Growing up, Christmas was always a production—a song and dance with all of the lights and action. My family would always be decorating up until Christmas Eve, when we’d hang our annually gifted ornaments on the tree. Tim, the middle of three brothers, and I would wait impatiently outside my mom’s bedroom door while she wrapped presents and trickled them out to us, letting us poke and prod before we put them under the tree. Before opening presents, we’d crack out the family Bible and read the story of Jesus’ birth, a tradition my mom carried on after her father did it her whole life. Then, because we indulged in Christmas consumerism, we’d spend the next five hours opening one gift at a time.
We weren’t a wealthy family. But my mom put in every ounce of effort and every dollar she had to make sure that, even if it was for one day out of the year, her family lived like royalty. I’m forever appreciative of that.
There was something that happened along the way, though. There was an ideological knot that crept into my Christmas philosophy: Christmas was a holiday about presents, and if it wasn’t about presents, if it was a hard year, then it was an imperfect holiday. This knot was exposed to me when I was ten years old, having just moved to Arizona. It was a warm December day, late in the month, and I visited my new friend’s house. She was a little girl that lived down the street, and whose name I don’t remember now. She invited me over to see her Christmas tree, and I excitedly agreed. She hadn’t seen my tree yet, but the presents were already stacked halfway up the trunk and were spilling out into the living room. We charged into her living room and there, under a tree decorated humbly in simple white lights, were just six presents. She had a family of four. I asked her when they were going to put the rest of the presents out, and she shrugged and said, “Oh, this is all of them.” I stayed for a few more minutes, nodded pleasantly as she told me so happily about her family’s ornaments and decoration, and then I went home and cried. I didn’t really know her, or her family, but I thought that they deserved a better Christmas than that. And yet, she was so delighted with it all.
I never invited her in to see my Christmas tree.
I think I was fourteen years old when the knot started to come undone. My family had been living in Arizona for around four years, celebrating the winter holidays with no snow after living in Colorado since my birth. But after a bumpy four years in Arizona, my oldest brother moved back to Colorado, and so to make sure we were all together for Christmas, my mom had us pack up and head to the airport in the third week December. It would be our first Christmas away from home, and I wasn’t happy about it. We took off from Sky Harbor in a sunny 65 degrees and landed at Denver International Airport in the midst of a snowstorm.
Christmas was at a nearly vacant, snow laden Homewood Suites near Denver, with a miniature tree set on top of the coffee table. The night was cold, and a blizzard was at our windows, and my whole family was bundled up on the couch with Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups on the TV at Tim’s request. We’d grown from a family of five to a family of six, with my step-dad and my grandma having joined our circus, and stuffed under the coffee table were about ten presents, not one spilling into the living area or stacked up to the tree top. That Christmas wasn’t perfect, but that Christmas was the best I’ve ever had.
Christmas shouldn’t be perfect. It shouldn’t be about how many presents you have or where you are, but it should be about the people you’re with. That is such a clichéd statement, but it’s true. Even Jesus’ birthday, which many people celebrate at Christmas time, wasn’t perfect: The wise men who brought Jesus his gifts were six years late for his birth (and that’s true—Google it)! I still think about that little girl and her family at Christmas time. What mattered to her was that she got to decorate the tree with her family and spend the day with them, and nothing else counted.
The holiday season is about faith, love, and celebrating the year. This year, spend every day of Hanukkah loving others. Focus on your family for Christmas. Indulge in your history and culture for Kwanzaa. It’s never too early or too late to look at the Christmas tree in a different way.
I’ll close with a quote from Dr. Seuss:
“Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn’t come from a store.”
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Weekly Writing Prompt:
He was a little guy, but in his heart, he just knew that he could reach the star on the top of the tree…