Christmas about more than a baby — especially this year
Duluth News Tribune
I hate to say it, but some years, a wave of relief washes over me when Christmas is done. This year, like holidays before, I sat in my living room, surrounded by twinkling lights and shelves of Christmas décor, thinking about the things that went wrong.
Typically, I kick off the season by decorating my house on Thanksgiving weekend. This year, that weekend was spent on house repairs. Feeling a bit stressed about changing my routine, I set up the ornaments in the evenings the week after Thanksgiving. Because I had pictures of the decorated rooms from the year before and the knick-knacks were boxed up by room, after five evenings and ample coffee to keep me going, my house was done.
I knew this holiday was going to be different because I also had Mom’s room at the nursing home to infuse with the Christmas spirit. Mom’s room, however, required a bit more creativity, mainly because I had to sift through a closet packed with boxes labeled “Christmas” to find a few meaningful adornments that would fit in her small one-bedroom.
Despite the extra effort, Mom’s room turned out beautifully. She not only was surrounded by joyful trinkets of her Christmases past, she also could bring joy to other residents and caregivers, as seen in the smiles in their eyes when they stopped by for a visit.
Those holiday victories soon faded as things took a turn south.
The evening visits with Mom became less about the joy of Christmas and more about grieving the loss of my dad and brother. Dad died in 2013 at 92. My 61-year-old brother Lou died of tongue cancer in 2020. Mom’s pain was so deep that she questioned the logic of Christmas. “It was just a baby born. He had done nothing great yet. He was born, and then we have no other stories about him until he turns 12 years old.”
Even though I could relate to her pain, it was hard for me to hear Mom talk like that. She and my father went to church every Sunday. Mom taught Sunday school for 50-plus years. My parents’ dedication to their religion went so far as to make us kids go to church during vacations. Believing in God and having faith that He would always be there for us was the lesson my parents brought me up to believe. And now I sat facing Mom, my teacher, as she questioned her faith. The anger was palpable when she asked, “If God can do all things, why didn’t He heal Lou?”
I desperately needed to find something to help Mom rediscover the traditions that I knew made her Christmas seasons special. “Hey, Mom, how about I help you with Christmas cards this year? I don’t remember the last time you mailed out cards. You used to love doing that.”
Mom shrugged her shoulders. “OK.”
“How about a picture card? I think everyone would love that.” I went to her closet and pulled out a festive sweater.
Mom held up her hand in defense and said, “No. I’m not changing my clothes.”
I jokingly rolled my eyes at her, then laughed. “Fine,” I relented.
I wheeled Mom over to the cheerfully decorated desk, straightened up her flannel pajama top, fluffed up her hair, and said, “CHEESE!”
The 80 photo cards were ready with a week to spare before Christmas, so we needed to work fast. With Mom’s handgrip getting weaker with age, I asked her to sign one card, and I forged the rest. I told her, “I got pretty good at signing your name in high school.” That comment made us both laugh.
I didn’t realize, however, that this fun project would turn into a somewhat depressing trip down memory lane. The last time Mom mailed out Christmas cards was the year after Dad died. Now, seven years later, going through Mom’s address book, I found at least one name on each page of someone who had passed away. I didn’t speak the names of those friends and relatives who I knew were gone, but others only Mom knew had died; the growing list was just another reminder of lost Christmas yesterdays.
When the cards were finally sent, I was able to turn my attention to something I loved: baking. It has been my tradition to start my holiday baking on Christmas Eve, because the truth is, I have no control when it comes to sweets. But this year, the way the holiday was landing, we had a dinner party planned with my husband’s daughter for the eve, so my baking started on the eve of the eve.
I know each of my five adult children’s favorite cookie, which means I bake the same assortment every year. That morning, I started with the recipes I had ingredients for, but it wasn’t long before I didn’t feel well. My daughter took over the baking while I laid down. By noon, I felt well enough to resume my baking duties, which started with writing a list of supplies I’d need and then heading to the store. I didn’t know there were grocery shortages, and when I couldn’t find Rice Krispies on the shelf, I was done. I just couldn’t go any further. No Rice Krispies meant no Scotcheroos, my youngest son’s favorite. How could I serve special treats for just four of my five children? Instead of a six-foot counter covered with 10 different tasty treats, Christmas would only come with green spritz trees, Russian teacakes, and unfrosted chocolate cookies.
My hopes were running dangerously low, but there was one more chance to save Christmas: the Christmas Day dinner my three siblings and I planned to have at my house. Family would travel from all over to this central location since I lived three blocks from the nursing home, and we could easily wheel Mom over in her wheelchair. Except that didn’t end up happening.
The first cancellation came from my son in St. Paul. He had COVID. He and his family of five would not be coming. The second came from my sister in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Her daughter had COVID. She and her family of five would not be coming.
On Christmas Eve morning, I took a longer than usual run. Running helps me release stress, and even though my legs were getting sore, I ran almost four miles instead of the usual three. I woke Christmas Day morning with aches that wouldn’t go away. Barely able to walk, I called my sister in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. After explaining I wasn’t feeling well, half the family wasn’t coming because of COVID, and it was freezing outside, I asked my sister if she thought it would be safer for Mom if we rescheduled our dinner. Although she agreed and I knew in my heart it was the right decision, it was the final crushing blow on my Christmas spirit.
Later that morning, my husband found a channel on YouTube that played music videos. I sat down next to him, and we started taking turns, searching and playing our favorite childhood Christmas songs.
It was different, just the two of us that Christmas morning. But it was OK. As I listened to the music and took in the messages of the songs, I thought of the Christmases of my past and the story of Jesus’ birth. I felt a renewed appreciation for the good things in my life. I knew everyone in my family was OK. And although we wouldn’t be together on that Christmas Day, I was happy knowing everyone had somebody special sharing the day with them.
With rekindled joy in my heart, I walked to the nursing home, a bit anxious to deliver Mom the news. She took it well; she didn’t want to get sick with COVID. Mom agreed it wasn’t worth the risk. I took out my laptop and dialed my sister on Facebook video chat. My sister invited my other siblings to join. Mom spent the next two hours chatting with family. It almost felt like we were sitting in Mom’s dining room as we had years ago, everyone excited to be together, sharing stories and laughter. It was a pretty darn awesome way for Mom to spend Christmas with her kids.
After the chatting was done, Mom and I talked a bit about Dad and Lou and how we missed them so. I told Mom, “It’s OK to be sad. It was a terrible loss. This Christmas was a tough one, but we did OK, don’t you think?”
“Yes, it was nice,” Mom agreed.
It made me sad, though, that Mom’s suffering had changed her thoughts about the true meaning of Christmas. I took a chance and reminded her. “You know, Christmas isn’t just about a baby. It is about celebrating Jesus’ birth and the promise of heaven to all those who believe.”
Mom grumbled, then said with a grin, “He was still just a baby.”
I giggled, knowing Mom would not give me that one. “Well, we’ll work on celebrating Easter then.”
I’ve had 60 Christmases in my lifetime, and yet I know this is one I will never forget. This will be the holiday that started with good intentions and turned into a fight to keep our family traditions alive. Now that it’s over, I have some of the best memories of all. You see, when I was able to let go of how things were supposed to be, I realized the Christmas spirit was all around us. I just needed to open my heart to feel it.