I ask my 5-year-old about the best part of Christmas. “The presents,” he answers easily. I can relate.
Christmas has been my favorite holiday since feet-in pajamas. Those mornings as a kid felt magical, sneaking out of my room predawn to see the presents. From the landing above our sunken living room, I would pause with my sister to take it all in—a glistening mound of foil-wrapped packages, reflecting the glow of colored lights from the tree. All year we’d been told “no, but you can put it on your Christmas list.” This was our payoff. Without fail, the gift pile always, impossibly, seemed bigger than the year before. “It’s Christmas, it’s Christmas!” I’d yell, running up the stairs to wake my parents. Year to year, as surely as the contents of those packages would change, our family script remained the same. “What time is it?” my dad would cry as I burst into the bedroom. “It’s too early. Go back to bed.”
“No. It’s really here, dad! All the presents! I saw them! Get up!” My parents took their time as I bounded back down the stairs to inspect the haul. We couldn’t touch anything until everyone was seated around the tree in the living room: mom, dad, sister, mom-mom, and pop-pop. Every family does holiday gifting differently, and our traditions were tons of gifts and methodical opening. One present would be pulled from the mass, the tag read aloud, and the gift handed to its recipient while we all watched and then discussed the contents. We sat together for hours, talking, engaging, laughing—an all-together marathon that was my best day of the entire year. In her maid of honor speech when I got married, my sister said she hoped my wedding day felt to me like Christmas.
Now it’s 2021, and for nearly nine Christmases I’ve been a mom.
Halloween ends on a sugar high, before the year crashes into the season of my annual part-time job. The extra to-dos ring as loud between my ears as they are spoken by my family. It’s become routine, and it’s always a lot. First, I schedule the Christmas card photo and coordinate five outfits. Next, I send Christmas lists to extended family, one for each of the three kids, myself, and my husband, in time for Black Friday sales. I make purchases starting on Black Friday according to our carefully allocated budget, and the living room soon fills with shipped boxes. In fits and spurts I unpackage, wrap, and mail items out of state or hide them in the house, all the while updating my gifting Google Doc. Somehow I manage to mail the Christmas cards before Christmas, and it’s always a late night.
I like to plan a holiday party for friends, and make sure the house is ready with the tree up, lights on, shipped packages shoved to the garage for an evening. I meal plan and grocery shop for each holiday meal. I see The Nutcracker and skip the visit to Santa, though I wish he’d send me an elf to cull the bins of saved schoolwork and crafts, go through dresser drawers, and empty the toy boxes. ’Tis the season to make room.
I wonder if I’m doing it right. I default to the December 25th wrapped-gift explosion because that’s in my history. But I’ve heard that poem going around, “Something they want, something they need, somewhere to go, and something to read.” I know families who do one big gift. Others focus on service or do a secret Santa. My house is smaller than the one I grew up in, so is all this hype a little crazy? Why do we need so much stuff? I don’t have the answer, but I am taking my temperature this year. I keep coming back to how Christmas felt. I could tell my parents enjoyed the day with us. My dad picked out thoughtful gifts we didn’t ask for, my grandma raided the discount clothing racks, and my mom had paid attention when we’d screamed on Saturday morning for her to catch the Baby Alive TV commercial. That mound was a vehicle for our family to care for each other, share resources, and deliver pure delight. My mom always made a morning sticky bun and lit the candles on the German carousel that sat in the center of the table.
And now it’s my turn. Upon reflection, if I don’t want to repeat my laborious Christmas routine, I don’t have to. If for the second year of living through COVID-19 I’m burnt out, need to adopt the four-gift poem method, and email the Christmas letter, I totally can.
When I asked my 8-year-old about the best part of Christmas, she said it’s the stuff that we do the same every year. I hear a lot of leeway in my kids’ answers. Some presents, and some things that stay the same. I think we can do that together. The thing I’m going to protect is the magic the day is for me, hoping to pass that genuine goodness and light on to them.