Christmas is for children. We know that, and we believe that, because we were children, and we remember. We remember that giddy feeling of the last half day of class before two weeks – two weeks! – of vacation from school. We know the delicious torment of walking slowly by the ever-growing pile of presents under the tree, wondering what shaking or poking we can get away with, knowing that a jolly red-coated whiskered old man will certainly bring more, no matter what we deserve. We can almost taste the cookies. Nothing could be better than being a kid at Christmas.
Even as a young adult it was grand. Freed from school worries by the exclamation point of finals and not yet burdened by having to reciprocate the parental gift giving (who had funds for that?) that jingle-belled break was a self-indulgent orgy of soaking up mom’s attention, not making the childhood bed and catching up with high school friends. Yes, Christmas is definitely for children.
And then I had my own.
My daughter was born just six weeks before her first Christmas, so chances of anything being remembered were pretty slim, but my husband and I were struck by the grave responsibility of establishing holiday traditions. Every family’s is different, and when making our own, we could pick from each of ours or start fresh. Do we open presents Christmas Eve or morning? Or a little of both? Midnight Mass? Tricky with kids, but oh so mystical and enriching. Do we still make the rounds of holiday open houses, or do we stay at home and sing our own carols by the piano? Christmas brunch or dinner? Turkey or ham? All Santa or all wrapped, or some of each? The choices! And it was so important, or seemed that way, because what we do with her, we knew would form the bedrock of HER traditions, and the things which would be her family memories, and maybe even passed down to her children and theirs.
In the end, of course, we blended, and the ones that worked, we kept. The weekend before we do a slow drive of the neighborhoods to check out the lights. Christmas cookies are a huge production, and the two days for making and delivery are scheduled way in advance. We still go to my mother’s house on Christmas Eve Eve, leaving the actual Eve for our tiny family to sit by the fireplace, write the Santa letter, and put out cookies and oatmeal for the reindeer. My husband always does a dramatic reading of Twas the Night Before Christmas, and the carols get sung. Our moms now come to our house Christmas morning for a warm and lingering brunch. Natalie still thinks, as all children do, that Christmas is the best thing on earth.
But I have learned that it is even better doing it all for them. My greatest holiday joy now is what I see in her face as we bake, and in my husband’s as we sing, and in my mother’s as she toasts her family with the required Bloody Mary, and in my brother’s kids as they jostle on the couch, and in the faces of my parish community surrounding me at church belting out the requisite “Joy to the World.” There, all around me, as I do for others, and make theirs special, is my grown up Christmas. Childhood has nothing on this. I can’t wait for December.