Every December, on some day or another, I have a meltdown in a store somewhere. Usually this happens after Christmas, when I’m wandering around, say, the clearance aisles at Target and it really, really hits me that yet another Christmas is really, really over. Woman soundlessly weeping next to blow-out-priced bags of Ghirardelli chocolate, candy canes, and ridiculous Christmas tree ornaments?
That’d be me.
Well, most years.
This year, it happened at the end of November, when I was at the Gap during the Black Friday weekend. I went to buy my stuff at the check out counter in the kids’ area, because the line was so much shorter. The woman in front of me had her arms full of baby and toddler clothes and was talking on her cell phone to someone I assume was her husband, telling him exactly which Little People toys to buy.
Because I loved those years of buying toys at Christmas. I loved buying clothes that the kids would just wear because clothes were just clothes then. Loved shopping for the sweet and simple wishes of my children.
I loved being the mom of little kids during all those Decembers when I had them. The year Haley wished so desperately for a play kitchen and the way her face lit up when she got it. The year that Santa brought Jake his toy dinosaurs, when he was almost two and would say, in his tiny little almost-two-year-old voice, that he wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up. The year when Nathan was a baby, barely six weeks old, and how fun it was to have a tiny one on Christmas (his stocking had binkis in it!) even though all three kids had had chicken pox that month and I was exhausted. The year when Kaleb was little and there was a musical toothbrush in his stocking and he fell in love with it so much that we could finally brush his teeth without him screaming.
All of the Christmases when I had believers—I loved those years.
And they are gone now.
So I stood in line at the Gap and I cried for a few minutes, mourning the end of that joy. Wishing, I confess—wishing I could have it back. And not just the buying of toys and the way it was easy to fulfill their wishes, but also the ease of everything, when everyone was little. Yes: I was tired. It was often frustrating and lonely. But it was simpler then because our relationships hadn’t yet gotten complicated. There wasn’t any painful damage yet, no baggage; I hadn’t yet made the life-changing mistakes I’ve made now. I knew they loved me and they knew I loved them and I knew they knew I loved them.
(It wasn’t only my Santa duties I was mourning there in the Gap.)
One of my clearest Christmas memories from my childhood is the year my dad begged me to please tell my sister that Santa was really her parents, so they could be finished with staying up late to put out gifts. I think I was 15 then, and Becky 12, and surely she knew already but was still in the phase of wanting to believe so hard that she didn’t let herself not believe. I never got to the point where I was finished playing Santa, like my dad did. I loved it; it was deeply intertwined with my identity as a mother. But the first Christmas of non-believing comes to every child, to every family. Last year was Kaleb’s first year of Christmas as a non-believer and so my first as the mom of no believers. I changed some traditions: Santa only brought one gift instead of almost all of them, so there were plenty of presents under the tree during the two weeks before Christmas; we didn’t put out a plate of treats for Santa because there didn’t seem to be any point; I stopped insisting on reading the nativity story on Christmas eve because the complaints and annoyance finally got to me. I kept others: I stuffed their stockings and kept secrets and insisted on giving everyone a book. I also knew, last year, that some traditions were going to end in 2017. I learned a bit about having Christmas with non-believers last year, but I am still learning. It’s still a great change for me to make, to go from creating the magic to creating something magical despite disbelief. What makes it feel like Christmas if there isn’t any magic?
Where does the joy come from anyway?
As it does, my wait in the line at the Gap ended. I surreptitiously swiped away my tears and bought my stuff (including a jacket for Nathan that would end up being one of his only surprises), and then I went and just sat on a bench in the mall. I got out my notebook—I have a green Moleskine that I use for all of my Christmas planning; it goes everywhere with me during the holidays, starting the week of Nathan’s birthday—and I made a list.
Because I didn’t want to feel that all of the joy was behind me.
I know there is joy here, too.
In my list, I wrote the things that made me happy during the time I had my little believers. And I thought of ways I could translate those joys into my current time. I wrote about what is great about right now. And I thought about things I could change: traditions, expectations, meals. I wrote about what is timeless about Christmas, and I thought of ways I might incorporate those into this and future Decembers. Here is a summary of my thoughts:
- I love the excitement of surprises, of figuring out the perfect gift for each of the people I love. Just because my kids know I am one of Santa’s helpers doesn’t mean I can’t surprise them. So while there will be fewer and fewer surprises (because they are at a stage in life where their wishes are also needs), I still want to find a few gifts that are unexpected but exactly what they want. I don’t have to give that up!
- Part of the joy of the holidays for me is making things: gifts, yes. But also treats. And cookies. And crafts or decorations for my house. So even without tiny hands to clumsily frost cookies with me, I’m still going to make frosted sugar cookies. And the treats that have become tradition (caramel, fudge, and chocolate caramels). And, even if I don’t need it, if I feel inspired I’m going to make making something crafty part of my future Decembers.
- Another part of the joy of Christmas is memory. This has partly been, for me, remembering my own childhood Christmases. But I realized (yes, sitting on a bench outside of Teavana at the mall in November) that remembering my kids’ childhood Christmases also brings happiness. So I decided that I am going to put together a little photo album of favorite pictures from all of our past Christmases, and keep it out all December. Maybe just 3 or 4 photos from each year, the very best and most evocative ones. This felt like a huge ah-ha moment for me: I didn’t do all of that work playing Santa just for my kids! They can also be my sweet memories.
- I need to create some of my own traditions, experiences that are only for me. Eventually all of my kids will be out of my house, and if I haven’t established some holiday experiences of my own by then, I think it will be even harder. For this year, I wanted these new traditions to be going to see the Nutcracker, having lunch with an old friend, seeing a movie that everyone was talking about, and having some sort of outdoor adventure.
- When I look back, the majority of my sweetest holiday memories are about small moments of connection. So I want to focus on noticing them, seeking them out, and truly paying attention. Connections matter and I want to make more of them, both with my small family and my extended one. So much joy lies there.
- In all my efforts of making Christmas, I have lost some of the focus on the meaning of Christmas. I want to find some ways to bring Christ back into my Decembers.
I left the mall that day with quite a bit of my Christmas shopping done. I also left with a lighter heart and a more purposeful image of what I wanted my December to look like. A few days later, I read this blog post by my friend Angie Lucas, and it clicked so strongly with my mall epiphanies that I literally started crying again. Partly because she is in that phase of joy that I miss, the one that involves magic and the wonder of small children. But partly because it helped me understand better what I have been grappling with for not just this December and last December, but five or six or seven Decembers in a row, the deep and abiding sadness that has gotten mixed in with the excitement of the preparations. I haven’t been foreboding joy, exactly. I have been neglecting the joy I have now by glancing backward over my shoulder to make sure the memory of old joy is still trailing behind me. Maybe I will always feel that sadness—will always miss my true Santa duties. But just as I worked to make magic for my kids, I am discovering that I need to create magic for myself, and therein lies the joy. Not in a mystical, jolly fat man in a red suit who brings all of the things we are hoping for. But in the experiences and the people. To feel joy, I need to continue to be a believer: in faith, in love, in what abides no matter the age of my children.
(In my next blog post, I'm going to write how this moment influenced my December; what I learned and what I will change next year.)