I remember trying to stay awake on Christmas Eve to see if Santa appeared and then waking up at dawn to rush into the living room and find a lovely pile of gifts under the tree. I was almost as excited to give my parents their gifts as I was to open my own and, bless their hearts, they oohed and ahhed over the bottle of Evening in Paris cologne or Old Spice after shave. In the afternoon we’d get dressed up – every year my Mom, who was an excellent seamstress, made me a beautiful dress to wear on Christmas Day – and go to my grandparent’s house. All my aunts, uncles and cousins would cram around the dining room table – with an overflow table for the little kids – and have dinner. After dinner the kids played with their new toys, the men sat in the living room smoking and talking and the women washed the dinner dishes and laid the table with traditional English holiday treats like trifle, mince pies, shortbread and fruit cake (this was the 1950’s – men rarely helped in the kitchen!). Inevitably, one of my uncles would drink too much and lead us in a raucous sing along. Kids got tired and cranky and were discovered sleeping in strange places and, finally, were carried out to cars that their dads had warmed up for them.
I have wonderful memories of my childhood Christmases but there was no obvious connection to religion – we didn’t even say grace before dinner! As a child, I was sent to Sunday School and church services and even did a stint in the youth choir but, religion was not an important part of my upbringing. After I was married and had my son, I continued to celebrate Christmas in all the traditional ways but, it had no religious meaning for me. When I was a single parent it became a time of year that I dreaded because I was always financially strapped and Christmas just added another burden. I was stressed and overwhelmed by trying to make Christmas “perfect” for my son and parents. It was also a time when my disappointments and failures seemed to be magnified – at least in my mind. I imagined that I was surrounded by happy families, loving couples and people who were more successful than me in every way (it wasn’t until many years later that I realized what a mistake it is to compare your life to anyone else). The illustration I added to this post is one of the Christmas cards I drew this year. It depicts the type of happy, intact family that I longed for during all those years as a single parent. Back then, Christmas was nothing to me but financial stress and a reminder of all that I felt was missing from my life. I wish I could have found a way to enjoy those years more instead of being so self-absorbed and taking everything too seriously. I wish I could have found a way to relax and let my heart be light.
When I moved to St. Augustine, right after Christmas in 1993, I wanted to start my new life with a change in my attitude about “the holidays”. Since I knew I was going to be alone on New Year’s Eve, I volunteered to work the overnight shift at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. I made changes in how I celebrated Christmas the following year by using my relocation as an opportunity to downsize gift giving, decorating, and cards. I was working for Catholic Charities as an emergency assistance case worker so I had lots of opportunities to focus on the needs of other people and share the “spirit of Christmas”. I attended a Christmas mass at the old Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine with some nuns I knew from work and I went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the beautiful Memorial Presbyterian Church. These experiences helped to renew my appreciation for the things I liked about the Christmas season and, in hindsight, I think perhaps a couple of seeds were planted deep in my soul that took many more years to bear fruit.
It took a long time but, I gradually came to have different feelings about Christmas – feelings I don’t remember ever having. It’s not the anticipation and excitement I had as a child but, instead, is a much deeper feeling. It is harder to describe than the thrill I had waiting for Santa Claus. These days I experience Christmas as the celebration of a miracle that invites me to believe in something much greater than anything I can imagine or define. It encourages me to have faith. Now every decoration in my house, every ornament I hang on the tree, every gift I give, every kindness I share and every card I send is my own small way of celebrating that miracle. Oh, and my heart is light.
If you’re reading this and you’re feeling sad, lonely or overwhelmed my advice is to go outside tonight and look at the stars and the moon and take a deep breath. Forgive yourself. Then, go inside and give your kids extra hugs and kisses. If you don’t have kids, hug your significant other. If you don’t have a significant other, adopt a dog from a shelter! Most of all, remember to be kind to yourself.
I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. ~Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
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