My mother died on Christmas Eve in 1997. I had just become a mother myself, a mere two months before. The night she died–while other families gathered around Christmas trees and opened gifts–my family stood shoulder-to-shoulder around her hospital bedside saying goodbye and telling her we loved her one last time.
Just writing that paragraph, 16 years after her death, makes me cry. I miss her every day, even now. I’m sad that my children never got to know her.
When I was especially missing my mother during those early years, it seemed like none of my friends appreciated theirs. One friend hated when her mom cleaned her house during a weekend stay; another wished her mom wouldn’t ask to take her kids so often; and another told her mom to quit buying her kids clothes. What I saw as free house-cleaning, babysitting and support, they saw as criticism, interference and spoiling.
I held my tongue until one Christmas season when my usually even-tempered friend Jane called to vent. She hated the pressure of celebrating with her husband’s family on Christmas Eve and then packing up her kids, the presents and overnight supplies for a long drive to her parents’ house for a Christmas day gathering.
“Is it too much to ask to have my kids wake up on Christmas morning in their own beds?” she ranted, asking how she could fill an already overloaded car with Santa gifts without tipping off her kids. Jane had tried to convince her mother to celebrate the holiday on the day after Christmas, but her mom stood firm. “She is so unreasonable!” she insisted.
I’m not proud of my response: “At least you have a mother.”
My friend, to her credit, didn’t call me out on my guilt trip. She only listened, without judgment, as I told her that I wanted what she had. Instead of being pulled in every direction during the holidays, we were spending Christmas alone. Without a matriarch to draw the family together, my siblings were spending Christmas with their in-laws. Even my husband’s family, who had lost their parents at a young age, wasn’t getting together that year as they often did.
I felt so sad and lonely. What was Christmas without big family gatherings? Why make eight different kinds of Christmas cookies for just four people? Why cook the traditional Swedish meatballs and potato sausage for Christmas Eve dinner for just my husband and me? (My toddler and baby certainly wouldn’t enjoy the food that celebrated our family’s Scandinavian heritage.) Why struggle past my kids’ bedtime to go to candlelight Christmas Eve service? What was the point?
Instead of pity, Jane gave me honesty: “The point is, you can make your own holiday traditions. I wish I could spend the day with just my children and my husband and create our own Christmas memories.”
I was so busy feeling sorry for myself, the sad young mother without a mother at Christmas, that I failed to see what I did have: an opportunity to create a meaningful Christmas for my own family. My friend helped me appreciate the Christmas I had instead of wishing for one that I could never have again.
After some reflection, I came to the realization that we didn’t have to go to candlelight service with cranky kids because that’s when my in-laws always go; we now go to the children’s service earlier in the day. We don’t have to overload my children with an endless array of cookies and sweets; now we make two kinds that are fun to make together. We don’t have to rush off to a family gathering on Christmas morning; we can open presents at a leisurely pace and have a special breakfast together.
When I later told my friend how much I valued her candor, Jane only laughed and said she too was glad we had talked. After our conversation, she better appreciates spending the holiday amongst her extended family, even though she still grits her teeth as she packs for the long trip to her childhood home. She sees how much her children love being with their grandparents and cousins, and she values the passing of tradition from one generation to the next.
She did change one thing, however: Santa no longer delivers her children’s presents to her parents’ home. Santa gifts are delivered to their own tree and opened when they come home on Dec. 26. Her family eats a special brunch and spends a quiet day together, playing new board games or watching a movie in their pajamas. When the matriarch won’t change Christmas, Santa apparently will.
I will always be grateful for that conversation with Jane that changed both of our perspectives on the value of family Christmas traditions: whether our traditions are big or small, convenient or a hassle, I’ve learned that what matters most is my attitude and the connection that I feel with those family members who are around me.
QUESTION: What are you complaining about this holiday season? How can you look at this “problem” from a new perspective?
CHALLENGE: Reflect on your holiday traditions that cause you stress or sadness. What is in your power to change? If you can’t change something (or choose not to in order to avoid hurt feelings), can you change your attitude and appreciate the blessings of the season?
Image from Microsoft Office Images.
Graphics by Julie Finlayson.