I cry every Christmas. Not because I don’t love Christmas. It’s actually my favorite holiday. I love the lights and the tree. I love the parties and the decorations. I love shopping for my family and seeing my kids’ faces on Christmas morning. I even love wrapping presents. But the stress I put on myself to make it happen every year? Well, that’s another story.
It may seem ironic, because I’ve never been an elf on the shelf kind of mom. The closest we ever came to an elf was the one-foot tall blow-up Santa that we bought on the side of the road and nestled into our plastic tree one year when we were living in West Africa. And that kind of sums up my approach to Christmas – quirky and weird is fine with me.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my friends’ perfectly coordinated trees. I love the care with which each ornament is placed so as to create the perfect symmetry. My tree, however, holds handmade stars, ballet dancers with missing legs, and a glass pig held together by packing tape (the result of an unfortunate accident and a six-year old’s attempt at salvaging her favorite ornament).
But it’s also filled with ornaments from every trip we’ve ever taken. Year-round, whenever we go somewhere, even for a weekend, we pick up an ornament to mark the occasion. Instead of color-coordinated bows and glass balls, our tree holds guitars from Nashville, angels from Italy, a butterfly-covered ball from Dollywood, Mickey ears from Disney, and a rather strange looking mermaid from the beach – and each one is placed at random by the kid to whom it belongs. The end result is a tree that looks like it was decorated by a blind cat, but it is a tree that tells the story of our lives.
In other parts of the house, we have a string of large, colored, straight-up-old-school 1980s bulbs that remain wrapped around the bannister of our stair year-round. (To be fair, it started off as laziness on my part, but became something my kids insisted we leave up – and now it’s simply a part of our décor, as well known to visitors as the pink lawn flamingos they use to find our house.) We have a blow-up reindeer who sits on the front steps, because one daughter found him on sale one year and decided we couldn’t live without him. Another year was so busy and filled with stress (non-Christmas related) that a live tree simply wasn’t going to happen. Long story short, the then 10-year old got to pick a fake tree and a white, plastic Christmas tree covered by rainbow tinsel garland now adorns the front foyer every year.
And I love everything about our Christmases from the crazy ornaments to the pajamas we get each other for Christmas Eve – a tradition that has now turned into our own version of a tacky sweater contest as we try to outdo each other for the most ridiculous pajamas we can find. But as a single mom of three daughters who also works full-time, it takes everything I have to make it happen every year.
Shopping seems to happen later and later every year. Decorating is sporadic at best. I haven’t made a single Christmas cookie in three years. From December 1 until I finally take the tree down in mid-January, I feel a constant looming pressure to make everything perfect – not in the sense of a Southern Living magazine cover, rather in that I want to ensure that every Christmas will be my daughters’ favorite. I want them to look back at Christmases of their childhood and remember magic and laughter. Which makes the fact that I usually spend Christmas Eve crying in the bathroom with a glass of wine more than a bit ironic.
For me, in a life filled with the constant stress of getting everyone where they need to be, managing the house, paying the bills, working full-time, and doing it all without a co-parent or family nearby, Christmas becomes the proverbial straw and I’m the camel’s back. In my desperation for everything to be memorable and magical, I throw myself headfirst into a stress vortex that spirals out of control.
What I envision as a perfect evening of hot chocolate and background Christmas music while we decorate the tree and tell sentimental stories about each ornament inevitably turns in to a forced-fun event in which I end up telling every one to stop bickering through gritted teeth. This is followed by hot chocolate spilled on the rug, tangled half-lit strings of lights, and of course, tears when yet another ornament gets broken.
So, that’s a normal year. Then came 2018.
I mean, I’ve accept chaos as a standard; but if chaos is a thunderstorm, this year was a hurricane. The past year has held levels of personal, professional, and parenting stress I didn’t know existed. I was burnt out by June; and just as I announced that life could not have more stress, fall showed up and said, “Hold my beer…watch this.”
With what I already thought was more than I could handle in terms of household management, schedule coordination, and then of course, my job, September brought a new opportunity. Details aren’t necessary, but in mid-September my daughters and I had the chance to welcome an unofficial foster child into our home – making me a single mom with not three, but four daughters.
To say that this opportunity is a privilege is the greatest understatement of the year. Not only were we beyond happy to welcome this child into our home, she brought with her a beauty and gentleness that we needed to temper our topsy-turvy world. Her presence lent a stillness to the emotional roller coaster we had all buckled ourselves into and has guided us since.
However…four kids. Work. Christmas. Schedules. Grocery shopping. Cleaning. Laundry. Sports. Theater rehearsals. Some things can’t be sugar-coated or glossed over. My full plate was now spilling over and by the first week of December with my budget already stretched to the limit, I still had not purchased a single present for any of the four kids for whom I was determined to provide a Magical-Christmas-Even-If-It-Kills-Me-And-It-Very-Well-Might.
It was about this time my middle daughter came to me and quietly asked if a kid she knew from school could maybe spend a week with us over Christmas – he didn’t have anywhere else to go.
I’m pretty sure I spit my coffee out.
But the answer was yes, of course. Who was I to turn my back on anyone, especially these kids who, quite literally, didn’t have a safe place to spend the holidays? Shopping for one more kid, feeding one more kid, finding a place for one more kid in my already filled-to-the-brim house…those were details. I would figure them out as I went.
I talk a lot about holiday magic. I’ve spent years thinking it existed in having the most festive decorations or finding the right tree. I’ve searched for it in shopping malls in the form of the perfect gift. I’ve stayed up until three in the morning countless Christmas Eves thinking that it was hidden under piles of “Santa” presents. Yet, it has eluded me year after year. Self-induced stress has pushed me to tears and anxiety time and again and I’ve lost so much time hidden away in corners trying to gather myself to face the holiday that I claim to love the most.
For years, I’ve looked at stress as something that had an infinite limit – it would just pile up without stopping and there would never be a tipping point. And physically, that may be true. I am exhausted in ways I can’t describe. But what I discovered this year, is that the heart knows no limits. We can choose to replace mental stress, which is really a self-imposed emotion more than an actuality, with love and gratitude. And when we do, well, that’s when magic happens.
In keeping with tradition, I cried this Christmas. But not when an ornament broke, as it inevitably would. Not when I looked at my bank account that now needed to supplement two more sets of presents. And not when I stayed up way too late on Christmas Eve making sure everything was perfect for the morning.
This year I cried when I told my daughters that their Christmas would be a little lighter because we needed to spread the stash evenly across five kids instead of three and they didn’t blink an eye, but responded with absolute excitement and joy at having two extra “siblings.” I cried when I unwrapped a handmade gift from my middle daughter. I cried along with my “foster” son when he opened the ukulele we had gotten him – because unbeknownst to me, his old one had broken recently and he missed his music desperately. I smiled when all the kids exclaimed, “This is the best Christmas we’ve ever had,” only to step away and cry in secret when my foster daughter quietly said, “This is the first Christmas I’ve ever had.” I cried openly when, later, she handed me a hand-written card filled with words of gratitude that could only have only sprung from the heart of a child.
I cried a lot this year. But each tear was filled with gratitude and love…infinite, uncontainable love.
Stress is real. I feel it every day. I still have clouds looming over my head in the form of unfinished projects, chaotic schedules, and a very full house. But stress can be transformed. Instead of anxiety at what I don’t have in terms of time, money, and organization, I am trying to realize the gifts that I do have.
I have no time because I am surrounded by people who need me. I have no money because I have a house full of people who I am privileged enough to care for. And organization? Well, organized chaos will have to do for now.
I know one day my house will be empty and all of my kids – the ones I bore and the ones I have taken into my heart – will be busy creating their own Christmas magic. I can only hope that they don’t follow the example I’ve set for them all of these year and turn a desperate search for perfection into a season of unnecessary stress. Chances are, I’ve already done a little damage in that regard. But for each and every one of us, this Christmas stands as a symbol of what the holidays should be and will serve as a beacon for them in the future. And that is a gift that has no price tag.