I remember vividly the year that Christmas changed for me. For the first time, the shining array of toys and presents became just a pile of stuff. For the first time, I heard greedy little snorts mixed in with shouts of delight, and not only from my younger siblings. For the first time, I was aware that the gift was often not nearly enough. Rather, there were criticism and imagined slights. My parents did their best to teach how to give and how to receive, but we—and they—remain human.
That year was also the first year that I crept into the living room before sunrise to find the quiet space that has come to mean Christmas to me. I sat on the sofa, looked at the tree lights, and read a little. I did take a look at the glittering pile of booty, but it didn’t enthrall me as in previous years. I was ten.
Since that time, I have learned the lesson that all adults learn—that things don’t always turn out as expected.
If you had asked me when I was ten what Christmas would look like when I was fifty-two, I would certainly have expected to be bustling in the kitchen, wrapping in the attic and doing all the things that people with children do at this time of year. When I married at nineteen, my outlook would have been more hazy, since by then my husband and I had decided not to have children. By thirty, I was in the middle of a divorce and completely confused about how to predict my future. We were happily married for seven years, then unhappily married for four. That kind of experience burns away any illusion that we can predict the future.
I never, ever expected to be divorced. The last Christmas we spent together was miserable. My husband gave me luggage. How’s that for a message? By New Year’s I was packed and gone. But even that Christmas was really Christmas. Christmas strips away illusion, leaving only the truth of the moment. That year, the truth was that we needed to make a change. Knowing the truth may be uncomfortable, but it is always a gift.
I don’t think I have ever had a bad Christmas. Maybe there were one or two when I didn’t make plans to see anyone and regretted it—I honestly don’t remember. Even when I have no plans, I take a walk with the dogs, look at all the lights, and find that place of stillness that means Christmas to me. By this stage of life, I know that I have to make time to allow Christmas to happen. Not too much travel, no overcrowded schedule, keeping the flurry of baking and decorating and shopping to a minimum. It’s not really important to have seven kinds of cookies, but creating that still space—that is the advent preparation that allows Christmas to enter into our hearts.
Here’s what I predict for this year’s Christmas. For Christmas Eve, I will cook a nice meal…or maybe go out for Chinese. I might drive into Burlington to church…or not. I will start the pumpkin and pecan pies for tomorrow’s dinner, and maybe the chocolate chip cookies and brownies requested by the two 22-year-old Brazilian men visiting my friend. Tomorrow, I will join them all for Christmas dinner. We are expecting six people and seven dogs. And sometime in the late night or the early morning, in the kitchen or sitting in front of the fire, at some completely unexpected moment, Christmas will come.