In December 2002, my family and I found ourselves living in Switzerland, the happy result of my husband’s work as a college professor on international exchange for a semester.
There was only one problem.
Not that the Europeans don’t do yuletide right. Au contraire, the Europeans invented the Christmas tree, the Christmas carol and the candy cane.
They just don’t do it like me.
Indeed, my children would be facing a very different Christmas that year – without the multitude of familiar decorations covering most square inches of their living space, since our decorations were in the attic 4,000 miles away; without the usual church, school and friend parties, since all of the above were also across the Atlantic; and, most strikingly for children who are 5, 10 and 14, without the gifts.
The cost of shipping being greater than the cost of the presents themselves, my husband and I would have to tell our children that the usual family ritual of presents would not exist that year.
Our Euro Christmas had the promise of disappointment Etch-a-Sketched all over it. And not just for the children, but for me, the quintessential American matriarch whose mother was born just this side of the Great Depression, who learned to equate overbaking, overdecorating and overcreating at Christmas with the good and plenty Good Mother, who embraced her own Christmas Queen title like Rudolph guiding the sleigh that night.
But then a funny thing happened in our own Whoville.
Instead of me spending the whole of December running from shopping mall to Target, from baking in the kitchen to secret-wrapping 15 gifts per child in the basement, from a cookie exchange at school to a Secret Santa party at yoga, to eventually the doctor’s office, where I would inevitably need a strep-throat culture, I had the time and mindset to enjoy the sights and sounds of Christmas with family.
Instead of my children being orphaned by the racing, rushing queen of the Christmas castle, they found themselves ice skating with their mom on the twinkling rink in downtown Geneva, wandering through the Old Town, listening to strolling minstrels and drinking hot chocolate with the family, all of us together.
And so it was the night before Christmas that we drove from the city to a tiny, two-star hotel high in an Alpine village where we played games and scanned the snowy skies for Santa.
In the early dawn of Christmas morning, I lit a little Swedish brass candle chime to take the place of our Christmas tree. And my sweet children woke to find their hand-knit Christmas stockings from home stuffed with modest trinkets I’d enjoyed picking up along our travels.
That was the whole of it. And not a whiff of disappointment in our drafty little room. We took a hike in the snowy mountains later that morning, enjoyed local fondue and music at a nearby cafe in the afternoon. And Christmas that year slipped away into the night like all those before them, folded now into the story of our family.
All these many years, I’ve thought about that Christmas, how warm and tender – and strep-throat free – it was, despite the missing accoutrements. With each year that followed, I fantasized about remaking a smaller, quieter Christmas for my family. And for myself. But I worried about the disappointment of my children. I worried, as much as anything, about mine.
But then, this year, in the car with my children one day in early December, including the eldest home from graduate school, I blurted out a statement I had not planned to say.
“Money’s tight. So’s my energy,” I told my children, now 18, 23 and 27. “I keep thinking about cutting back on Christmas. But I like the way we open all the little presents. I worry it won’t be the same.”
There was silence.
But only the shortest bit of it.
And then the eldest said: “The kids all have our own money now, Mom. We can even make things for each other. What if everybody in the family gives everybody else one gift?”
“OK,” I said.
It has taken all these many Christmases and maybe my children becoming adults to get here. But finally this year now, as I ponder mindfully that one special gift I will get each member of the family instead of 15 – and as I watch my children do the same; as I find the time and space to seek out meaningful stocking trinkets instead of grabbing Silly Putty and ChapSticks on the run from Walgreens; as I find energy for singing in the church choir on Christmas Eve and resting quietly with the family evenings in front of the tree, instead of collapsing the day after Christmas with a cold; as I consider more intentionally this year the giving trees all over town instead of striding by, too overwhelmed to look – and ask my children to do so, too – I realize I may have finally hit on something.
I believe they call it the peace of Christmas.
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