, ribbons, bows, and accessories blow us all out of the water.
As a kid I was more about the appetizers than the dinner itself, which is why Christopher puts out a spread of appetizers that would feed the entire New York City Police Department. We eat and drink for hours.
At work, the holiday party is always the most special day of the year for me.
The couple that owned the agency I worked for in Connecticut taught me the wonder of the company holiday party.
To this day, I put a lot of time into planning the party so that everyone has a blast. The theme to last year’s company holiday party was “Fire and Ice,” complete with food, drinks, and lighting all appropriately hot or cold. Everyone wore blue or red, depending on whether they were “fire” or “ice.” I wore a shirt that looked like it was on fire.
This year’s holiday party was “Holiday Vegas Style” because what happens at the holiday party stays at the holiday party. My vintage Versace shirt fit the bill perfectly, and it looked great in all the pictures with the Cher impersonator we hired.
It’s all about building those holiday memories and relationships, at home and at work.
I love giving holiday surprises; it’s one of the joys of life. Which is why we can never fit the presents under just one Christmas tree. It’s all about the “wow” and the “unboxing” on Christmas morning.
Christmas was always a very special time at our house, but it was always a little bittersweet, to tell you the truth.
My two kids are the only two kids in the entire family, in either direction.
So our house was holiday central, with everyone coming to our place to celebrate.
But, being divorced, it came with a price – it always ended too soon because we only had the kids for half the time. Let’s face it, Christmas is about the children, so cutting it in half meant cutting the holiday in half.
Glass half empty.
We would alternate Thanksgiving with their mother, one year on, one year off. To compensate on the years we didn’t see them on the holiday, we’d have a pre-Thanksgiving dinner. Even still, those years without the kids on the actual Thanksgiving Day were a little too quiet and a little lonely. It made us pause and give thanks, especially for the years when we did have them on the holidays.
Christmas was even trickier for some reason. We would alternate with their mom so that one year they would be with us Christmas Eve and then leave Christmas morning, and then the next year the schedule would flip.
While it worked out, it was never enough, not for us.
We’d have an entire crowd in for the holiday, only to be left empty handed when the kids would have to leave. It was the ultimate of highs and lows, which is also why Christopher and I would start so early; we needed to extend the holiday every way possible.
The problem was that everyone would arrange their schedule around the kids’ timing, which was fine, except that it left us high and dry when the kids weren’t with us and everyone would leave. So we would prepare, clean, shop, cook, and clean again, only to have everyone leave at the same time as the kids.
We’d felt like we were left holding the bag. So we had to institute a rule that if you were going to come for the holidays, you had to stay the entire time. If we were in it, then you had to be in it too. A little selfish, I know.
But none of that really mattered, because it was Christmas with our family regardless of the amount of time.
Glass half full.
We started a tradition when the kids were really young to kick off the holiday season: a trip to New York for a Broadway show and a really fancy dinner.
We saw "Oklahoma!,” "Annie Get Your Gun,” "Mamma Mia!” and “Phantom of the Opera,” to name a few. We also saw the Rockettes more than a few times; the multiplying Santas are my favorite part of the show.
They get me every time!
“Annie Get Your Gun" was the first show we ever saw, with Bernadette Peters playing the lead. It was a special treat from my parents. I kept telling the kids that there was a really famous actress in the show, and that they were really going to love her.
“But how will we know who she is?” my son kept asking.
“Trust me, you will know,” I kept saying in return.
As each actor came out, he would ask me if that was her. Nope, but I kept saying that he would know when it’s her.
Sure enough, about fifteen minutes into the show, Bernadette Peters made her entrance to thundering applause. “Ohhhh,” he “whispered” loudly into my ear; he was sitting on my lap so that he could see the stage better.
Our seats were way up in the back of the theater; so high that the spotlight for the stage was literally right over our heads. That spotlight proved to be very convenient for him, because he could reach up to stick his jellybeans into the light to see what flavor he was about to enjoy.
Such amazing holiday memories!
Through the years we had dinner at The Four Seasons, Tavern on the Green, and Alain Ducasse, to name a few. But few restaurants compared to La Grenouille in the heart of midtown New York City. La Grenouille was the first really fancy place we ever took the kids for dinner, so it set a benchmark for many other holiday dinners to come.
While the food was amazing, the restaurant was known for its fresh flowers, which literally filled the air with an intense fragrance at any time of the year, including Christmastime. With a little trepidation, only because it’s so fancy, I made a reservation months ahead. I had never been myself so I was worried it was too fancy even for me. My son kept asking me what it meant for a restaurant to be “fancy.”
He would soon find out.
We planned our outfits weeks ahead. My daughter was going to wear a red velvet holiday dress with little black Mary Jane shoes and my son let me pick out a vest and tie ensemble. The two of them were adorable.
As we were approaching the restaurant, I stopped them a half a block away and knelt down in front of them.
“Now remember, this is a really fancy restaurant, the best in the city. You need to really behave and sit up. Don’t complain about your food, and be happy with whatever the waiter puts in front of you.”
Nothing like being positive, huh?! They were frozen in silence.
We were going to be fine.
When we entered the restaurant, I heard an audible “Oh, wow” come out of my daughter’s mouth when she saw all of the flowers.
We were going to be fine.
The place was teeming with flowers, more than I could have possibly imagined; I had never seen so many in one place. I don’t know how you can go there if you have allergies; it was just that fragrant. There was no need for any cologne that night, that’s for sure.
It was picture-perfect. We were going to be fine.
The waiter took our coats and brought us to our table. It was the fanciest restaurant that I had ever been to, and it blew the kids away. We all stood tall as we walked to the table
The waiter sat them on the inside banquette so that they could look out.
Good call. Christopher and I sat on the outside facing them.
“What should we talk about?” asked my daughter. We were going to be fine, at least until the menus came.
The menu was a bit overwhelming, even for me, and I could see a look of panic start to settle in. There were no chicken fingers and French fries in this joint! I explained to my daughter that when in doubt always order a steak; at least you know what that is. My son asked me to order for him.
When the waiter came over, we ordered steak for both of them. I started to worry a little bit, realizing that there’s no way that they’d be able to cut their steak at the table, and also realizing that they were about to get Olympic-sized proportions.
Christopher motioned the waiter over to whisper in his ear so that the kids couldn’t hear. I myself could just barely hear him say, “Can you have the kitchen cut up their steaks in the back so that it comes out bite size? Can they split one steak because they’ll never be able to eat two portions?” He also told the waiter what sides to include, knowing what would make the kids happy.
How did he know this stuff?
When the two individual plates of cut up steak came out for them, each with a small baked potato and steamed asparagus, the look in their eyes was priceless. It’s as if they said out loud, “We can do this!”
We were going to be fine.
Dessert consisted of profiteroles (their first ever and one of my personal favorites) and pudding in a cloud (their first ever, and a first for me too). We were going to be fine.
That night at La Grenouille set the standard for every formal Christmas season dinner ever since. We’ve never been back with the kids, but it’s on my bucket list.
For years every time we would go out to dinner, my son would ask if it was going to be “fancy,” and then the kids would joke later about where we had dinner and say, “Well, it’s no La Grenouille!”
Another year we went to The Four Seasons. For her appetizer, my daughter shockingly ordered the foie gras. The waiter smiled, looked at me for approval, and said, “Of course, the young lady will have foie gras.” It’s all about the experience. We saw “Music Man" that night.
Another year we went to the new Alain Ducasse restaurant at the Essex House, right off Central Park. It was the most expensive, most controversial restaurant in the city, but we had to try it. It’s all about the experience.
When the waiter came over with a clear rectangular deep dish to showcase the truffles for the evening, my daughter reached in to try to take one out. I thought the waiter was going to have a heart attack. It made me smile. That was the night we went to see “Oklahoma!,” the show she had requested for our annual holiday trip that year.
Every restaurant and every show was a new experience, and always with a trip to see the tree at Rockefeller Center squeezed in somehow. I love taking pictures in front of the tree! I used to wonder about it as a kid.
We even did our annual NYC trip for the holiday following 9/11. We needed to show our support for the city at a time when no one was going to New York. I love New York.
OMG, I can’t leave out the best part of our New York holiday tradition!
Every year we also did Breakfast with Santa, which consisted of brunch at the restaurant right on the rink of Rockefeller Center with a visit from Santa Claus, and then skating on the rink. None of us are great skaters, to tell you the truth, but circling around on that rink under the circle of flags, the gold statue, and the buildings of Rockefeller Center was nothing short of magical. I probably took more pictures on that rink than anywhere else in New York. Does it get more New York than that? Does it get more holiday than that?!?
I wish we were there right now.
Those holiday weekends broke the bank but they built so many Christmas memories that I didn’t care. I’d figure it out in January when the credit card bills would come in. Can’t tell you how many years I said, “F*ck it.”
I still say “f*ck it” when it comes to the holidays. “We’ll figure it out in January” was my motto when it came to holiday spending. Looking back, it was worth every penny, especially now that the children aren’t children anymore.
There were years that were so financially tight that Christopher and I wouldn’t exchange gifts. “We’ll exchange gifts next year,” was something we said more than a few years. As Dads, that’s what you do.
We’d stuff the tree with gifts for the kids, but then give each other something small. That’s how you roll when you’re parents.
It was hard because we had friends that would shower each other in gifts, and showcase them to us in an obvious display. It was hard to swallow some years. We would also sometimes hear later that people complained about the gifts that we had given them.
F*ck it. Sorry about that, but our kids are the priority.
I’m not sure if it was inspired by La Grenouille or not, but I have to say that Christopher would outdo himself with food at the holidays every year. It was weeks in the making, but it was a solid four days of eating. The day before Christmas Eve would turn into Christmas Eve, would turn into Christmas, which would then turn into the day after Christmas, one delicious meal right after another.
Weeks ahead, Christopher would jam-pack our Christmas trees with his collection of ornaments. He decorated the most beautiful trees that I have ever seen – I would argue that anyone has ever seen. He engulfed them with glass ornaments of every size, shape, color, and theme. Then when they were loaded with beautifully wrapped presents around the base, they made a perfect photo op.
Every year, part of the tradition was to cut down a live tree. Well, that tradition went away the year the Christmas tree fell down three times in a row from the weight of all the ornaments. The following year we switched to artificial and starting doing multiple trees around the house. We have that many ornaments; it was an issue of safety!
One tree was just not enough.
So a new tradition was born: multiple trees, each with a theme. One was all birds, one silver and gold, one all Santas, one all vintage ornaments, etc. I posted them all on Facebook each year!
It was yet another “tradition,” as my son would say. But there was another one that was even more delicious…