I love this time of year more than any other. I look forward to this particular stretch for months, such that when it does finally arrive most years, I’ve perhaps overplayed my enthusiastic hand just a tad.
This year, being that I am neither nursing, pregnant, nor newly postpartum, I’ve had the chance to look around and take an honest inventory of where we’re at as a family and come to the conclusion: I can try adding in some little extras this year.
We were talking customs and family traditions as an office the other week and I maintain that mine was the weirdest and least liturgically sound: my siblings and I would gather in the family room on Christmas Eve after the littlest kids had been put to bed, and we would crowd around the newest non-believer in Santa and let them in on the secret. Wrapped in an unfortunate poinsettia apron and knighted with a roll of wrapping paper, we would solemnly induct him or her into “the Christmas club,” making them promise to protect the secret of Santa for the little ones who still believed, and just generally making a big fuss over their entry into adulthood. There was a real oath we made them swear and everything.
Were my parents even aware of our antics? Did they model the Christmas Club for us in any way? No. No, I really don’t think so. If memory serves, they were probably crashed out upstairs with a newborn, my mom exhausted by the previous month of effort to find, buy, and wrap presents for everyone.
In fact, a significant focus of the Christmas club in future years would come to be our procurement of trinkets and the stuffing of all the stockings, the last-minute late night wrapping of some – and eventually, most – of the family’s presents, and of course the careful gnawing of reindeer carrots and the splashing and nibbling of Santa’s milk and cookies.
So my expectations for holiday season 2018 are … modest.
I can plan and execute the perfectly curated holiday scenario, but I can’t select which memories will make their way down into their little hearts.
That’s part of the beauty of childhood, I’m coming to find as a mother of slightly older kids. There are so many sensory experiences to choose from, especially as a Catholic, and different things will stick with different kids. And the things they’ll stubbornly choose to hold onto? Totally not my call.
One might remember the sticky wax dripping from the Advent candles we’ll light every night at dinner, singing a verse of “O Come O Come Emmanuel (yes, again, put your fork down and stop eating until we’re done) Another will just remember that mom didn’t really seem to cook for the entire month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and gosh, we ate a lot of crock pot chili that time of year.
Like, a lot.
Which I’ll totally present to them as a our small effort to scale back and simplify and make the little sacrifice, and not solely due to maternal holiday fatigue.
Some of the tried and failed activities of years gone by: making personalized Christmas ornaments, and homemade Jesse tree + ornaments crafted lovingly each morning as the corresponding Scripture passage was read aloud. We got 17 days in before everybody’s enthusiasm evaporated, mine first. Now we have a ziplock bag of tattered yarn and construction paper creations that has spent 4 years in Advent decor exile, and this year I’m giving myself permission to toss the thing and admit Jesse tree defeat.
My sister and I were recalling our childhood advent calendar – a quilted fabric banner which hung on the fridge with numbered pockets for each date, a traveling star moving from space to space until finally arriving at the top – baby Jesus! – on Christmas eve.
I can’t believe mom made that, my sister recalled with awe, shaking her head in wonder.
“Mom didn’t make that, she bought it at that weird craft fair held at the high school every year.”
We regarded each other solemnly and laughed. Our memories, too, are tinted rose by the beautifying and forgiving mists of time.
Absent are the Christmas mornings filled with wailing and gnashing of teeth over awful presents or unfairly distributed loot; the indignity of being prodded and brushed and stuffed into itchy tights to suffer through a long, cold Dan Schuette-fied liturgy in the gym, exiled to the overflow crowd of which we always seemed to be a part, shifting our feet miserably in puddles of dirty melting snow as we stood on the edge of the basketball court.
I dreamily recount my own fond memories of “the Christmas club” which, at the time, was almost certainly born of necessity, my mother tossing up her hands in exhaustion and flinging rolls of scotch tape and dollar store wrapping paper at her adolescent children at 9 pm on Christmas eve. Which, if you’re reading, mom, is deeply comforting to your now thirtysomething daughter who is exhausted by the prospect of providing your grandchildren with all the comfort and joy this holiday season.
When I say I can do more this year, what I mean is that I can be somewhat intentional in my direction for our family celebration. But I can’t guarantee that the highlight of the season won’t be yogurt tubes for breakfast, lunch, and every snack between.
“Remember when mom used to give us Go-gurts to help us enter into the penitential season of Advent? So we’d always be a little bit hungry and think of the Holy Family journeying to Bethlehem, unable to find shelter?”
I can imagine my extremely literal 6-year-old pointing out to his brother one December night in the future, perhaps over beers, that “mom was probably just really tired and all she bought was yogurt that year.”
Touche, future John Paul. You found me out.
Some plans for executing said intention?
More family time doing spent nothing more than snuggling on the couch with candles lit. Maybe we’ll pray a decade of the rosary. Maybe we’ll just stream the James Taylor holiday station each evening.
More nights where I surprise them with thermoses of hot chocolate and we jump in the car for an impromptu drive through the fancy neighborhood for light peeping.
More focus on little details like candles always lit, Christmas jammies worn for a month straight, the occasional daily Mass as a family, and tiny fake Ikea Christmas trees in bedrooms.
I want to sit back and enjoy this season, in order that they get to really enjoy the season. Less planning, yelling, and scrubbing, and more saying yes to marshmallows and requests for movies and my participation in coloring time. Letting them touch the nativity scene figures if they want to, the real ones from Italy, and smudge up my perfect holiday decor.
They’ll still probably choose to remember fondly, during Christmases to come, the butt joke we weren’t quick enough to bleep out from the beginning of Home Alone instead of a charming homemade craft their loving mother slaved over, and that’s okay. This time of year was never about me, after all.
Motherhood is nothing if not a slow suffocation of the ego, the self annihilating and oddly liberating realization that you are not, after all, the center of your own universe.
No better time to put that knowledge into practice than the most wonderful time of the year.