My father loved Christmas, but he was such a perfectionist, the holiday could be excruciating to endure. Many holidays, we went to the movies to get away from my father's worry about things going wrong and my parents fighting. Plus, Dad got so excited about the gifts he gave us, he hinted for weeks about what they were, eventually giving away all his secrets. Christmas Day was always frenzied and hard.
When I had a family, I decided that, while the Christmases we had as children were abundant, they were stressful, and I wasn't willing to go through that any more. EG's Christmases were simply sad, as both his parents were depressed and preoccupied. Many times, the only gift he got was from his grandparents. When he got older, only his Jewish brother-in-law would remember him.
So, I aim for simplicity. And then, every year, I wait for the Christmas spirit. For me, the Christmas spirit is not the excitement of childhood, the ecstasy of the gift opening frenzy. It is something which I cannot define, and the Christmas spirit is elusive, being different each year. Like those in the manger, I wait for that moment that says Christmas.
Some years, I find the Christmas spirit is the peace I feel when watching Linus recite the simple scriptures in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Some years, I find it at the Children's Mass, watching six year old shepherds squirm and squint and discreetly wave at a beaming row of family members.
This year, because my mother is in hospice and could leave us at any time, I tried to plan for any contingencies. Finals ran right up to the holiday, and grades were due on the 24th, which is EG's birthday. I had the menu planned and non-perishables bought by Thanksgiving, and my presents bought and wrapped by the tenth. Around that time, I had taken the kids out to buy gifts for one another. Because they are gigging now, and getting tips, they have plenty of spending money, but they were still frugal and therefore were able to be generous with each other and us. I didn't know a lot of what they had purchased, as they shooed me off at the register and this week had a wrapping party with their dad. Because we were ready early. yesterday morning was spent cleaning and visiting my mom and buying a few last minute foodstuffs and the afternoon was spent at the church. No mayhem and frantic last minute preparations this year.
I waited for the Christmas spirit that moment which spoke to me. I was depressed at the office Christmas party. I found no pleasure in the lighting displays. I was irritated at the trite Christmas music I found on the radio. At Mass last night, I enjoyed the manger scene, smiled at the donkeys, and even listened to Kiki's solo, but still felt nothing other than calm. I was okay with that, as maybe calm was what I needed this year. However, I could have used just a little joy.
This morning, I watched the kids proudly give each other presents, thoroughly and generously wrapped with some red contact paper they found in Nita's closet ("we didn't know--it said 'covering' on it"), secured with yards of Scotch tape, labeled directly on the wrapping with smeared magic marker. Both the giver's and the receiver's faces glowed at the thrift store copy of The Time Machine, the hand-held Jeopardy! game, and the quacking duck key chain. The kids discovered the joy of giving, the traditional Christmas spirit. They were more interested in distributing their own gifts than they were in opening what they got.
As I sat here in our cluttered living room, watching Dirty Harry paw a label off his forehead and the kitten play with a bow, listening to the Jonas Brothers CD for the umpteenth time, I realized that in all the discarded wrapping paper and battery packages, my best gift was from my children—they had given me the Christmas spirit through their joy. A last minute gift this year, but one which I will gladly accept.