Do you remember that feeling of getting up Christmas morning and rushing out to the living room to find cookie crumbs on the plate of cookies you left out for Santa, a stocking full of tiny goodies, and a colorful clutch of presents under the tree? Do you remember how great it felt as a kid to sit amidst a pile of crumpled wrapping paper, cozy in your footie pajamas, and try and decide which new toy to play with first? Now, do you remember that feeling of utter despair when your parents said it was time to get dressed, pile in the car, and drive the hour and a half to grandma’s house? The agony of walking away from your new, shiny toys heaped in a pile of destruction around the tree, victims of a Christmas tsunami, was impossible to describe to the adults around you, who probably already thought you were an ungrateful, spoiled brat as you whined about not wanting to go anywhere on Christmas day. While I can fully understand how this scene could elicit thoughts of spoiled rotten children who should really just be thankful that they have any presents to begin with, I remember this feeling and sympathize with it wholeheartedly. That is why I am not berating my kids this Christmas season when they tell me they are not happy that my husband and I are dragging them off to Hawaii for the holiday when they just want to be in their own house. I get it. They just want to be home for the holidays.
Some of you are probably thinking, wait, what about the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, and the religious significance of this day. I can admit that for me, Christmas is not a religious thing. While I did grow up in a Catholic family, and did attend church fairly regularly (along with religious education classes and retreats with our church youth group), religion did not take hold as one of my core adult values. I am more a disciple of the Treat Others as You Would Have Them Treat You philosophy. I think what purged the churchgoer out of me was the day I was sitting in the back pew at Christ the King church in Rochester, NY, (the church where my parents married, where I was baptized, where I had my first communion, penance, and confirmation, and where my father and both paternal grandparents were memorialized in lovely funeral services by the same priest who confirmed me), and a TV was wheeled onto the altar to show the parishioners a video about the importance of tithing. The message that in order to be a good Christian you should be pledging at least 10% of your salary to the church did not sit well with me. That day I found I was losing my religion. But Christmas, a supremely religious day, has always held its appeal for me, not because of the baby Jesus, or even the gift giving and cookie baking, but because of this feeling I so vividly remember from childhood. The feeling of togetherness, my parents beaming as I tore through my presents. The feeling of falling snow, warm fires, hot cocoa, and Christmas music playing on the stereo. The pure joy of no school for two weeks, and spending long, chilly days safe and toasty in pajamas, under warm blankets, discovering the new dolls, coloring books, and other treasures found under the tree. It was, and still is, a time of year that elicits a warm fuzzy feeling in me.
It was this feeling that was so rudely interrupted when the time came to get dressed up in our Christmas finest and make the long drive to grandma and grandpa’s. I always knew we would have to stop somewhere along the way, either to pick up something for the celebration or put gas in the car or buy beer, and I hated that too. I would sigh in the back seat thinking, for God’s sake, if I have to go out in the cold in my dress, tights, and patent leather Mary Janes, the least you could do is be ready to go! There was always a church outing at some point, and to a kid with a house full of new stuff just beyond their reach, well, that was a torture beyond words. (The one exception was the year my cousin Dani, a toddler at the time, yelled out Hallelujah at the top of her lungs during a silent moment in church. Come to think of it, I think she was wearing footie pajamas. It was awesome. A true Christmas miracle.) Don’t get me wrong, I loved the mischief my cousins and I would get up to. But being torn away from my little green house full of comfort and joy was a real bummer.
Now I live in Tucson, AZ where there is no hope of a white Christmas, snow falling outside the window while sipping cocoa by the fire, and the warm, fuzzy feeling is harder to grasp. As such, it made perfect sense for us to take advantage of the kids’ vacation time and hop a flight to Hawaii, where Christmas is green and bright, the sun to shine by day and all the stars at night. I mean, if it is going to be 75 degrees F and sunny on Christmas we might as well be on the beach, right? But I had forgotten how much it means to a kid to be in their own home on Christmas day, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but sit in the wreckage of unwrapped gifts clad in comfy PJs. Because I am not experiencing Christmas as I did in my youth, complete with reindeer footprints on the snowy rooftops and icicles glittering in the sun, I somehow lost, for a moment, the memory of that warm, fuzzy feeling and how important it is to a kid. I forgot that a desert Christmas is the Christmas my boys are growing up with, and to them, being in our desert home on a warm, sunny day is a perfect Christmas. They still want to wake up in their own beds, run to the stockings by our fireplace (even if there is no fire crackling inside), slide on socked feet across the tile to the vivid packages beneath the tree, and spend the day immersed in the joy of that happy holiday feeling. Nowhere to go, nothing to do but sit surrounded by family and new goodies, and discover the presents they waited all year to get. And this year I am doing to them the exact same thing I couldn’t stand when I was a kid. Our decision about Christmas plans was based on what we wanted, not what they wanted.
I realize this all sounds superficial. No discussion of the birth of Jesus. No church. Just a day of unapologetic materialism. But my kids do know the story of Jesus’s birth and why Christmas is even a holiday to begin with. They have asked me the question, “What does Santa have to do with Jesus?” A very valid question that is difficult to answer. Every year we make them sift through their old toys and choose stuff to donate to kids who are less fortunate than them. We give money to charities and we drop new, unwrapped toys in the collection bins around town. We try to do at least a little bit to heighten their awareness of how lucky they are. And this year we thought they were the luckiest kids on Earth going to Hawaii for Christmas. But you know what? Their disappointment is valid. Yes, it might seem spoiled and bratty, but to them, just like it was to me, Christmas is about that feeling. Not church, not Jesus, not even presents. That feeling of being home. And so, I promised my boys that next year, and for as many years as they would like, we will stay home on Christmas. No planes, trains, or automobiles on Christmas day. No beaches. Not even the short drive to a grandparent’s house. Just our pink and tan desert abode, surrounded by mountain views, blue skies, and cactus warmed by the sun.
It won’t be like the Christmases of my youth, but it will be perfect, because they will have that warm, fuzzy feeling that only comes from Christmas at home.