12/24/2007 10:43 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Xmas with the Exes

My daughter and my son, now nine and six, have lived with me since my ex-wife left five years ago, but every Christmas since, except the one when I was briefly engaged and forbidden to, we have all spent together with her family in Social Circle, Georgia.

My ex-wife reminded me soon after we separated that Christmases for her as a young girl, after her parents had split up, were forever ruined. No matter how many Growing-Up Skipper dolls she unwrapped she could never forget that her dad's only appearance that day would be by phone.

I spent my first Christmas with my now ex-in-laws when we first started dating, seventeen years ago. My parents had both passed away years before so I had no real family obligations of my own.

My ex in-laws live in a vast log cabin on its own tiny lake and that first year they put me in the room next to their daughter's, far from their own, so they had plausible deniability about my true whereabouts. Christmas Eve four years later I slipped a ring into the bottom of a champagne flute and she very nearly swallowed it till I pointed it out and she shrieked.

We were married for eight years and when we divorced we did our best to separate without rancor, each committed to shielding our children from the worst of the trauma. When she first brought up the idea of me still coming to Christmas I had no idea how I would handle it.
As I did every year I flew out a few days after them, this time cutting it close and arriving on Christmas Eve. My ex and I slipped out to the Mall of Georgia to load up on presents and the drive there was the longest we'd been alone together since she'd moved out.

When we returned home Carmen and I kissed the kids to bed and then wrapped all the presents in front of the television. She hadn't had a TV since she moved out so was wide-eyed at the new reality shows. Finally, we were done and she disappeared up the stairs to her room. I ate most of Santa's cookies and drank almost all of his milk.

I won't say it was easy, that first Christmas Eve apart, sleeping in the guest room again, surrounded by more ghosts of Christmas past than ever haunted Ebenezer Scrooge.
And yet the morning after made it all worthwhile. I immediately recognized in the eyes of my kids the purity of the joy that I knew on that day when I was their age, still untainted by the disappointments that, with time, will meet us all.

Five years later I love my Christmases with my adopted family.

Rabid, runaway reindeer couldn't keep me away.

Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter, blogger and teaches at Columbia University. He's the author of the forthcoming memoir - "Bedtime Stories."