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In 2011, I was cheated out of my first Christmas with my daughter. Her mother had just passed away and I was beginning what would be long and hard fought series of custody hearings against Cydney’s maternal grandparents who were trying to adopt her behind my back. My happy place that December 25 was imagining how great it will be when I’d have her back in 2012.

After fighting with grandparents, that next April I got my little girl back permanently. After spending months adjusting to single fatherhood, it was Christmastime. As the weather got cooler, the focus of all my daughter’s favorite television shows shifted to Santa Claus and receiving gifts. We were both excited. Cydney wasn’t even 2  years old but she had an idea that something exciting called Christmas and Santa Claus were coming.

But I had become jaded by Christmas. I lived for making it a special holiday for my then-6-year-old nephew. But with all of the hooplah and stress that comes along with buying gifts, it tends to be the time where my family’s tensions come to a boiling point. I’d started to only tolerate Christmas. I was a little excited when my fiancee was pregnant, but it had been a trying pregnancy so I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained by the time Christmas came.

My daughter changed all of that. Last year, as Christmas got closer I could feel my Grinch heart growing little by little watching the things she’d do. So we got ready for Christmas. I tried to explain to her what Christmas means but by the time I finished she’d lost interest or asked an unrelated question. Soon as I would put ornaments on the tree she would take them off. When I’d clean up the floor for company to come by she would spill egg nog on it but it was all a part of the Christmas fun. I took her to see Santa Claus in which she took what I think to be one of the funniest Santa photos I’ve ever seen. She wasn’t as enthralled with meeting him in person as much as she was what he’d be giving her. She made a gingerbread house with my nephew (she did more eating and decorating). When she would act up she’d be told to get it together because Santa Claus is coming. Usually she’d shape up right away, but once she got a phone call from him telling her that he may not come by if she didn’t act right. These little moments were be the buildup to the big day for both of us.

Cydney was all over the place by that first Christmas Eve. She didn’t know what was going on but children tend to have an awareness that something is in the air. While constantly running around and trying to keep her out of stuff, deep down I was just as elated about Christmas as she was.

Watching Cydney come down the stairs and see all of the toys that Santa had brought for her was one moment I will never forget.

There will only be one first Christmas with my daughter. As she gets older she will know what to expect but this first go round cemented that I was a parent. The pregnancy time was the preparation. The staying up late nights and changing diapers was the crash course in self-sacrifice. The first steps were the moment of accomplishment. But Christmas was the time that everything came together and I really realized that I am a dad. We all know what it’s like to be the kid getting presents from Santa Claus and see our mom and dad’s faces full of joy watching some imaginary fat guy take all the credit for their hard work and purchases. That was the moment I got it.

The meaning of Christmas had changed for me. In that moment I appreciated my parents more for what they’d done for me and continue to try to do. At that moment I no longer cared about actually getting gifts for Christmas (to my family and friends: they’re still a nice gesture, though). It really is more fulfilling to give than to receive, not just gifts but love. Christmas is just a great way to show them by buying thoughtful things they’d want, like, or appreciate.

Spoiler alert: Santa’s been very good to Cydney, my family and lady friend this year.

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