Friday, December 14, 2012

On Christmas Past and Present

It is nearly Christmas again, and I'm on my first vacation day of the season.  I look forward to my time off every year...because quite frankly...without it, I might not be able to actually pull everything off.  I have friends who have had their trees up since the weekend after Thanksgiving, who have attended three times the number of events that I have, who are rehearsing for the Christmas cantata at church, or who have baked themselves into oblivion.  I thought I was doing well to have most of my Christmas shopping done by December 1st.

And I suppose I was.  Had I not fallen hopelessly behind in wrapping and tagging gifts, that is.

So, today, I will be finishing up with the decorating, doing laundry (because that horrible chore has somehow taken a serious backseat to everything else that has been going on this week), and attempting to mail the only package that I have to send out...a chore that should have been done days ago...but whatever.  I'll pay a few dollars more and make the best attempt to get it there on time and hope that it does.  And in spite of the financial straits that the post office is in these probably will.

While I realize that everyone reading this is not a mother, I think most of us either have or know one, so please bear with my perspective as I write today.  Because I am a mother.  Of two children of my own and a few that I claim as "other daughters" and a few that belong to my friends that I happen to think the world of and think of as somewhat my own.  I don't have grandchildren yet...and neither of my children is yet married.  But I have a niece who is expecting her second child, a nephew who is the father of a two year old, and another nephew who is expecting their first child next summer.  That doesn't count my sister's two little ones (almost 6 and 7), my cousin's two and my other cousin's one, and my first cousin (once removed) who welcomed a new son this week.

Why yes, we are a prolific group of people.  On both sides.

I suppose that every mother wants Christmas to be special for her children.  To be able to build memories that they will carry with them when she is gone.  I know Big Dave carries wonderful memories of Christmas from his growing up years that I'm sure his mother worked hard to make possible.  After all, she had four children within four years and three months of each other in twins.  I know this by the fact that when our children was little, I'd often find him in the living room before the children got up, with the tree lit, the coffee made...fully showered and dressed.  It was as if he couldn't wait another minute for Christmas...but he didn't want to wake them up for fear that they'd melt down from exhaustion at some inopportune moment.  His eyes still twinkle if he sees divinity and fudge - without nuts - something that his mother made faithfully every Christmas.  And something that he will miss this year since she will be celebrating her first Christmas this year in heaven.

My Christmases growing up were magical as well.  As one who was able to celebrate Santa for years longer than most kids due to having a sister six years younger...I found Christmas the best day of the year.  It was the culmination of months of scouring the Sears Wish Book for exactly the right toys and turning down the pages carefully with the items circled.  Sometimes, I'd even pull out a sheet of Blue Horse notebook paper and carefully write a list with the page numbers, item description and price so that it would be easier on my mother.

My Uncle Harry would come in from California, and in the early years before we moved back to Thomaston, I knew that we were close when I saw the big angels or choir singers - I honestly cannot remember which it was - on the square and everything lit up.  It must have only been one or two years that we drove down from Pennsylvania or Jackson, Mississippi that I actually remember,  but as a child, I tied seeing those Christmas decorations to family, wonder, and delight.  Several years later, they replaced those decorations on the square with something like rings with candles in them or something equally boring...but there was something about the decorations going up in town that signaled to me that wonderful things were ahead.

We would wind the car around past Sing's Food Store and down S. Green Street - admiring all of the Christmas lights in various colors as we passed.  These were the years when large bulbs of red, yellow, green and blue were in fashion, and almost every home had the fake candles in the windows glowing one of these colors.  My Gammy chose the yellow match her house...and their harvest gold glow would be shining as we rounded the corner onto Johnston Drive and to her home.

Once inside, I would run to the cedar tree that she always chose with the ornaments that my Uncle Harry brought back from Germany in the 1960s.  There would be music playing, or something on television with a crooner...and something that smelled wonderful coming out of the kitchen.  I'd take the three steps up to my bedroom and would be happy to be home.  Usually the little Santa Claus doll would be sitting in one of the little red chairs waiting for me to join him.  I can still remember how the house each room looked...and the sounds of my family interacting with each other.  I even remember Nana sitting in the green chair and Pops in the blue recliner watching television.  I can also see my mother's feet curled under her as she sat in Nana's chair with her perfect hair and amazing smile...laughing at something that someone said.

On Christmas Eve, we'd go to Family Communion at the First United Methodist Church and then later on would go out to visit Aunt June's family...and I'd sneak divinity and fudge off of a table while the adults laughed heartily into the night while they played poker and just enjoyed each other's company.  Linda would fall asleep somewhere and I would as well...then we'd load up and go home...knowing that the next morning Santa would have paid us a visit.  Aunt June is my mother's best friend from high school, and they still get together and laugh at life and enjoy each other's company.  Which totally rocks, by the way.

I have memories of Christmas morning that include being blinded by my mother's insistence on filming it all with those primitive video cameras with no sound and of waiting for my Uncle Harry to be roused from bed so that he could enjoy it all with us.  Now that I'm older, I'm fairly certain that Uncle Harry couldn't have cared less that I received what I did...but he was always a good sport about showing up tousled and shuffling along in his pajamas and house shoes after obviously not enough sleep the morning after playing cards into the night.

But he was always there...just the same.

We'd have breakfast and then would open the gifts...taking time to read each tag and passing them all out before opening anything.  Our family - being silly and all of that - wrote funny tags on each gift.  So, not only would you have to wait while someone's handwriting was'd have to actually figure out the identity of the recipient and giver of the gift.  Sometimes it got confusing...until the gift actually was opened.

Sometimes by the wrong party.  Which was interesting a time or two.

Immediately following present opening...which was usually interrupted several times by family members calling to wish us a Merry Christmas...lunch preparation would begin.  It was usually a turkey with Gammy's wonderful rice and gravy, LeSeuer peas, red congealed salad with fruit cocktail, occasionally sweet potato casserole or corn casserole, a relish tray, and chess pie for dessert.  We'd eat in these little plastic Christmas tree plates that kept your food separated and were cute and she used them every year.  It wasn't the Spode china that I have on my table...but as a was Christmas to me.

And by the way...I have those plastic Christmas tree plates.

It is funny what Christmas is to each of us.  I'm not talking about the reason for the season...I think that most of us understand that on both a head and heart level.  I mean the feeling of home, joy and wonder.  The feeling that something magical is about to happen.  The anticipation of seeing people that we love that we have missed in the intervening days, weeks, months, or years.

It is this anticipation that has me missing my sweet Gammy and my mother-in-law, Mimi, this Christmas.  Because I know that someday I'll see them again.  I also know that I see them in the traditions of Christmas past that have woven into Christmas present.  And how they are both in the fabric of my children's memories and lives.

I also know that I have to find somebody who makes fine divinity this year.  No nuts in the divinity...just a pecan half on top.  For decoration, of course.

I don't know what this Christmas will bring.  So far, I've grumbled my way through a lot of it...complaining about the unseasonably warm temperatures, lack of decent programming on the Hallmark Channel, and dealing with a bad cold that came up a few days ago out of nowhere.  I've also kept my streak of getting something kind of "eh" in Dirty Santa alive...although I didn't get the most horrible gift this there's that.  And I attended another function where they picked teams and I couldn't bear being chosen I excused myself and came home...which was just as well...since I didn't really need to be out in the night air anyway with a cold.

But I did spend time with Jill the other night putting together the mantle in her apartment so that it looks Christmas-y...although my decorating skills are pretty primitive.  We've spent time shopping together this season and have had fun being workout partners at the gym (before this cold and the box of Michelle's magically delicious Christmas cookies made this week pretty much a wasted effort.)  Hopefully, I will have the next week to spend some time with Brian and his girlfriend, Brecksyn, since I have time off during this week and next and he has finished with his finals.

A few short years ago, both of my children were at home and I didn't really take that for granted...but I suppose I assumed that it would last forever.  Now, one is living on her own - a college graduate - and the other is headed off to Huntsville next Fall to finish his engineering degree.  I realize that in a few short years from now, I may have two "children of the heart" and then hopefully grandchildren to build Christmas memories with at some point in time.

It is that thought that keeps me going when I want to just forget all of the trappings of the season and hand everybody gift cards.  When I want to leave the boxes in the attic and curl up in my bed watching the Hallmark Channel and drinking hot chocolate (with marshmallows - the real ones...not that fake stuff that they put in the hot chocolate mix) and remembering my own Christmases past.  When I protect my heart by removing myself from situations that are painful instead of being a good sport and ruining what was until that point a really nice evening.  I remember that I am the keeper of the flame now, so to speak.  It is my job to carry that torch for those that I that one day they will remember fondly how Christmas was in my home.

So, as you celebrate this season...missing someone desperately or wishing that things were different...take heart in knowing that some years are just impossible to match to your vision of what Christmas should be.  Life is beautifully imperfect...and when we accept that and understand that the Hallmark Channel exists and thrives to show us the perfection we dream about...we'll be fine.  Most of what we get upset about is actually life giving us the opportunity to accept the challenge to make the best of a situation and in so doing...learn to appreciate things more.

I think that's what keeping Christmas in your heart is all about.  You can take those sweet memories and bring them out and wrap them around you like a soft blanket on a cold night.  On the years that are wonderful...when small children are in your home and the spirit of the season is so evident that it is contagious...stop and breathe it all in.  Make yourself remember the perfection and the joy.  Close your eyes and hear the choir sing...or Linus' recitation of the Christmas story on the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.  See the beautiful lights and the blessings that are all around you.  Taste the wonderful baking or the cider on your tongue...and go outside when there is a chill in the air and the trees are bare...and say a prayer of thankfulness because you are just happy to be alive.

Find something that speaks to you.  Or yells.  Or even whispers.

And while you are at it...reach out.  If you can...find someone who is hurting, alone, or having difficulty this season.  Do what little you can...and assume that God will multiply that blessing in His infinite grace.  Toss a few coins into a kettle...or roll up your sleeves and find some way to help out.  I don't mean the "feel good" stuff for the "less fortunate."  I mean...someone that is in your mission field that needs a little bit of joy from you this Christmas.

Your mission field includes the people that you know, come into contact with, or are thrown in your path for whatever reason.

Yesterday, as I was struggling to get up to go to work with a horrible cold...I awoke to find a basket filled with cold medicine, Kleenex, nose spray, tea and honey that Brian and Brecksyn had gathered and decorated and left at my computer so I'd be sure to see it.  On it was a sweet note of encouragement and wishes for my quick recovery.  A few weeks ago, when we lost Rebel, sweet friends sent me notes of encouragement, a little medallion, and a book.  I'll never forget those kindnesses.

Loving people...that's the true spirit of Christmas.  Because as a celebration of Jesus' are celebrating love.

Build some memories, love those who need it, and take solace that every year won't be difficult if this particular one happens to be.  Even if you get the worst Dirty Santa gift or you are snubbed at the office Christmas party.  Even if you have lost someone special and instrumental in your life and cannot see how you are going to make it through the season.  Even if you are waiting on test results, grades to be posted, or a letter to come in the mail.  Even if your bank account is low, your spirits are lower, and your scale is going higher.

Stop.  Breathe.  Enjoy.  Love.

And pass the divinity...the scale can bite me until January 1st.  (And it totally will.)

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