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Just about the time we hear Karen Carpenter sing, "The Christmas cards have all been sent, the Christmas rush is through," on nearly every AM radio station in America, I, with probably millions of other mothers, am collapsed on the couch in exhausted exaltation at having gotten through yet another holiday season.

With the Christmas tree as my focal point and "Merry Christmas, Darling" playing in the background, I stare blankly, like a spotlighted deer, as the stress and tension from weeks of frantic hustle and bustle, forced gaiety and sinfully fattening food drains from my mind and body.

There, in the festive twilight of the tree-lit room, I can almost sense the relief of others like me who, regardless of the best intentions and best-laid plans, also find themselves stumbling through the annual rituals of overbooked schedules, overextended credit and overstimulated kids undernourished by bellies full of red and green M&Ms.

But as the tension releases and drains like snowmelt, a welcome sense of fulfillment takes its place. Like Christmas dinner, it satisfies, settles in my gut and makes me want for nothing more.

No, this feeling has nothing to do with the relief of finally having finished the Christmas shopping and purged the house of candy-cane wrappers. It has nothing to do with the six rolls of holiday pictures we took of each cousin under 10, the Christmas cards mailed on time or the invitation to a swanky New Year's Eve party.

It's not brought on by The Perfect Day that began with quiet conversation, quiche and eggnog -- and ended with Seinfeld, champagne and shrimp. Nor is it from the genuine thrill of my husband having given me a really thoughtful and meaningful Christmas gift.

This feeling has everything to do with being a parent at Christmas time.

Yes, Virginia, a parent.

There's a certain fulfillment, albeit mess, that comes from giving my 3-year-old and 4-year-old son and daughter license to mix their own bowls of cutout cookie dough and then precariously carrying the process through to the triumphant and tasty end.

This, after laboriously wading through the mind-boggling mess of rolling, cutting, baking and then meticulously decorating each Santa, each tree and each Christmas star-shape with the same amazing skill, talent and proficiency that only a toddler can provide.

Then there's the fuzzy warm feeling that grows out of our unexpected amazement and dumbfounded realization that we'd actually rather stay home and watch "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" with the kids than go to Shea's with our best friends to see "The Nutcracker."

And for mothers like me, there's a deep sense of gratification that comes from knowing that I possess the love it takes to lure me out of my warm, cozy bed at 6:30 on a Saturday morning to join the ranks of other mothers who, driven by love for their children, are on a mission to find the best selection and lowest prices on talking Woody dolls and Barbie convertibles.

It happens on the front lines of the retail battlefield when I leave the $4.99 Colorstay lipstick hanging on the Revlon display -- even though it would "make" my Christmas outfit -- in favor of the colorful $4.99 Beanie Babies because it will "make their day."

Oh my, how things have changed from the days of preparenthood.

It happens during leisure hours at home, when we find ourselves submitting to their insistence to read "The Night Before Christmas" rather than allowing ourselves to revel in Barbara Walters' "The Year's Most Fascinating People."

And yes, it happens in the middle of the night, during our special time, within our sacred space, when little voices radiate from down the stairs and around the corner to sleepily mumble, "Mommy, can I come up to the big bed?"

Yes, our kids have won the battle over our time, our money, our privacy and very often our sanity. But as parents, we're winning a war fought by millions of people around the world who, everyday, fight for meaning, purpose and love in their otherwise empty lives.

Ours is the peace and fulfillment of Christmas.

It's about the birth of a very special child and the profound love we have for our own.

Who needs "The Christmas Box" to tell us that?

Merry Christmas, darlings . . . and Happy New Year, too!

KRISTINA M. SYRACUSE is a stay-at-home mother and free-lance writer living in Williamsville.
For writer guidelines for columns appearing in this space, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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