The race to have a measurably good Christmas begins once the kids are conscious of Santa Claus.
The panic sets in once they are aware that Santa comes for other kids, too, namely, kids whose visits from Santa will wind up on a social media feed.
When my kids were little, Christmas was easy. I could careen through Big Lots for a couple of hours and pick up any number of gifts that bing-banged, rolled, cuddled and sparkled. Most of the loot was worthless, except for the resulting joyous squeals of tots shaking my bedding at six a.m.
“MOM! Santa came! Wake UP!”
This year is my fiftieth Christmas. It is the first one with no presents under the tree. Our three teenage kids began to hear the whisperings back in November, the warning that this year Christmas would come without the trappings of presents. It’s likely they didn’t believe it. They’d seen us strain through the holidays before.
I know for sure that each night since Thanksgiving, we have settled our brains thinking it wouldn’t really happen, it can’t happen.
But it did.
I have recently felt a longing for the past, an unrecognizable place and time where parents of a certain maturity didn’t worry about money.
In the past, we’d always found a way in the eleventh hour to make sure Santa left a mark. I’d start pulling gifts out of the closet, boxes and paper bags of items slowly bought since October. I’d wrap and count, making sure there were equal amounts in number as well as value. In the hours before Christmas Eve, I’d drive around to even the score if there wasn’t enough. There had to be enough.
Inevitably, in March or April, I would always find some cheap game or trinket stowed away behind a bathrobe, the gift that didn’t even make it under the tree because I wound up with so much junk it was forgotten. Oh well, keep it for next year.
The kids aren’t kids anymore. It’s useless to buy a new pair of boots, more make-up, another bottle of perfume, another hoodie, a mountain of chocolate or a pair of earrings. These things would only wind up crammed in closets with little space as it is, more items they don’t need.
I have recently felt a longing for the past, an unrecognizable place and time where parents of a certain maturity didn’t worry about money. Making such a comparison is foolish. The long-term gifts of raising our kids in Lebanon are sure to bear fruit, but for now, we live amidst a revolution which has drained my husband’s economic prospects, and I find myself vacillating between writing and teaching ESL online. Our lives, much like this nation, are in constant flux, and we are squeezed through the labor pains of what is to be born, or not.
As warm mornings and chilly evenings have crept through December, the floor space in front of the tree has remained empty, nothing to trip over, no growing pile.
This is not a letter of apology. My husband and I aren’t struggling to live, but we have found ourselves acutely struggling to have a life. The pistons of this engine we’ve created are rattling inside cracked cylinders. Any money we have is paying for fuel, food, school transport and general maintenance. There just isn’t enough oxygen to propel us any further or faster, for now.
Funny enough, I haven’t felt poor, at least not until November inexorably crossed the line from autumn to Christmas Time, and I found myself looking upon three kids who deserve all the great things that can come in a box.
Nearing the end of the first trimester at school, all three have held to their end. They do their homework. They study for exams. Our daughter works hard at preparing herself for college. The boys fight all the time, but there is also calm when no one is looking.
The boys would like new tablets to replace the ones purchased five years ago. My daughter, at eighteen, needs a phone. My sons are growing like weeds. Every time AJ puts on a jacket the sleeves are too short, and Ricky always wears pants that don’t quite make it down to his shoes. We told them in November that we would shop for these things throughout the new year, that we would procure needed items as the money became available. They all nodded. They kissed us. They said they understood.
I have compensated for the bad news with a beautiful tree and a glowing Nativity; they seem to be the best ever. As warm mornings and chilly evenings have crept through December, the floor space in front of the tree has remained empty, nothing to trip over, no growing pile.
I have made up for the derth under the glittering tannenbaum by keeping the production line flowing from the kitchen. Cookies, rum balls and apple pie have kept the house warm with sugar and the smell of cloves. This year’s lasagna and boeuf bourgignon could have won a contest.
Still, when I opened my eyes on Christmas morning, even I silently hoped that some miracle might have occurred, that I would pad out to the porch room, warm with fire from the iron stove, and nudge my foot into a pile of boxes wrapped in bells and gold foil. It wasn’t to be of course, but what I did find was something far more profound.
My kids, without hints or goading, had planned Christmas for each other with the littlest gifts, the tiniest tokens of love.
A single gift — the stories of Sherlock Holmes, wrapped in green ribbon — from our daughter, lay under the tree, addressed to her brother. I looked up from the lone present to see my kids from behind. There they were, lined up and laughing, playing a video game in front of the television.
They turned and put the remotes down. Hugs. “Merry Christmas, Mom.”
Ricky, our youngest, had tied a ribbon around some cookies and given them to his brother, our middle son AJ, who in turn had taken a bunch of the chocolate he’d received from Secret Santa at school and given it to Rick. They both gave cookies and chocolate to their sister, our beautiful, eldest daughter, Ella, who had wrapped the single book of stories in ribbon for AJ.
And that’s how it played out. My kids, without hints or goading, had planned Christmas for each other with the littlest gifts, the tiniest tokens of love.
There wasn’t a frown in the house, not a single complaint.
We have eaten our fill and enjoyed the health in our family. Anthony and I are looking forward to doing some sane shopping in January and February to fill the coffers with needed things, spreading out purchases so we can handle them. He makes mental lists of practical items. I still dream of taking us all to Greece someday, to Egypt.
This year we received the greatest gift, a peek into our children’s minds when the chips are down, a window looking out upon a room devoid of boxes but full of the ease that gratitude brings. Three young people who, despite the wants and bling and media, have demonstrated that grace is behind the power of love, that they trust us, that we can entrust everything to them.
We haven’t hurt them after all. They are still laughing and playing with old games near the beautiful tree. On this fiftieth Christmas, when we found ourselves unable to provide the expected, the kids have endowed us with a lesson learnt: The season really is about love and family. The season is about gratitude.