You can hardly turn the dial on the radio after Halloween without coming across a 24/7 Christmas music station. I thoroughly enjoy Christmas music, but I haven’t adjusted to hearing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in November. Rather, the tune that plays in my head is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. That song reminds me that December is Advent season: a time of preparation, anticipation, and hope.
After we got married, I looked forward to celebrating Christmas with your Uncle Dan in our own home, creating our own traditions. There were decisions to make regarding substance and timing-real or fake tree, white or multi-colored light. When to put up the tree, to open gifts, to invite family? Maybe the most important was when to begin the whole process. Because once we got on the Christmas Express, it was like a cartoon snowball rolling downhill; it grew exponentially in size and speed. It took me a few years to learn that the Christmas machine can swallow you whole in December and laser-sharp clarity is crucial when deciding activities, commitments, and gift buying.
When the kids were little I wanted them to have a perfect Christmas, every year. I felt as the youngest of seven I had missed a lot. By the time, I was a 1st grader our stockings weren’t filled because there were too many of us, we started going to midnight mass when I was seven because it satisfied the older kids desires and I didn’t attend the Nutcracker or any kind of Christmas performance until I left home. When I became a mother, I wanted to do as many things as possible with my gang, all while they looked cherub-like in their Christmas outfits. There were outings to visit Santa, Christmas breakfasts, drives to look at Christmas lights, cookie-baking, and Christmas performances in the weeks leading up to the big day. And then once the holiday arrived, there was Christmas Eve dinner for all the family, followed by loads of presents on Christmas morning. The year MK was four-the year of the pink bicycle-she didn’t have the energy to open all her presents. She gave out before the gifts did. I was embarrassed by the excess and expense. It was too much. I would not let it happen again.
After the over-indulgence of 1990, I controlled the purchasing and honed our style of giving. I found that waiting until December to purchase Christmas gifts helped me buy less. And I thought before I bought, no impulse purchases. Santa gave two or three small wrapped gifts and then left ‘A Big Wow’ under the tree unwrapped for each of the kids. This was the most desired gift, one that would hopefully elicit a big gasp and shout of “Wow” from the recipient. I have great memories of the Big Wows: Meg hugging her American Girl Doll Felicity, Patrick clutching his Lego Western Fort box, and Mary Kate clasping her ipod. These Christmas morning Wows proved my “LESS IS MORE” mantra was working.
Having two November babies forced me to slow down and let go of a lot of the expectations I had about Christmas. We became what I called ‘an Advent family’. The year that Patrick was born we didn’t get a tree up until the weekend before Christmas. It happened again the year that Meg was born and it became our tradition to wait until the third weekend of Advent-the pink candle on the Advent wreath-to bring the tree into the house. At times, it was hard on the kids that we didn’t dive into Christmas on the Friday after Thanksgiving like many of their friends’ families. Instead, we had three advent calendars: religious, chocolate, and Santa themed. Every morning in December, the kids would open the day’s calendars, rotating between adding a piece to the nativity set, eating a piece of chocolate or opening a paper window. At dinner we lit the advent candles and said a prayer.
This change in focus to Advent helped me slow down the buying frenzy, the over-the-top preparations and the secularism that surrounded Christmas. My focus returned to family, with the image of the Blessed Family never far from my mind. I recall the 5:00pm Children’s Christmas Eve Mass with six-week-old Meg held closely in my arms, as Silent Night was being sung. “. . ., Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, Holy Infant so tender and mild” In that moment, holding my much loved and wanted youngest child, I felt a deep bond with Mary and Joseph. Each year at Christmas mass, I search out the infants held tenderly by their mothers and fathers, feel that bond of parenthood with Jesus’s parents and pray that these new parents do as well.
Less you think, I’m all religion and no chaos at Christmas; please note we had our fair share of traditions. Until Meg went to college, she and I would sneak off for photos with Santa and shopping for the big kids, and do it on a school day, no less. Every year on the day Christmas break begins, I had a new Christmas movie wrapped and ready for viewing that night. We attended live performances annually and saw the Nutcracker, the Christmas Schooner, Handel’s Messiah, White Christmas-the musical, and the Rockettes in the Christmas Spectacular. We attended 20 years of school Christmas concerts. Santa stuffs a mean stocking at the Mannix house and Dan read a new Christmas book each Christmas Eve before bedtime. And finally, I make gingerbread houses, lots of them. I curse that dough. Never enough give in it, always falling apart and I vow each year will be the last. But the laughter, the creativity and the joy of watching the kids and their friends decorate gets me, and just like the Grinch, my heart grows three sizes that day. And I know that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.
I’ll close with the comment that I loved Christmas when they were little but I loved it even more as they grew in the understanding of its true meaning. And one of our all-time best Christmases . . .well, that’s easy . . .the one we spent with you, J and Thomas in Belgium! Joyeux Noel!
Much love each and every day,