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December 06, 2009

The compromise that saved Christmas

HSChorale LDB 2 I grew up in a household that started celebrating Christmas on December 1. The Firestone Christmas album with Julie Andrews went on the record player and alternated with the Harry Simeone Chorale's "Little Drummer Boy." The Christmas tree was fully decked out as soon as we could possibly bring one home. 

My late husband, on the other hand, grew up in a primarily Eastern European household in which the tree did not enter the house until Christmas Eve.  Our first December together was a clash of cultures, but we arrived at a compromise that pleased us both.

Every year, we would go to the tree farm and cut down our tree as soon as we could. It would sit naked in the living room for a day or two, then I'd put on the lights.  The next day, I would put my favorite ornaments on the tree: red and white globes we'd bought on our honeymoon. Every day after that, I would add a few more ornaments to the tree and put a few more decorations around the house.  By the time Christmas Eve arrived, both our tree and our home were in full Christmas glory. We'd put the angel on top of the tree when we got back from midnight liturgy. We both looked forward to snuggling under the light of the tree, looking at the angel, and sharing a snifter of B&B.

When children arrived, our holiday compromise became a true family tradition. Every day, the kids are eager to see what decoration I'll pull out from storage. They can't wait for the various St. Nicholases to make their appearance on December 6. Each day builds the sense of waiting and anticipation that the season is supposed to have.  Even my too-cool-to-care pre-teen smiled when he saw the nutcrackers on the piano this afternoon.

So I'm slightly amused by my Facebook friends' status updates:  "... is exhausted, but 9 hours later the tree and house are completely decorated." "... has pulled out 12 boxes of Christmas treasures!" "... is really annoyed by her friends who have all their decorating done." "... wonders when she's going to find time to trim the tree." "... is so stressed out trying to get it ALL done."  And so on.

I didn't realize it back in 1992, but that first compromise of our married life has made the holidays so much easier for me. I don't have to block out several hours to decorate the tree. I don't have to surround myself with countless boxes of Christmas kitsch. I don't have an artificial time frame during which it "all" has to get done. I also don't have to be intentional about making sure the kids remember what Christmas is all about.  Every day, we shift gears and slow down.  For 10 or 15 minutes every day, we ignore the demands of the computer and television.  The act of getting ready for Christmas reminds us what it is we are getting ready for.

When I became a widow, our tradition of slow preparation actually made Christmas possible. Nothing is harder for a newly widowed parent than trying to bring the holiday spirit into a house that is still shrouded in grief. We know that we "have to" for the sake of the kids, and we actually want to: Our children have lost so much, we don't want them to lose Christmas happiness as well.  Go to any grief support bulletin board this week, read any recently widowed person's blog, and you'll see the anguish of parents unable to bear the thought of the holidays without their beloved spouse, unable to face the festive decorations, unable to contemplate the lifetime of happiness represented in ornaments lovingly collected through the years.  And even though they are overwhelmed by the thought of all the emotion and all the work involved, you'll also see their fierce determination that Christmas WILL happen for their children.

The compromise that Nick and I reached that first Christmas we were married allowed me to make sure Christmas still happened that first Christmas he was gone.  I could pull out a few ornaments at a time and cherish the memories of Christmases past; I could put on a cheerful smile for the 10 to 15 minutes that the boys were helping decorate each day; and when the kids had gone back to whatever they had been doing, I could turn and quietly cry for all that had been lost.

This is our sixth Christmas season without Nick, and our Christmas compromise still shapes our holiday experience. Grief no longer dominates the household, but simply being the only parent of growing boys is exhausting.  Rather than being stressed out by the holiday tasks though, our family tradition actually ensures a little down time for me, a little restorative time. That 10 to 15 minutes of daily decorating brings a festive note to my voice and a twinkle to my eye. Instead of imagining how exhausted I will be by December 24, I am already looking forward to relaxing by the light of the tree, looking at the angel, and sharing my snifter of B&B with Nick.

An original piece for 50-Something Moms by Alicia, who usually decorates the blogosphere at Forever Changed.