It’s late. The girls are asleep. I hear the chime of my husband’s phone texting, its fairy wand ring-tone signaling Fantasy Football smack-talk or point updates about the week’s match-ups. Poor Caroline got a stomach bug just hours after Christmas, so we’ve been home-bound all the next day. I’m feeling every bit of every meal, cookie, and drink I’ve consumed in the last three weeks. Yet I cannot stop eating the treats dropped off by neighbors, the leftovers, the pecan cookies the girls and I made, the ones we doused in powdered sugar. (Today I didn’t even bother with a plate–I stood over the tin, pig over trough, sugar exploding, no thought of a napkin.)
It’s been raining for days. Tonight was the third time this week I had to run out in a good pour to unplug the flood-light highlighting our browned Christmas wreath, because the one time I failed to do this, all of our lights fizzed out in an apocalyptic shower of darkness.
This is just to say, it flattens me, every year, how epic is the lead up to Christmas, and how quickly is the return to the ordinary: Fantasy Football, stomach bugs, the need to wear pants with elastic at the waist, the rain.
It strikes me that as a parent, I have higher expectations for Christmas Day than I ever had as a child. The lead-up is an immense logistical operation. All you have to do as a kid is anticipate. As an adult, you’re party-planning, list-making, budgeting and bargain-shopping, playing out scenarios (will X be upset if she doesn’t get Y but Z gets Q?).
And there’s this added component of social media–one person posts on Facebook that she’s always finished her shopping by December 1 so she and her family can slow down and appreciate the real magic of the holiday season. Another person posts on Instagram how many cookies she’s made, how artfully she’s decorated her home. On the day itself, I log in to see sharp-dressed families, smiling children in Santa hats, a sparkling tree or even blue, sparkling water backdrops with friends in the foreground, posing in bathing suits and somehow tanned, toned bodies.
Such a strange, voyeuristic position I find myself in–witness to other people’s celebrations and traditions. Wonderful, I guess, but also distracting and potentially disheartening. I successfully navigate the holiday maze, without too much stress and worry, but with all of the technological TMI surrounding me, I sometimes find myself questioning the traditions my family and I are living-out: Are we doing enough? How will my children remember this time?
When I was a kid, the traditions seemed to have come pre-established. I can’t remember a Christmas Eve when Dad did not read the story of the birth of Jesus. We’d sit in the living room, listening to his deep voice, watching his big Irish eyes visit the book then slowly scan the room; we’d gaze at the familiar, painted drawings of Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. In the background rang the “angel candle” that we’d light once a year: four thin, brass, angels chiming, turning round and round from the heat of the four candles burning beneath them. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding until the story was finished.
It used to be called Midnight Mass, and that’s the time we used to go. The magic of being up so late–the sheer exhaustion, being cold to my bones on the drive home, shivering, probably in the front seat of the station wagon and probably not strapped into a seatbelt, leaning into my mom for warmth. Waking up in the morning, desperate for my older siblings to also be awake. That pile of presents under and around the tree–how did it all get there?–but we opened stockings first. Then we ate breakfast (halves of grapefruits, sausages, donuts from the Farmers Market) and THEN, finally, we saw to that pile of presents under the tree.
The lead-up to Christmas, too, was distinctive, especially baking particular cookies, and most especially listening to certain music as we decorated the tree, which we all would do together. Luciano Pavarotti’s Christmas Favorites with the Vienna boys’ choir: “Oh Holy Night” and “Panis Angelicus” thundering from turntable speakers. The tree wasn’t finished until my brother Matt hung the 7 1/2-pound clay turtle-dinosaur ornament that he made in grade school.
This Christmas, Caroline was sad because the white turtleneck sweater I gave her was short at the waist. Lexi was sad because Caroline got a whiteboard and she didn’t. With many, many, yet-unwrapped presents still available for Lexi’s attention, she moped a bit, got a little quiet. That’s when I started to get a little cranky. I held back the mean Mom look, and she soon moved on: genuinely smiling as she opened the Gel Pen Kit, the Magic Eight-Ball, the books about Ranger, the time-traveling golden retriever.
With Pop-Pop’s money, Dave and I bought the girls a colorful rug for the basement: they’ve been playing “school” lately, and we thought this would be a great way to spruce up the area. It wasn’t even late morning when the bickering proved to be too much. Caroline refused to share rug space with Lexi, so she held her rug-ground while Lexi took her plastic bin full of new gel pens and name tags and relocated her own classroom upstairs.
On our Christmas morning, “Miss “Regan” stubbornly lesson-planned upstairs while “Miss Patterson” inconsolably cried downstairs.
After having gotten considerably less sleep than my children did on Christmas Eve, I did not have the patience baby Jesus would have appreciated. So in trying to teach Caroline about perspective, I shuffled myself down the basement steps holding her Santa present–a light-up globe. I plugged the earth into an outlet encased in concrete. I flipped on the light and the whole world shone before her. I gave it a spin, pointing to anywhere but Devon, Pennsylvania, saying, you just received more in a morning than most children in the world receive in their entire lives. Then I shuffled myself back upstairs.
While this felt like a teaching moment that would have worked in a situation comedy or an after-school special, Caroline and I both found this to be an ineffective teaching moment in real-life. She continued to sob until she stopped. I showered and pretended like it never happened, in the way of my Irish ancestors, because we had to get to Grandma and Grandpa Lenehans to open more presents.
We had a great holiday with family. After mass on Christmas Eve, my sister-in-law hosted a dinner, which she has always done (tradition). We Yankee-Swapped presents (wine glasses, again). Dad read to all of his grandkids and then gave all of his “ladies” (my sister, my sister-in-laws, and me) our own little boxes from Farnan’s Jewelers (tradition…glorious tradition!).
On Christmas Day at Grandma and Grandpa Lenehans, we opened gifts while drinking these absinthe concoctions, new to me when I married Dave (deliriously good Lenehan-Family tradition). And for dinner we had beef, Yorkshire pudding (tradition I love) and tomato aspic (tradition I attempted to like when I was new to the family, but at this point, there’s just no pretending, I can’t get my head around the aspic, it’s awful). More cousin time. Lots of laughter.
Traditions. They are here. And they are also evolving. My kids will remember places we go, things we do, and probably, how my girls remember their childhood Christmases will not be exactly as I am attempting to craft their childhood Christmases.
We tried something new this year: an Advent Calendar of good deeds and family activities. In theory, this is an appropriate season for slowing down, being kind to others, focusing on family. But school still takes up a chunk of each day in December. Then there’s homework, and basketball practice, and piano lessons, and dinner prep, and birthday parties, and the hours and days in this advent season filled up.
As the kids sleep, I hover a bit in the area of self-evaluation, rating my Christmas Season Mom Performance (CSMP?): Not only did I get frustrated with my kids on Christmas morning, but we also didn’t complete every day’s Advent assignments. We didn’t make the sugar cookies. No trip to Longwood Gardens.
But I linger there for only a little while.
Because I remember the cookies we did make together, the time with the family decorating the tree, introducing the girls to Grandma Regan’s Luciano Pavarotti. I remember backstage at the Nutcracker, thanks to Aunt Anne–the girls dressed in their Grandma Lenehan-made red dresses, sitting in the box seats at the Academy of Music. I think about decorating our shed with big, colored lights, then walking around the neighborhood, only our second Christmas here, seeing how the neighbors we are still getting to know have decorated their homes.
And I situate myself into the comfortable place of calm and relief.
There’s still time. Time to give away coats that are too small, to repackage unused toys, to candy-cane-bomb a parking lot, to bake cookies and bring them to the firehouse. There’s still time to be kind, to do right, to be together. There’s time to tackle the 1000-piece puzzle, to turn the lights down low, light a candle, and sing.
Yes, this Christmas Day has come and gone. But there are more days–how’s that for a miracle.
And this night, silent but for the occasional trill of a cell phone, this night, too, is holy.