Growing up, I have had a long and varied history when it comes to Christmas. From big celebrations to quiet dinners and everything in between, one theme has always been constant: Love and family. This year, as my world continues to change in the shadow of my transition, I approach a Christmas unlike any other, as the instability of my family and the resolve of my heart balance on a razor-thin wire.
My parents divorced when I was two, and so my earliest Christmas memories frequently involve waking up on Christmas morning to a wide range of presents that my single mom (and Santa) had placed under and around our tree. Not that I appreciated it as a young child, but my mom tried so hard to make each of my Christmases special. She overcompensated and spent money she did not really have to make my holiday special because we were by ourselves. One of my earliest Christmas memories was waking up in our small cottage to a living room full of gifts, all for little old 5-year-old me. A Big Wheel was my big gift that year. What I did not realize at the time was that she was not just showering me with gifts because I was her only child. She did that to make my Christmas memorable at a time when we had very little to celebrate. This demonstration was likely her way of trying to show me how much she loved me despite a lack of resources.
My mom and I were incredibly close. So, when she went to New York by herself for Christmas when I was 8-years-old, I was crushed. I stayed at a friend’s house for 2 weeks, and it was like being in a whole new world. The first night I stayed at his house, were supposed to sleep in bunk beds in my friend’s room, but I cried because I missed my mom. We relocated to the living room, where I was given the couch, and my friend slept on the living room floor. This calmed me because the living room had a large bay window. Every night, I would stare out the window in to the night and look at the stars. I would think about how my mom was looking at the same stars in New York, and we were somehow connected that way. In this way, I was with my mom for Christmas. To this day, I still wish upon stars when I am separated from close friends and family and blow kisses into the night sky hoping they will travel through the stars to those I am separated from.
On another Christmas when I was about 9, we traveled to my mom’s sister’s house in a remote Northern California town near Mt. Shasta. I always enjoyed spending time with my cousins. However, that Christmas, Santa left me a note saying my presents were waiting for me at home. Also, both my mom and I were gifted with an ugly illness which forced us home and drugged out on a half codeine-half cough syrup prescription watching rented movies while laying miserably in my mom’s bed. In mutual agony, we made the best of a bad situation, and I still remember the post-Christmas movie marathon to this day.
My dad was not entirely absent. He lived about 20 miles away, and in later years, I began to spend the first half of my winter breaks with him. That side of my family was a stark contrast to the relatively isolated world of my mom and I. My father was adopted into an Italian family, and like any Italian family, holidays were an event. Christmas was no different. They were loud, boisterous, crowded… and fun. My grandma and grandpa hosted about 20 family members each year, and we all crowded in to a tiny kitchen and living room in their apartment. The family would play seemingly neverending games of 31, my unfiltered aunts & uncles would comment on my appearance and my life, and my half-brother (who lived with my dad and whom I have always just referred to as my brother) would tease me like any older brother would. We would gorge on a huge spread of home cooked food. Typical Italian Christmas.
What ties the two sides of my family together were love and family. With my mom, we had an extremely tight-knit bond full of love and respect. For 18 years, she was my world until I went off to college. She celebrated me in times of achievement; she cried with me in times of great sadness. And while that seems like par for the course for a mother, she brought intangibles tot he table that are too extensive for me to get into here. Suffice to say, she shaped my early experience like no other. She was my immediate family. With my dad, I had the extended family. We did not share the same emotional bond that I had with mom, but he showed me the importance of family in the greater sense. The experiences I had—especially at the holidays—could not have been more diametrically opposed, but together, they helped me balance the importance of love and family.
In my later years, the world shifted. I have lost my mom. My dad has moved several hours away. I no longer have any living grandparents, and the days of the loud Italian Christmases faded when grandpa passed away. Despite the fracturing and loss of my family, the ideas I have revolving around love and family have continued to be important to me. I have had many a sad Christmas, especially in my early to mid 20s, when I did not have a lot of direction in my life and I was struggling with school. However, when I met the person who would become my wife, my connection with love and family found a new home with her.
As a romantic and with our nearly instant connection, I loved my wife with all of my heart. Our first Christmas together came just two months after our first date. That year, I have memories of taking her to see The Nutcracker after an epic night of finals, and going to a performance Cirque du Soleil on a cold December night in San Francisco. We spent that Christmas apart, but early on, her family embraced me as a member of their family. By the following Christmas, I once again had a large table to sit at my wife’s mom & stepdad’s house. On her dad’s side, her aunt would later conspire with me to arrange a surprise honeymoon which involved crashing at her house in Florida, even though she had never physically met me prior to our wedding. Later that year, we spent that Christmas in Florida with both of my wife’s aunts.
My wife and I began to build our own Christmas traditions. Up until last year, we made it a point to make crêpes each Christmas for breakfast. We always select and decorate our tree as a family. We frequently take a holiday photo together. And when our daughter was born just days before Christmas, we were lucky enough to wake up as a family of four on Christmas morning instead of being stuck in a hospital. I have a really cute photo of my 2-day old daughter sleeping in a stocking that I will always remember.
My wife and I have been together for 11 years. We have had many a Christmas where we have had to travel to sick family members. We have traveled to other family members’ dinners. We have had quiet Christmases at home. What ties them altogether is the love we have shared for each other and the fact that no matter the hardships, we have been together as family. With my transition, the last two Christmases have been the most challenging of them all. Two years ago, there was plenty of raw anger still present in the house. Last year, I was on the verge of coming out to the world as transgender. In fact, I came out to my kids just shy of the new year. In spite of the polarized emotions of the last two Christmases, we held it together as a family, and we continued to celebrate with most of our traditions and provided the children with the best experiences we can provide. Much like my mom did, I want the best for my children, and while we have to get creative to make it work, I want my children’s Christmas experiences to be as positive as possible while hiding the problems in the background.
This year, I do not know what to expect. As Christmas approaches this year, my heart and mind are strained. My wife and I have come a long way in rebuilding our friendship and our overall relationship, but huge questions still loom over us. Just this week, we had a discussion on the uncertainty that faces us. On one hand, we need freedom and space from each other. On the other, we are still family, and at least for me, there will always be love in my heart for her. I told her I loved her in a birthday card I wrote for her this week. Even if and when we go our separate ways, that is not a feeling I can just ignore. She will always be a part of my heart, and she will always be family. We continue treating this holiday like any other (except for the complication of Christmas falling on a Sunday this year). We will continue the tradition of buying and decorating a tree together. We will celebrate our daughter’s birthday ahead of and separate from Christmas. We will exchange thoughtful gifts. Sadly, crêpes probably won’t happen. (I was sad when that tradition was broken.)
My Christmases past has been wildly uneven, but love and family continue to be central themes in my life, even in the face of uncertainty. I do my best as a mother to provide a memorable Christmas for my children. I do my best as a wife (as long as I am one) to celebrate as much as I my partner is emotionally accepting of my love. For myself, I must remind myself that even though I have changed many things about my life, there are some things that remain the same. I am still a loving person with a big heart. I am still worthy of both giving and receiving love and warmth. In good Christmases and bad, those have always been there. As a child, my mom was a shining example of these traits, and even in trying times, she did her best. She taught me well. Even as my family situation becomes more fluid and my heart’s resolve is challenged, my core beliefs of the importance of love and family remain, and I will do my best to enjoy this Christmas season, even if I do cry every now and then.