I didn't know if I would feel it this year, that enveloping spirit of Christmas. I tried to be more prepared so that in the last week before the big day, I could relax. Maybe bake a little, make my traditional candy. Spend time with the kids. I did manage to get nearly everything wrapped before the kids' last days of school, which made me feel a little better. But I still left too many things until the end. Instead of the relaxing pre-Christmas week I'd imagined, I needed to finish a sewing project. I went to my mom's house twice to help her clean out her basement. I made next year's calendar which meant a long stint with Photoshop and the resulting headache. (Am I the only person in the digital world who gets Photoshop-induced headaches? I can't be, can I?) I got the Christmas cards printed (finally) and the Christmas letter written. I agonized over the list of presents, knowing one kid would feel neglected but not entirely certain how to fix it. I nearly had a tiny little temper tantrum in the middle of Buckle over that very worry (luckily Haley was there with me and managed to talk me down). I went to the mall, to Target, to Costco, to Walmart, to Kohls, to another Walmart and another Target and another Costco and two fabric stores and two bakeries and three different gas stations and Office Max for good measure. I stood for two hours inside Target talking to people we kept bumping into. My late nights got progressively later: 12:45, 1:30, 2:15. 3:00. I was surviving on sugar & caffeine and feeling very Bilbo-esque: like butter scraped over too much bread.
But perhaps that very exhaustion (combined with the overwhelming anxiety of feeling like I hadn't done enough or made it good enough) that made it seem impossible to feel the Christmas spirit was the very thing that allowed it (once I let myself relax a little) to flood my heart in unprecedented richness.
I've already written down the details of my children's Christmases, so that come January (or some random other time in the future) when I sit down to scrap the photos, I won't have forgotten any of the details. The moments that felt like my gifts, when I felt the elusive but at last pervasive here is Christmas at last feeling I am setting down here:
Our church had an hour-long meeting with the other two congregations in our area. My kids resisted going to church a little bit, but they didn't know it wouldn't ever be an option not to. Aside from the fact that, hello! It's Christmas. We are celebrating Christ here, not commercialism! but there was a moment I wanted to have. In our church, the boys who are 12 and 13 years old pass the sacrament. This means that for the past few weeks, Jake and Nathan have been passing it together. There will never be this moment again in the history of moments: these two brothers passing the sacrament at the same time on Christmas Sunday. I knew it would matter to me. What I didn't realize was the effect the combination of three congregations would have. There were 18-20 boys, in dark suits and ties, gathered together in a mass to serve other people. None of them are perfect, I know. But the combined strength of their goodness and their right intentions was so palpable I almost couldn't look at any of them. It brought, almost more than any other moment, the true meaning of Christmas into sharp focus for me.
One of the songs we sang in church was "Away in the Manger." It reminded me of something I'd completely forgotten: the cattle were lowing. My dad always used to joke about that. "What does it mean, the cattle are 'lowing'?" he'd joke. "Have you ever heard a cow low? I thought they mooooooooo'd" and then he'd sing the sing with "moo" replacing "low." I did that combination laughcry, a hiccup's-worth of uncontrolled emotion: laughter at his sense of humor and at being able to find it in such an unexpected place, sorrow because—I miss him. I miss him always, but I miss him at Christmas, when he'd always manage to find a dirty joke to tell at the dinner table and then give my mom something wildly inappropriate and too expensive. I miss how he made me laugh but I am joyful that he can still manage it.
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" has never been one of my favorite carols. I don't dislike it, but I don't love singing it. When you compare it to the exuberance of "Far Far Away on Judea's Plain" or the elegant joy of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Bells" just seems so somber. At the end of the meeting, however, we sang it, and the pianist played it on the organ instead of the piano. The organ was set so it sounded just like bells, and that shift in the music completely undid me. Haley and Nathan both asked me why I was crying. I couldn't help it. The anxieties of the preparation, the arguments over spending, the stress of wanting to make everything just right, and the way I had felt so certain that peace would not be found—these things felt perfectly summed up by the idea of "the wrong," which the song says will fail. God is not dead. My heart revolved to day.
- a necklace with the saying "Keep calm and carry on" that I found at an Etsy shop for Haley. This has been her motto lately and I knew she would love it.
- Nathan's iPod. We agonized long and hard over whether or not we should get this for him. It was expensive (although, being us, we didn't buy it until we found an excellent deal), and seemed excessive. He also had his heart set on it. We did a great job at convincing him that we would not buy it for him. It was the last gift he opened and his face made all that agonizing worth it.
- the quilt I made for Jake. (This will eventually get its own post, it's that big!). I bought the fabric for this over a year ago—I know, mother Fail. As a kid who just simply likes to have a blanket around, he's worn out two quilts this year. Plus I wanted him to have one that I'd made just for him. Even though it was a fairly simple design, and tied instead of quilted (per his request), it still stressed me out a bit. And honestly: he wasn't over-the-top excited when he opened it. But the day after Christmas, he told me how good he'd slept with his new quilt, and again with the sincerity: it told me that my efforts were appreciated.
All of which served to let me see that I have arrived squarely in the middle of that part of life when giving really, really is better than receiving.
Although, Haley did give me something pretty awesome! She put this four-photo panel together for me, starting with finding the frame, taking the photos (trust me...three boys are hard to photograph), developing the photos, and assembling it all. I love it. The frame is exactly my taste and the photos are perfect. Even the font she used was just right!
I wasn't sure, starting this post, if I could say what I wanted to express. I don't think I have, exactly. Perhaps this is because I don't have the way to put into words what I felt. But I will keep this words I did manage and use them as a reminder, next year, when I am, frazzled and stressed and sad, my own Amy version of Grinchiness: if I let it, it will come. Christmas will visit my heart, too, even if I am anxious and exhausted, in ways I can never imagine but which are exactly what is needed.
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.