There comes a time in everyone’s life when Christmas – if you celebrate that holiday – sneaks up on you in an unexpected way. I do not mean the rush for last-minute gifts or putting the goose in the oven on time. I mean a surprise: the bell that rings at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or the growth spurt for the Grinch’s heart when he hears the Whos down in Whoville singing on Christmas morning.
This is my surprise year.
A month ago, my husband and I realized that our combined family of five children and four grandchildren, who live around the country, will be spending the holidays in their own faraway homes, not ours. We scratched our heads, we considered and counted. Could it be, for the first time in our parenting lives, we would be entirely without for Christmas? Should we put up a tree? Was there any point to outdoor lights? If we wouldn’t be reading “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” to the kids on Christmas Eve, or waking up early to open presents or spending the day playing games, what would we do?
We shared a deep breath and regrouped. This was not the traditional empty-nest syndrome. We’ve been together nine years but we never had a “nest” together. We’ve been a blended family from the start. These new holiday feelings that were churning in us were about forging a new tradition, our own tradition. I busily began planning the season so that we would still feel connected to the holidays without feeling blue about the kids.
We bought a tree. We played Christmas carols. We got busy decorating.
Then a strange feeling overtook us. We kept thinking about the grandchildren, how last year they did the tree and, with wonder, read each nametag on each gift. We missed them.
We took a break from all the holiday cheer and checked prices on flights that could take us to them. But the flights were so limited and expensive that we hung up our hopes.
Moving on, I invited two little friends over to bake cookies, even though I have never made Christmas cutout cookies in my life. It was a way to get children into the house. And in they toddled dutifully, as only 3-year-olds can for a baking activity. We set up shop at the kitchen table, where they cut out angels and trees and stars. They laughed and smiled and painted sugar icing on the cookies, the table, the chairs, their tongues. As we packed up their treasures to take home, the girls told me all the people they would share the cookies with. How many Christmases they have ahead of them, we thought as we waved to them driving off with their mother.
We spent the rest of the weekend shopping and boxing presents to send in the mail. A few days later, we attended a caroling concert at our local church. Rows of children gathered on the altar to sing to the village. A young pianist played a piece by Debussy and little babies cooed to the music.
At some point, we turned to each other again. The question of the grandchildren, related to me by marriage only, was on both of our minds. We looked again online for airline tickets. In the end, we bought one. Even though they are not, genetically speaking, my grandchildren, I felt in that moment a powerful obligation to them. I could not make the trip, but I could send them their grandfather, even if that means being alone on Christmas Day.
And that isn’t even the surprise.
The surprise came to me well after the airline ticket was bought.
More than a week ago, I volunteered to help decorate gingerbread houses with the fourth grade children at school in my village. The organizer for the activity had hand-crafted 11 gingerbread houses modeled on buildings in the town, and each child in the grade would decorate one, display it at the annual Christmas concert and then take it home for Christmas. My job was to help place gum drops and sprinkle colored sugar. All of which I did.
But something changed in me that day as I watched the children. They not only decorated the gingerbread houses, they transformed the moment. They passed tins of candy generously to each other. They asked adults in the room for help and praise. They helped and praised each other. Occasionally, they stepped back from the table to dance to Christmas tunes on the public address system. They were so entirely free, so happy and light, so completely ready to do the work of gingerbread houses, as if their entire time on this earth has been moving toward that very moment in the room.
It’s not that they were joyous. It’s that they were joy.
And I felt such joy in their presence.
This is my surprise: I don’t have to have my own traditions, my own family, my own husband in the room to have a connection to the heart of the season. Truly, I have all that in my life, we have that in our lives, and I hope you have it in yours. On Christmas, as my husband unwraps presents with his grandchildren on one side of the country, and I listen to the quiet of my home and thoughts on this side of the country, we will both have joy.