I’m still not sure about Santa Claus, but there really is such a thing as Father Christmas. How am I so certain? Because I knew him.
My father-in-law, David, loved Christmas. Not so much the bling of decorations and gifts, but the whole feasting and storytelling and family side of the business. In the kitchen he was an enthusiastic cook (though he left behind the kinds of messes one associates with battlefields). He engineered conversations so that they ended explosively, whether in outrage or laughter. He was big—square and eye grabbing, an ambulatory billboard announcing “David Is Here!”
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It’s why, when he died three years ago, the space he left behind felt so vast. “David was here,” hushed the floorboards that once screeched with his every footfall in the old house where he lived in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. “David was here,” whispered his empty chair at the head of the table.
And then Christmas came along. The first one without him.
My wife, Heidi, and I decided to switch the setting to Toronto and host the celebrations ourselves. I felt confident enough about pulling off the food—I’m a decent cook, or at least tidier than David was—but it was the Father Christmas role I felt less certain about. I would be the eldest male under our roof when my newly widowed mother-in-law and Heidi’s brother and sister and their families assembled. Could I ever fill David’s size-11 shoes when it came to the table-slamming exclamations or window-rattling guffaws?
“I miss Gaga,” said our daughter, Maude, then five, whenever we talked about the holiday to come. (She wasn’t referring to Lady Gaga, but David, whom she custom-named as a toddler).
“He’ll be here in spirit,” I promised her. But privately I was really worried that his presence wouldn’t show up if I couldn’t turn my downtown, semi-detached Christmas up to full volume.
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We decided that a rerun of existing traditions would only be pale echoes of what was. So we started some new, urban traditions of our own. We rented the firepit in the park near our home and made hot chocolate in a pot on the flames. Instead of the skating pond, we hit the art gallery. David’s famous tourtière was replaced with my maybe-famous-one-day beef tenderloin.
“I think Gaga is here,” my two-year-old son, Ford, whispered to me at the Christmas dinner table. And I believe he was. A couple hours earlier I’d felt him, too, peering approvingly over my shoulder as I spread the marinade over the roast.
As it turns out, there’s more than one way to be a good Father Christmas, just as there’s more than one way to be a good father. You can show your family your love in quiet ways and still have more than enough holiday spirit to fill a house. This was David’s lesson all along. Embodying the holiday spirit isn’t about how low you can make your ho-ho-ho go. It’s not even about traditions. It’s about being there—really being there—and seeing how the present and past and future reach out to each other, on and on.
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A version of this article appeared in the December 2014 issue with the headline “Home for the holidays,” p. 84.