Mom Monday- Recapturing Christmas

12 Dec

Whoosh.  There goes Halloween in a mad rush of costumes and pumpkin carving and too much sugar.  And then bam, Thanksgiving is upon us.  Recapturing Christmas is essential.  If we don’t stop and take a deep breath, Christmas will be over before we know it.

Recapturing Christmas on Helicopter Mom and Just Plane Dad

And that would be a shame.  Because I truly believe that Christmas is a magical time of year.  There is something about the darkness and the metaphor of the light shining ever brighter through the darkness that draws me powerfully into the season.

I love to get up early in the morning and go out into the sharp crisp air and be surrounded by the deep, quiet stillness when everyone is still asleep.  I watch the march of Orion across the southern sky, day by day, and am comforted by its progress.  In the evenings, I eagerly light the candles, each flame a beacon of hope, a tiny bit of warmth.  I sit and breathe and reflect and am profoundly aware of being alive.  I ponder the miracle of people century after century surviving the harsh cold winter when everything is dead.  I rejoice that despite misguided deeds done in the name of religion, this baby we are waiting for, this king of kings, will renew our hope and our faith that the world can be a loving place of peace.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

I am so glad that this is what Christmas has become for me, but I have to admit, for a long time I hated Christmas.  As a small child growing up, there was as much tension and anxiety and stress as there were carols and cookies and presents.  My mother had mixed feelings about Christmas to say the least.  On the one hand, she wanted to create the Christmases of her childhood in a big white house on a windy road.  She grew up in a household where there were plenty of hands on deck to decorate, to cook, to bake, and to wrap presents beautifully.  Because the work was shared among so many adults, it appeared to go off without a hitch.  Her memory of the Christmas season is of sitting on the coach with her mother drinking hot chocolate and cozy evenings of hanging ornaments on the tree.

Recapturing Christmas on Helicopter Mom and Just Plane Dad

It wasn’t until she was alone in California, living far away from her family, that she came to fully appreciate the amount of work it takes to haul the boxes down from the attic, to unwrap each of the ornaments and to ready them with hooks for easy hanging.  That was the first shock.  The second was that although my mother and father grew up in the same town and went to the same church, my father had very different expectations of how to do Christmas.  His family didn’t get a Christmas tree until the 24th.  My mother would have been happy to get it Thanksgiving weekend.  Every year they fought about it, so naturally the pleasure of finding a tree was marred by the fact that one parent or the other was not fully on board.

My main memory of Christmas is of constantly being on guard.  When was my mother going to be excited and joyous about decorating or doing a Christmas craft and when was she going to snap, furious and resentful that everyone had so many expectations of her about making the perfect Christmas? To me, December was the month of being on pins and needles.  I know my mother planned what should have been lovely, warm family times, but I could never fully enjoy them.  I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I will say that Christmas got a lot easier as my sister and I got older.  For one, I think my mother’s need to create a storybook picture waned.  For two, as we got bigger, we could then help getting things down from the attic or hauling in a tree.  So, yes, things got better, but there was still always this tension of having to put on a production that I never really wanted or trusted was worth it.

When I first got married, I still tried to fulfill my mother’s needs for a certain kind of Christmas.  And worse than that, now I had my mother-in-law’s expectations to fill, as well.  We all lived in the same town, and the entire month of December felt like one command performance after the other.  Even my sister would proclaim we must come to her house on such and such a date to make cookies.  Events which should have been truly fun and enjoyable became just one more thing we had to do.  A simple request to bring an appetizer meant a last minute dash to packed stores filled with equally harried people and feeling insecure about whether my offering would be well received, would add to the hostess’s view of a perfect Christmas. Thankfully, in present day we have Amazon, and if you’re looking for the perfect gift or party accoutrements, they offer the best prices and even extra discounts using promo codes.

There was no joy, no wonder, no thoughtful moments of contemplation and awe.  There was just obligation and rush.  Even after my daughter was born, Christmas was still about the rest of the family.  I did insist that we needed Christmas morning on our own, our own little three-person family, to open presents and start our own traditions, but by ten o’clock we were packing up to go to Christmas brunch at my mother-in-law’s (having spent Christmas Eve with my parents and Christmas Eve Day lunch at my sister’s).

Rewriting the Story

It wasn’t until I got divorced that I finally found the gumption to put my foot down and insist that my family give me the space I needed to figure out what my daughter and I wanted to do for Christmas.  I vowed that my number one goal in creating Christmas for my three year old was going to be only do what feels good, only do what has meaning.  My rule was that there were no should’s, there were only get to’s.  When my family made announcements about what We are doing for Christmas this year, I gave vague answers and said, we’ll have to wait and see; I’ll let you know later what is going to work for Julie and me.  Ironically, in the middle of the pain of the divorce, I now had this built-in excuse to not commit us to anything too quickly.  Julie was splitting her time between her dad and me and, of course, he had requests of his own regarding Christmas events.

That first Christmas with Julie alone in our apartment set the pattern for all our Christmases to come. Tasks which seemed like chores before were all of a sudden pleasures.  I had my box of Christmas decorations, and now, instead of feeling I had to deck the halls by a certain date, Julie and I worked on the task bit by bit, whenever the mood struck us.  I think by the 24th we did empty the box, but I really didn’t care.  If we only had a half decorated tree, that was not going to ruin Christmas.  I thought carefully about what I wanted to say yes to, and I said no to the rest.  I said no to my neighbor’s cookie decorating party on a Sunday evening.  No way was I going to be a part of feeding kids a lot of sugar and keeping them up too late on a school night.  Sure, decorating cookies might have been a lot of fun, but not worth the cost of a stressful bedtime and a grumpy, still-tired child the next morning.

I said no to bringing potluck lunch to the nursery school Christmas celebration.  I wasn’t going to be able to go, and having to put a dish together to send to to school (and then having to remember to pick up the dirty dish at the end of the day) was going to add too much stress, and it wasn’t going to make any difference to my daughter.  Did I feel guilty?  No, I said yes to other things–like helping the children make beautiful lanterns out of tissue paper.  I drew clear boundaries.  I did not get sucked into having to do it all.

One event I did say yes to was taking Julie to a Messiah-Sing-Along.  I love to sing, so it was definitely something I wanted to do.  But again, I set reasonable expectations.  Following the rule of only doing what feels good and only what has meaning, I went knowing that I would only be able to stay as long as Julie was still enjoying herself.  On our way to the chapel, I told Julie about the piece of music and sang her little pieces of it.  I told her it was about everyone waiting for a very special baby to be born.

Julie was transfixed by the beauty of the lighted church, by the orchestra up on stage and most especially by standing in a wall of sound in the packed building.  After each piece, she would turn and ask Is the baby here yet?  I kept asking her if she wanted to leave.  No, Mommy.  We have to wait for the baby to be born.  And then we got to it–For unto us a child is born, for unto us a son is given.  As we sang the chorus, Julie stood on the pew and bounced.  Then, as the last notes were being played, she turned to me, her eyes as big as saucers, and said with exalted excitement, Mommy, Mommy! The baby was born! The baby was born!

In one moment, my child wiped away a lifetime of ambivalent feelings about Christmas.  Christmas was now about magic and miracles, about exuberant voices raised together, about the piercingly sweet wonder of a little girl who to me seemed hardly more than a baby herself.  That night we turned off the lights except for the Christmas tree and lit a candle for the baby.  Julie had been learning Silent Night, and now we sung it, just the two of us in the apartment next to the tree, holding the lighted candle.

Unplanned for, singing silent night with a lit candle during Advent became the one tradition we have absolutely stuck to, Julie and me.  It has survived getting remarried and blending families.  It has even survived teenage impatience and eye rolling.  The rest of the trappings–the food, the presents, the parties, the decorations–they might or might not happen.  As long as there is a candle to light the darkness and sweet voices to sing a timeless lullaby, I am content.  My Christmas is complete.   

Elizabeth Stitt

Elisabeth Stitt, owner of Joyful Parenting Coaching, is a long-time teacher turned parenting coach and blogger.  Her mission is to support parents in finding that combination of firm limits and lots of warmth that allows kids to thrive.  She arms parents with the concrete skills and techniques they need to parent confidently and effectively.  She is currently working on a book called Parenting…As a Second Language which argues that even if you grew up in a home where good parenting wasn’t taught, it is a skill like any other that can be learned and practiced. Visit Elisabeth’s blog at

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