If I had to describe my childhood Christmases in one word, it would easily be excessive. Not because our family was rich by any means, but because my mother went overboard every single year, largely, I think, because she couldn’t afford to buy us much throughout the rest of the year. She was overcompensating.
Growing up, I never, ever felt poor. I don’t recall pining for any toy or outfit. I just remember feeling secure and happy and loved. I knew my sister and I received “free school lunch,” but what that really meant never connected in my childish brain. I was fed and clothed, even if it wasn’t in the trendiest outfits. We had a warm little home with hot baths every night. My mom brushed my hair and braided it when I’d let her.
I never felt poor; on the contrary, I knew we were lucky, especially compared to some of my friends.
When I was Gracie’s age, my dad was seriously injured at work, nearly severing three fingers in a chainsaw accident. The tension of a one-income family suddenly losing its livelihood was thick and suffocating. Dad’s hand, with fingers that resembled hamburger meat stitched together by a child, became infected, and he was unable to return to work for many months. In an age where men were expected to be the breadwinners, my dad took this setback hard, becoming very depressed and, looking back now, was probably borderline suicidal. I think it was around this time that my stay-at-home mom began looking for work and, ultimately, found herself and her career in the daycare business.
In the midst of the trauma, this would later become a tremendous blessing for our family.
But meanwhile, there was very little money. Barely enough, I’d guess, to pay the bills, let alone purchase Christmas gifts. The holiday my mother loved so much was canceled. I remember her sitting us down on the couch, ages 10 and 5, and explaining that they simply couldn’t afford any gifts that year. Santa would not be stopping by, not because we hadn’t been good, but because other kids needed presents more than we did.
My mom, the most beautiful woman I knew, fought to hide the tears streaming down her cheeks. I’d never seen those magnificent brown eyes so sad before. This was not my normal, hold-it-together-no-matter-what Mom. It may have been the first time I ever saw her cry, and it caused a strange tightness in my own throat.
I didn’t care if we got more stuff; I just wanted my mom to smile, my dad to be healthy, and the fighting over finances to stop. Santa could keep his silly gifts.
And then something magical happened. We returned home from a family dinner on Christmas Eve to discover a contractor-size black trash bag on our front porch. It overflowed with beautifully wrapped gifts. Walkie talkies. Doll babies. Barbie dolls. Clothes. Coats. And my favorite –a soft gray teddy bear, which I slept with every night until high school.
Christmas wasn’t canceled after all. I watched my mother’s face, full of joy and wonder, and I knew that she had known nothing about this miracle. I wondered if the gifts were from Santa or maybe even from Jesus himself. My sister remembers this Christmas as her best childhood Christmas because it made her believe with all her heart that Santa had to be real. Years later, as an adult, I learned that the local church had heard of our family’s plight and donated our entire Christmas, right down to the food for our dinner.
This is what Christmas is all about.
This is the Christmas love I want my children to know.
I am kind of a Christmas-aholic. I love decorating our home, making it feel warm and cozy with twelve themed trees, my favorite a Grinch tree delivered completely decorated last year by a good friend and a few students when I was on bed rest. I love sending and receiving Christmas cards, displaying them in our kitchen for months. I love the cute little Christmas dresses, the abundance of snacks given to teachers, and, more than anything, selecting the perfect gift for each person on my list.
I’ll admit when the kids were little, I got sucked in to the commercialization and materialism of the season. I had the money, so I bought everything they wanted and then some. Unintentionally, I had become my mother. But the biggest difference was my children received clothes and toys here and there throughout the year, so the excessive gifting at Christmas was even worse. I was indirectly teaching them that the Grinch may have been right to begin with: Christmas did, in fact, come from a store.
Over the last two years, we’ve reevaluated the lessons we are modeling at Christmas. My kids, and probably your kids, do not need more stuff.
More stuff for them to play with a few times then forget.
More stuff for me to fight with them to clean up.
As I’ve fallen in love with the Tiny House Movement and read books about the value and how-tos of decluttering and simplifying our lives, it seems ludicrous to add to the already too much of our home.
For two years, we did the “Something You Want, Something You Need, Something To Wear, Something to Read” idea. It was fantastic. The kids knew what to expect, and since they knew their requests had to fit those categories, they were more selective with their wish lists. That minimized the number of unneeded gifts.
We also added a beautiful advent calendar, a gift from my in-laws, which has become one of our very favorite traditions. Being sick for about a year and a half, one realizes that The Most Important Thing is time. That is what the kids want more than anything. Time together, time one-on-one, time cooking in the kitchen, time playing board games, just time. So each advent opening features something for us to do as a family. Somedays the activity is simple: drink hot chocolate by the fire while reading a Christmas book. Other activities are a bit more complex, like putting together the dreaded gingerbread house.
This year the activities are often community service oriented. Make a bird feeder. Buy soft fleece blankets and donate them to a local animal shelter. Take a Christmas tree to your college brother’s apartment and decorate it together. Make special treats for our neighbor.
On Sunday, I had an impulsive idea. Inspired by the 75 degree temperatures, I told the kids to put on their rubber boots, grab a few trash bags, and get in the car. We drove about four miles to the local boat ramp. The girls were positively giddy with anticipation as we walked down to the lake, which is at the lowest point I’ve ever seen it. At least twenty extra feet of “beach” currently envelope it.
I explained that Christmas isn’t just about receiving presents; it’s about recognizing all the wonderful gifts Jesus has already given us and sharing those gifts with others.
One of the gifts He gives us everyday is our breathtaking drive to work and school: about eight miles of lakeside beauty and a stunning ridge view that never fails to showcase magnificent sunsets. To show our appreciation today, we are going to pick up trash along the lake and road and maybe even find a few treasures along the way.
Boy, did we get muddy! At one point, my boot sunk in the quick sand-like mud, and tug and tug as we might, I was stuck. Eventually, I slipped my foot, sock and all, out of the boot and walked away, mud squishing between my toes. Gracie bravely retrieved my shoe, and Izzi laughed like a madwoman at my disgusting socks. It was a hoot!
We loaded up two full trash bags in two hours. Lots of glass, beer cans, chip bags. We stripped down to our underwear and t-shirts, driving the rest of the way home half-naked because our clothing was more lake mud than fabric. I felt tired but the good kind of tired. I’d modeled what I’d been preaching, right?
I looked in the rearview mirror at my smiling girls and asked what they’d learned today. Obviously, I was hoping for something poignant about sharing our gifts or appreciating Jesus. But Izzi, my blunt and observant one, had a completely different take on the experience.
“The trashiest people drink Bud Light.”
Oh my. Not a false conclusion based on the number of Bud Light cans and bottles we’d collected, but I wondered how my mission to teach about God’s love had turned into a observation on local beer choices.
As I laid in bed that night, I wondered what would be my children’s best Christmas memory. This year each child will receive only one present from us and one from Santa. They need nothing, and thanks to my medical expenses and leave of absence from work, money is tight anyway.
Plus, more than anything, my girls want time with their brothers, brothers who are becoming more and more adult, drifting away from us and onto their own lives. So a few days after Christmas, we are taking a little trip to steal a few more hours as a family unit while we can. There is no possession we want more, no trendy gift more valuable than this precious time together. I’d rather give my children experiences and memories while I’m physically able.
Will this be their favorite Christmas? The one with the least amount of expense? Will they remember the time their crazy mom had them play in the mud and pick up trash? Will they carry on the tradition of the advent calendar or Ellie the Elf with their own children?
Will they always feel the way I felt as a child –secure and happy and loved? What single word will they someday use to describe their childhood Christmases?
Above all, will they know that next to the love and salvation of Jesus, the greatest gift I ever received wasn’t that unexpected gray teddy bear? It wasn’t anything carefully wrapped, tied with a bow, or tucked under a Christmas tree.
Yet it’s nothing short of magical, this gift of being their momma.