The holidays are coming again.
One year I had four children in elementary school. Shannon was in sixth grade, David in fourth, Laura in third and Jon in kindergarten. They got on the bus together in the morning and they came home together in the afternoon.
It was not a great year. For one thing, it was complicated getting them all ready to go at the same time. But morning was nothing compared to “after school.”
The bus would pull up, door opening to emit the tumbled pile of them which quickly righted itself and came running, all eight legs of it, up the driveway to the house. They fought their way to get through the mud-room door all at the same time. Immediately, backpacks came unzipped and heaved their contents all over the kitchen table; notes about attendance policy and math homework sheets, corrected tests and lunch menus expanded and multiplied. At the same time, the children were all talking as fast as their mouths could possibly move, spewing out stories about the day, complaints about who used foul language on the bus, demanding a shopping trip to get the materials to do a project, informing me that I had been volunteered for a room-mother obligation… all talking at the same time, peering wide-eyed into my face, shouting to be heard over one another. I turned from one to the next, vainly trying to prove my concern and involvement. As I attempted to express an interest, answer questions, validate them all, if I locked onto one particular child, the others would all immediately howl, “MOM! You’re not listening to ME!!!”
One afternoon the bus pulled up. I was in the front of the house, and Piper was with me, sweet dog that he is, trotting by my side on the smooth hardwood floor. When the bus pulled up and its squeaky brakes squealed to a loud, metallic halt, Piper stiffened his little legs and went into an all-out skid across the floor. The funny thing was, I knew exactly how he felt, that inner voice he must have heard as well as I did, the one that says, “Brace yourself!”
The year after that, Shannon was in middle school, which meant that she left and returned earlier than the others. Also, I homeschooled Laura. The schedule improved greatly: I was able to spend quality individual time with each child at some point in the day, and everything was much better.
However, that same feeling of, “Brace yourself!” continues to plague me each year as the holidays roll around.
It is hard for me to write about this without sinning. I must have a lot of bitterness and unresolved unforgiveness or something… I probably need therapy.
Generally, I am a pessimist. My credo is, “Expect the worst and you will never be disappointed.” Somehow, this never helps me with the holiday season. Each year, I try to set my expectations lower, and each year I somehow end up in a weeping fit anyway, traumatizing my offspring and otherwise proving, yet once again, that it certainly is NOT “the most wonderful time of the year.” Of course, I hate myself for this, but that doesn’t help anyone else. (Proof of the damage I've done: Lu's favorite holiday is the Fourth of July. I'm not even kidding.)
Two years ago (2007) was probably the worst Christmas there could ever be. I won’t go into details, but it was bad. Really, really bad. So last year, we decided to jettison everything. We had no tree, no gifts, no nothing. We used the Christmas budget (and quite a bit more) to buy airline tickets for the family to fly to Minnesota to be with Grandma, Grandpa and the aunts, uncles and cousins over Christmas. Except for the weather related plane issues, it turned out to be one of our best Christmases ever.
I have a couple of other happy Christmas memories. There was the year—I’m not sure which one—when I couldn’t get the family together to chop down a Christmas tree. Everybody was just too busy. Finally, one day after school when it was not snowing and the sun was still up, I drove the hour to Mexico, NY with only Shannon and Jonathan. We went to a tree farm and hiked out into the forest where Jon picked out a perfect tree, and he cut it down himself with the saw they had loaned us back at the barn. Then, because at that time he was still smaller than we were, Shannon and I carried the tree out of the woods and tied it on top of the van. We had the best time; it was wonderful. I felt a weird, guilty pleasure at it being just the three of us, but we laughed, rejoiced over our perfect tree, and listened to Christmas music all the way home on the radio.
A few years prior to that, I had become utterly overwhelmed and beside myself, and the girls decided that they would do the Christmas decorating, probably because I had said that I was not going to decorate that year, or something. They decorated the whole house, garland up the banister and everything, and I didn’t have to do anything. It was like walking into a fairytale to see what they had done, and not to have had to do it myself. I might have shed a tear or two, it was so sweet, so pretty and festive. Such a gift, one of the best gifts I ever got.
Then there was the year I turned 41. I gave myself a birthday party, and invited a bunch of people over to sing Christmas carols. I think my birthday (December 22) was on a Friday that year, or a Saturday. I didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday, because I didn’t want it to be about that. I just wanted an old-fashioned, traditional carol sing. Our children’s piano teacher is also my friend, and she graciously agreed to come and play the piano for us. We sang carols out of hymnals and followed up with assorted Christmas cookies (delicious old-family-recipe ones, lovingly baked by Shannon and Laura), fudge, crackers and cheese, snacks, mulled cider, hot chocolate, coffee and tea. It was rather lovely, I thought, and many of the guests seemed to really enjoy it. A few seemed slightly uncomfortable with the singing part, and although this deterred me from ever trying to repeat the event, the evening will always be a happy memory.
One of my happiest Christmas memories was when I was about sixteen. I had mentioned to my mom that Christmas had never been quite the same since I got too big to get dolls, because my favorite part of gift opening had always been to try to figure out which package had the doll in it. That year, she bought me a porcelain doll, which was an utterly unexpected surprise, and it spoke an incredible amount of love to me when I opened that particularly mysterious box and realized what she had done.
I don’t know how to approach Christmas this year. If we build a house on our land in the country, it might be our last Christmas in this house, which makes me want it to be a special one. But I don’t dare hope for special, because my hopes are dashed every holiday season. I should not hope for anything, but it is so hard not to.
Over the years, there have been Christmases when we have been destitute, Christmases when we have been fighting, Christmases when we have been lonely, and Christmases when we have tried to fill the loneliness with crazy busy-ness through church or other activities. There have been years when the busy-ness of church and other activities engulfed us even though we did not intend to let it. Some years we have all been sicker than dogs, completely isolated, and I have spent most of Christmas day rocking a fever stricken baby.
God has taught me that Christmas is not about the gifts, the cards, the cookies or the decorations. Christmas is not even about family. Christmas is about how God became man and dwelt among us. Any other focus drives me to despair every time.