My earliest memories of Christmas are sensory. I can remember back to 3 - some I think is real memory, some may be embellished by family stories. I remember being in bed and hearing bells - like jingle bells. And I remember being pulled out of my sleep by someone, not wanting to wake up. The story part is that we were staying with my grandparents and my grandfather was telling me to get up, that Santa Claus was there and I'd better hurry if I wanted to see him. Grandpa would laugh telling that story years later.
Gifts were always a huge part of Christmas. We didn't have much money for many years - so mom would save up the things that we needed and get them then - all wrapped up. It made the tree look really full. Packages with socks, underwear, mittens - practical things made special. I still remember the ecstasy of getting a dollhouse one year, my beloved record player, various beautiful dolls, a pogo stick - and I think my all time favorite was the year my mom made a trunk full of clothes for two of my favorite dolls. I still have them - they were so beautiful and became more precious as I got old enough to realize that she had to wait till we went to bed each night or off to school to find some time to get the sewing or knitting done.
As an adult Christmas has never been the same. I remember crying the first few Christmases of my married life - it wasn't the same just going back to visit. Preparing for the holiday for your own family was so much work! You begin to realize that the events that you treasure in your memory didn't just happen magically - your parents struggled and sacrificed and worked hard to create something for you.
I tried to do that for my own children. One year when I was a single parent raising my kids, in a fairly new relationship with my present husband who had children of his own, we decided to get the kids together to share Christmas eve. I was frantically working to make everything perfect. I'd spent weeks after work decorating, cooking, baking, buying gifts, wrapping presents. Early that evening I asked for some help and didn't get the quick response I wanted and I snapped at Al. He asked why I was behaving like this. I said I wanted everything to be nice. And he said quietly "We'd rather have YOU to be nice."
I can tell you, I was furious! But after I stewed over that remark for a while, I began to realize that he was right. What I really wanted was for us to all enjoy being together, to share in the beauty of the holiday - much of which was available without all the work and frenzy. It has taken years to pare down, to give up what is non-essential, to come to a place where I don't identify with people all around me saying "I can't wait for Christmas to be over!"
I love being with my family. I love the family who can't be here. I love Christmas music. I love homemade cookies. The scents of Christmas - a balsam fir, citrus,cinnamon and cloves, the little bursts of light and color in darkness, the quiet of Advent, the stories and liturgies at church ground me in tradition and joyful reflection.
I enjoy small doses of shopping, especially for the children. I enjoy some baking if I can fit it in without feeling rushed. We love having gifts made in our name to groups that bring hope to people who have few options without a little assistance.
The Christmas story is rich in lessons; you could spend a lifetime uncovering the gifts it offers. I've come to realize that what I want for Christmas is the open heart that makes transformation possible.