a kinder, gentler christmas

Sometimes Christmas blows up in my face, a tinsel-covered grenade of my own making. I love the romantic sparkle— the tree, the traditions, the wrappings, the family time, the spirit of giving. It’s so much of what I long for. But sometimes I exhaust myself preparing, and am shredded by the time it actually arrives. I can overemphasize how things look, and accidentally murder how things feel. Sometimes I invest so much in the outcome, that I end up disappointed, face down in my bed.

Christmas can bring up a lot of sad feelings. As an adult, I learned that my father struggled with depression around Christmas, but I didn't know this as a little girl. When it was time to put the lights on the tree, I never understood why my siblings always evaporated into thin air, and my mother disappeared into her office. I was excited to help, happy to do anything to get us closer to the moment we put on the ornaments. I loved the beautiful tree; I loved everything about Christmas.

Dad got the dusty boxes out of the playroom closet, and we untangled the strings of lights. But when we plugged them in, so many bulbs were dead. “Here’s what we’re gonna do, Sarah Belle,” he said. “We need to test each bulb, and replace the burnouts with new bulbs, one-by-one.”

My father and I spent the next hour, our heads bent over our hands, prying out and pushing in the tiny bulbs. The tips of my fingers were sore, but I didn’t stop. I wanted to do a good job so Dad would be happy, and not irritable. But no matter how many bulbs we re-socketed, and no matter how many tiny fuses we replaced, lots of strings just wouldn’t light. “Goddamn cheap crap,” my father muttered. “We might as well just throw the fucking things out.”

I knew my dad did not mean to ruin the moment. But I did not know he was overwhelmed and churning with his own losses. My parents lost a child before I was born. Somehow, they survived and kept their family together and had three more children. My mother took care of herself, and as many of us as she could. My father took care of everything else, determined that we would survive the trauma and be "a normal family." At Christmas, he put up lights outside, gathered us to make our special Christmas cookies, built wacky handmade gifts in his workshop, installed and lit the tree for my mother to decorate. He set a high standard for how things should look and smell at Christmas -festive and fun- and worked like hell to achieve it, maybe wearing himself out in the process. And because he was also carrying a heavy yet invisible sack of sadness, sometimes he inadvertently sabotaged the magic he worked so hard to make.

Oh, how I forgive him. For this is a cycle I have perpetuated year after year, as I have tried to stitch my own broken family back together. Through the heartache of divorce, into my remarriage and blended family, and later, while my older children mourned their father’s untimely death, I’ve always felt an extra responsibility to make everything alright at Christmas. Subconsciously I must have believed that if I made Christmas okay, we would be okay, when of course, it’s the other way around. I have to forgive myself for that, too.

Within a few days, my son Will and my daughter Ivy will return home for Christmas. Yesterday, a package of wrapped gifts arrived from my oldest son, Sam. I teared up a little to see it, moved that he thought to send them ahead, and a bit sad, too, at this proof that he would not be coming home for the holiday. I miss him, and there is absolutely nothing to do but tolerate the missing. Just as I must tolerate missing my dead parents and grandparents, and my children must tolerate missing their dead father. Learning to live with loss is some of the hardest work of living. As is learning how to enjoy what remains.

And so, we have decked the halls. My husband Tom, and our youngest son Ben and I, spent a warm Saturday afternoon festooning the yard with white lights. We hung a wreath upon the door. We bought a tree, hauled it home, and put on the lights; it's ready for the older kids to help decorate when they arrive. I have wrapped all the gifts ahead, tried to make ready slowly and gently so that I will not be strung out when they arrive, or consumed with busyness while they are here. I am giving myself rather stern lectures about not stressing about the kitchen while I have them under my roof. I’m determined to let them bake, and cook, and drip to their hearts content, and not follow them around with a rag and Windex. They will leave their coats and shoes and backpacks all over creation, and I will rejoice. I will sit and listen. I will lie on one end of the couch with my daughter on the other, and cover us with one blanket, and read aloud. I will hold my son’s head in my lap while he talks and fiddle with his hair. I will go on a walk with my husband at sunset, and hold his hand.

Lord, please help me be present this Christmas. Please let me remember how precious and fleeting this time is, and relax, and enjoy it.