It wasn’t that long ago that I suddenly realized how much I love the Christmas season. Sure, I had the usual amount of excitement as a child, waking early on Christmas mornings to creep down the hall with my sisters and explore what Santa had left for us during the night. But then adolescence came and Santa was no longer a magical mystery, and eventually Christmas became one more holiday from school and a time when family gathered for gift exchange. I still enjoyed that aspect of it, especially as my niece and nephews arrived, but somewhere in the mix I lost the sense of wonder and joy. I liked Christmas as much as I liked other holidays but no more than that.
It was only last year that I felt the great stirring in my spirit that I’d had as a young girl. I’m certain this is directly proportional to my relationship with Jesus. As I’ve grown spiritually in the past few years I’ve come to view the world in terms of beauty and art. And that has brought with it a true JOY that I don’t recall experiencing in my younger years. I do all I can to choose joy throughout the year, but there is once again a sense of WONDER and MYSTERY as Christmas approaches. My heart is thrilled by the sparkle of the world – whether manmade or innate – and I have come to recognize a new buoyancy to my heart during the Advent season. Everywhere I go and everything I see fills me with expectancy and excitement. I have come to enjoy the experience of shopping for Christmas gifts simply for the fun of standing amidst the twinkling decorations. Every lighted tree makes me smile. Every shimmering display makes my heart happy. These are the reasons I don’t want to nail down my Christmas gift list too early in the year; I enjoy wandering the festive store displays in search of little treasures! There’s no telling when I might run across that perfect little gift that the recipient doesn’t even know she wants! That is pure joy for me. Even when the world seems filled with Scrooges and Grinches. As far as I’m concerned, those people give me even more reason to be joyful: Jesus did tell me to bring His Light to this world, you know. And Christmas is the perfect opportunity to reflect His love onto others.
That right there is the reason I believe the season has become so powerful for me. I am filled with wonder but that wonder always leads to worship. Every moment of Advent reminds me that Jesus came to this world for me. He chose to live a human life – and to die an excruciating death – for me. That reality never escapes me during the frenzy of holiday shopping and canned carols. Every gift I seek is for the single purpose of bringing the same joy to others than Jesus brings to me. Sure, it’s all material goods, but in the long run it’s not the item itself that gets remembered but the fact that I loved them enough to find something just for each person. And that builds a foundation for the future when gifts will drop away but our relationships will endure. I never want my loved ones to wonder how much I care for them and how important they are to me. During the holidays, I take all the time I can to impart that to each of them.
While the kids are still young there will be physical gifts, but I have to say I’m truly looking forward to the day when the wish lists are insignificant and time together becomes the most important aspect for them. It’s already become that for the adults. A few years ago my sisters and I chose to stop exchanging gifts to each other in favor of pouring all of the budget into the kids’ gifts. Because I have no children myself, each family gifts me one item, but I give only to the four children and to my parents. It saves on the finances, for sure, but it also has the added bonus of finding new and fun ways to share our love for each other. The older we get (and the older their kids get), the more we come to value our time together and our conversations during the other months of the year. Daily interaction has become the focus. I have no doubt that my sisters love me (even when they dislike me greatly for some stupid thing I’ve said), and I think they are assured of my love for them, as well. It comes from the way we share important events with each other, from the way we inquire about each other’s daily lives, and especially from the way we pray for each other and rally around when someone is hurting. The older we get, the more we know the importance of being friends. So when Thanksgiving and Christmas come back around, we use the special season to amp up the shared moments. More and more, my reward from my family comes in the memories we make together and photos I have to tell the stories. And the laughter. Oh so much laughter!
Each new holiday season seems a bit more special than the last. I’m sure it’s about feeling my age more and more, and I know it’s also about realizing that our years together are fleeting. My parents turned 65 this year and became “official” senior citizens (rather than AARP-eligible), and though they are as youthful as ever (and moreso) I cannot help but consider the reality that their days on the earth are fewer now than ever before. In realizing this, of course, I understand that none of us knows how many days we have left. It’s become ever-present in my mind. And the last thing I want in this life is to regret not telling people I love them or showing them the depth of that love. This becomes all the more poignant for me during the holidays, but rather than lament the shortness of days remaining, I choose to celebrate the time we have now. I love that the world lights up all around me while I’m experiencing that same sparkle in my own life.
In 2011 my family didn’t have the most typical of celebrations, but we held true to our traditions. In recent years, two of my cousins from my mother’s family have joined us for Thanksgiving Day, and this year my cousin Kim offered to host the holiday at her newly completed home. My sisters and their families did not join us, but I traveled with my parents to the western skirts of the Dallas region to hang out for the day. All of Kim’s family was present, including her husband and son, her sister Shawn with husband and young daughter, as well as Kim and Shawn’s parents, my Aunt Linda and Uncle Don. Linda is my mom’s only sister, and the last remaining member of her birth family, so I’ve come to understand how important it is for us to share time with this part of my extended family. We didn’t have much time together growing up and have only just reconnected a bit in the past five years or so, but during our childhood years I spent alternate Christmases with these cousins when we all gathered at my maternal grandmother’s home. Due to distance, that was often the only time we ever saw each other. I’m not sure how much my own (younger) sisters can recall about those holidays, but I have several good (and ridiculous) memories from those few years during our childhood. That we are now reconnecting a bit in adulthood is a nice thing. And Thanksgiving was a good day of relaxed family time. No great fuss, no pressure, some laughter and sharing and a ton of food. Holidays with my sisters’ families are never this tame. Or quiet! So this Thanksgiving was a rare moment of casual family time in the midst of holiday celebration. Driving back home that evening we weren’t even tired! And the awesome blessing of a beautiful sunset through the trees was a perfect topper to the day.
By contrast, Christmas with my sisters and their families was as chaotic as ever. In the very best way. It has become tradition for us to all gather (along with our parents) at my youngest sister Janeen’s home to have lunch and share a family gift exchange. Her house is the largest, and with eleven of us, that is much needed. By the time I arrive the stockings have already been sorted through and Janeen’s family has exchanged their own gifts to each other. Since my stocking remains at their house (and we have the new tradition of filling them for each other), I always have little gifts waiting for me when I first arrive. Not long after, my other sister Joanie arrived with her family and we set about getting lunch to the table. The kids would rather this tradition didn’t exist, but my paternal grandmother had a rule that no gifts could be opened on Christmas until a full meal had been shared and all dishes cleaned up. When we were children this referred to the breakfast meal, which was always a full and hearty breakfast that took forever (it seemed), but as adults it now refers to the lunch meal. To make it even more excruciating for my niece and nephews (ha ha!), my own mother implemented a tradition that the gift exchange take place in a round, with each person opening only one gift while everyone else watched, then continuing in birth order until all gifts were finally revealed. To say the kids get bored is an understatement. The youngest ones typically last for a couple of rounds before wandering around the house and complaining about how long it takes until their next turn. Even some of the adults get bored with this, but we’ve come to embrace it as tradition so it’s just part of the deal. And I love it like my mom does. This practice allows us to all know exactly what gifts were received and by whom, and everyone gets to share in the joy of each other’s creativity and personal attention. As much as I love giving my own gifts, I’ve come to realize how cool it is for me to see what others give. And I learn a lot about each person in the process.
Following the gift exchange this year was a fun period of photography. I’m always shooting throughout the day, more than ever lately as I try to capture every small moment, and in years past there has been some effort made to posing for “family” photos. We abandoned it last year since so many turned out so horribly (bad lighting, lack of interest), but Joanie wanted to capture her own little family this year so I helped out with that. The photos really didn’t turn out as I’d hoped but the experience turned into my favorite hour of the day. There was just a shared joy in being silly and not worrying too much over the process. Interestingly, this period also provided my very favorite photo of the day: an accidental shot of my brother-in-law mugging for the camera while I tested my settings. He wasn’t expecting the shot, I wasn’t intending to depress the shutter, but the image turned out amazing and really captured his sense of playfulness and our ease with each other that has only come about in very recent years. It’s taken 25 years for us to feel totally relaxed around each other (owing to the fact that I was completely unlikable when he and my sister met at 15 years of age), so having this hour of silliness with him and Joanie really showed me the importance of growing into relationships. If you’d told me that my favorite moment of the day would be laughing loudly with Shane over an accidental photo I would’ve told you “fat chance.” Now I can’t imagine not experiencing it again!
These are the memories that remain with me year after year, and they define the holiday season for me. As soon as they end I’m ready to fill that void with something equally brilliant. This has made the standard Christian phrase of “Keep CHRISTmas in your heart all year long” all the more simple for me. My holidays are wrapped up in family, but the heart of everything is worship. I worship Jesus all year-round, every moment of every day, and Christmas just shows the rest of the world the joy that I experience daily. When all the twinkle lights are taken down and the evergreens are tossed by the curb I am reminded that many in the world will be looking for something to fill that space in their hearts, something that keeps the celebration alive. There’s only one answer to that: Jesus came that we may have life – and have it abundantly. The joy of Christmas is present every day. Praise God for that!
Take a look at the complete gallery of my holiday photos.