Is Christmas just for children? Their eyes sparkle waiting for that day. Moms and dads are busy decorating, tromping into the forest for the right tree; baking and cooking; planning for older children who might come home for the holidays; and buying gifts with money they do not have; all to make that perfect day when children wake to wonderment and magic.
I was looking for a spectacular Christmas story for this week’s column to add to the mood, one that would make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. As I dug deep into my own heart I was not expecting the story that was staring me in the face. My own story! It isn’t warm and fuzzy and I’m not sure if I want to cry or laugh at myself.
Being grown up and practical as I am, magic and wonderment have been wrung out from the season. Materialism and the intrusive presence of “things” have put out the light in my soul, so to speak. Christmas is something to get through. In my mind I have Christmas in my heart all year and giving comes natural and it is not something I have to do at a particular time of the year.
Every year at this time I ask the family, “What shall we do about Christmas?” One year I served notice on the whole family, “I’m not giving this year. I’ve given all year, and I have nothing left in me to give.” That year I didn’t even put up a tree. Of course my family was shocked and appalled at my brazen approach. They purchased a tree cutting permit and cut a tree that stood empty on the porch throughout the holidays. They thought I had lost it. I thought I was very courageous breaking tradition and being real. Real is hard to swallow when others want to enjoy the season.
Another year I told them, “I’m scaling down this year, and you can choose from the family’s crystal, china and silver. Your Dad has a gun or two for the guys.” I thought myself and Al to be very generous. Apparently not! Other years we just gave money, no thought, no fuss, no trouble and no shipping cost. It was more of a boardroom decision than from the heart. Another year we decided to go to Hawaii. We just left home and escaped the fuss. Lately, it’s “Let’s draw names we all have way too much.” You can see why our children roll their eyes and say, “That is the way Mother is, but we love her anyway. We’ll take up the slack.” They do. They are all determined it is going to be a wonderful Christmas.
Not many years ago I was asked to name my most memorable Christmas. I answered to my surprise, “It wasn’t my favorite; I haven’t forgotten it, so it must be my most memorable. I was eleven years old. I was no longer playing with dolls and pretending. On Christmas morning I woke expecting everything as usual, lots of presents and toys. I woke to find an empty tree with only three gifts on the branches, one for each of my two brothers and myself.”
I opened a small box. It was an Elgin watch. Christmas came and was gone in a second. There was no wonderment or magic. The moment portrayed an O. Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” My father had pawned his shotgun so my brothers and I could have a gift to open that morning. My father sacrificed a treasured thing, but I didn’t see it that way, I saw only an empty tree.
The next summer my father passed away, and my mother became a widow at 36 years of age with three children to support. I grew up quickly. Even in all of that, I didn’t realize the sacrifices my mother made. I just saw an empty family life. She was working and going to school at night to get a better job to take care of us. It was another jolt and I grew up a little more. The sacrifices did not translate into love but lack. When we are young, we do not understand sacrifice. Possibly we are not to know but just enjoy. We learn only when we sacrifice ourselves.
This brings to mind an incident that happened a few years ago. Al and I prepared for months for an artist and writers’ retreat. During the retreat, everyone was having fun and enjoying the weekend just like we wanted.
I asked a friend,’“Does anyone know how hard we worked to make it special for them to enjoy?”
She answered, “No and they don’t need to know. You invited them to come and enjoy. That’s enough.”
Recently I gave my oldest daughter my large expensive sterling silver punchbowl with 12 silver cups. When she received it, she said, “Thank you.” I wanted to hear more. I wanted her to jump up and down ecstatically, kick the wall and yell in sheer delight, “Oh Mother, thank you, thank you, thank you.” She didn’t, that reaction would have been totally out of character for her. The punchbowl represented a change of lifestyle for me. I was no longer entertaining large groups, I was entering into another season. I was reluctant to let go so I felt I was giving a costly gift. The gift of change! Change is a sacrifice.
Oh me. Of course I didn’t leave it at that. I wasn’t using it, didn’t intend to use it, it took up space and my daughter could use it. It was unfair to put on her what it meant to me. But I couldn’t let it go that easy. I took it to another step. I wanted her to know how I sacrificed so I asked her, “Do you know how much I sacrificed and sweated bullets over that silver punchbowl when I gave it to you?”
“Yes, I do and I appreciate it and you can have it back any time you want it.”
“No, no, no you missed the point. I don’t want you to feel guilty. I don’t want it back.” Apparently the gift became more important than the one I gave it to. I became self-absorbed. It was all about me. So I ponder about gift giving and receiving. If I come bearing gifts, don’t run, I am changing.
The more I think about it, children won’t know the sacrifice their moms and dads go through because they are not meant to. My understanding didn’t come until now. Many of us had to grow up too quickly, but we can still capture the magic and wonderment in childlike faith by receiving the love that has been given to us. This love is not logical or reasonable and is sacrificial not superficial. It does not expect anything in return and is patient. This love happens in families.
My daughter came by the house and said, “Mother it’s time to get your Christmas on!” She made me open my present early. It was a purple tree already with lights on it and silver balls. Go figure. We both laughed. I just said “Thank you.” She knows how mother is! Its life and life is a gift and we are blessed to live it. I am wondering if our older children are learning the gift of sacrifice because of our behavior today. Somehow it all comes full circle.
Final Brushstroke: For those with child-like faith, enjoy. It’s not about years, it’s about the heart.
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Delighted to see this column in our paper. Your wisdom is greatly appreciated and since I’ve been to your river cottage it means even more to have your comments on what God is leading you to do.
“Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.” — Auguste Rodin, French artist.