As a child, I adored Christmas. Not just the day itself, but the entire season, held me in its thrall. As soon as Thanksgiving had passed, I would start asking my mom to play Christmas carols on the piano so I could sing along. One Christmas when I was maybe nine, I talked my younger brother and sister into caroling for my mom, who was inside, from outside. Our boots crunched in the snow as we walked around our small house. My brother and sister got cold after a few songs and went back in, but I carried on, singing a new carol at each window. Every year Mom would string our motley selection of lights around the Christmas tree. They were the sort of lights with sockets the size of a fingertip, and we had them in every colour, both matte and clear, blinking and steady. My favourite was the clear blue flashing light, closely followed by the red matte bulb. In the evenings, Mom liked to turn off the everyday lights in the living room and sit quietly, almost reverentially, with the tree. On Christmas Eve, we sometimes went to the evening service at church. This meant venturing out into the starlit, cold Vermont night well after my usual bedtime. I would arrive at the candlelit church sanctuary sleepy, but excited to hear the familiar Christmas story, with its themes of miracles, of promises kept, and of gifts given.
Every Christmas morning as a child I woke up long before sunrise. Mom had impressed upon me the need to wait until a reasonable hour, I believe it was six o’clock, before waking the rest of the household on Christmas Day. When the clock finally struck six, I would rouse my tired family, then rush downstairs while they slowly woke up. In December, in Vermont, the sun doesn’t rise until after seven. Mom always left the tree lights on overnight on Christmas Eve, so the tree would sparkle magically in the dark. The stockings, empty the night before, would be bulging, sometimes with box corners making jagged points in the knitting. Many more presents would have taken their place under the tree, all with either “Santa” or “SC” in the “From” box on the gift tag. Only when I was a teenager did I realize that Santa Claus and my mom shared the same initials.
When my brother, sister, mom and stepdad joined me in the living room, we would open the presents in our stockings. I had a bright green stocking with a white heel and toe, handknit by one of my great-grandmothers. It had a picture of Santa Claus’s face knit into the side, and best of all, Santa’s beard was actually fuzzy. After the stockings, we would have Moravian coffee cake and grapefruit, and when breakfast was eaten, under-the-tree presents were opened, one by one. I don’t remember ever feeling disappointed with my presents, although I must have at some point. To me, the ritual of presents was so thrilling in and of itself- the wrapping, the ribbon, the mystery- that I was happy even when the gift was something useful, like clothes.
After presents, there would be a lull while Mom finished cooking. Some of the dinner preparation was done in advance. Several days before Christmas, for example, we would “help” Mom by turning the crank on the ancient silver grinder to prepare the fresh cranberries for the cranberry-orange relish. On Christmas Day Mom preferred to have the kitchen to herself, and the kids’ only contribution to the meal was to set the table, with the good silverware, one of two possible inherited porcelain patterns, and glasses that all matched. I would sit down to a table laden with traditional Christmas dishes—turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts—and I would bask in the warm glow of contentment. We were celebrating a child’s birthday, and I was about to eat a delicious meal, together with people I loved beyond measure, after which I would return to listening to Christmas carols while playing with new toys. What was not to like?
My embrace of the Christmas season continued unabated until a few years ago. When the children were very small, they were easily enchanted, and the holiday continued to feel magical. But the older they got, the more challenging the season became, and Christmas slowly began to be tinged with guilt and regret.
Take Christmas cards. Four years ago, before my daughter had joined her brother at full-time school, was the last year that I sent out proper family Christmas cards, with pictures of the children, that arrived at their destinations before Christmas. The following year, I again sent out pictures of the kids, but the cards were sent several weeks after Christmas Day. Last year, I did not put a single card in the mail. As the cards others had sent began to trickle in, each light thud as an envelope landed on the doormat engendered an echo of guilt within me.
Eleven years ago, as my husband and I prepared to move to England from New England, my mom called me up.
“I’m really going to miss you,” she said. “I probably won’t see you more than every couple of years.”
“Of course you will, we’ll be back every summer!” I assured her.
“You think that now, but just wait, when you have kids, you’ll find it isn’t so easy to travel anymore.”
“I’m not sure we will ever have kids, and if we do, we’ll still come over at least once a year,” I said confidently.
As it happens, my mom was right. The Internet bubble burst, we had two children, and we now average a visit to the U.S. every other year. For the last couple of years, homesickness has kicked in around Thanksgiving, and it hasn’t let up until after Christmas. Moving back to the States is not a realistic option for us at the moment, nor is moving to Sweden, where my husband’s entire family lives. A few years ago, my brother came to visit during the Christmas break, but other than that, we haven’t seen relatives during the holiday season for the past eleven years. Some of the seasonal advertisements, and many of the Christmas songs, make it clear that Christmas should be celebrated at home with family. We have our little family, and we have a home, and for most of the year, that suffices. But from November through January, it is harder to ignore the distance between both of us and our extended families.
Last year I thought maybe I could regain my Christmas spirit if I went “back to the basics” of Christmas. As someone who attends church regularly, I assumed that meant that I should emphasize the religious aspects of the holiday season. Accordingly, I downplayed Santa. I didn’t come right out and say that Santa isn’t real, but I didn’t tell many stories of Santa. A friend’s husband played Santa at the school Christmas Fair, and when the children, who have big ears, asked me if it had really been Santa in the grotto or if it had been Tessa’s daddy, I admitted that maybe Tessa’s daddy had been helping Santa out by standing in for him at the Fair. I took the kids to all the Christmas services at church, and I tried to recapture the magic I had felt at hearing the Biblical Christmas story as a child. It didn’t work. I couldn’t turn myself over to the promise of a miracle as I had before.
Two years ago, in the fall, my husband, Håkan, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). The diagnosis followed several extremely difficult years during which Håkan fell ill repeatedly and spent many weekends in bed. We were shocked, as anyone would have been, to hear the news. MS is a progressive degenerative disease for which there is currently no cure. After being diagnosed, Håkan began taking medication to relieve his symptoms. The medication was an enormous blessing. Håkan’s asthma disappeared—it had never been asthma, it had been MS. During the steroid courses, especially the first one, I had the peculiar feeling that someone who had long been absent had returned. But even with medication, Hakan still suffers from relapses, that manifest themselves primarily as enormous fatigue and a tendency towards gloominess. This past fall, Hakan was told that it was time for him to start self-injecting. Since September, I have woken up in the morning to the sounds of this treatment: the slapping of the skin to prepare the site for injection, the click of the needle, the moment where Hakan holds his breath as the medicine enters his body, the sigh, and the clink of the needle being thrown on top of all the other needles in the bright yellow bucket with the big red sharps symbol on it. The oral drug that could have perhaps offered Hakan a bit of improvement, rather than just prevention of rapid deterioration, was not approved by the agency that controls medications in the U.K., so Hakan, who had been hoping to switch to that oral drug after his next appointment with his consultant, will have to continue self-injecting.
Christmas is about belief. Devout Christians believe in the Biblical story of Christ’s birth as it is written. More doubtful Christians, where I usually place, may see the Christmas story is a reminder of the wonder and power of hope. Children may believe whole-heartedly in Santa. There are many who choose to see Christmas as a time to celebrate their belief in the promise of Earth’s slow journey towards spring, as the equinox passes, and the days slowly start to become lighter. I have been a believer—not a traditional believer, but a believer nonetheless— my entire life. My husband’s illness has shaken that belief more violently than anything I have yet experienced. Before the results of his brain scan, I could still believe that all his weekends in bed, although there had been years of them, were just an anomaly. I could hope that one day, something would change, and he would return to his “normal” self. The medication Hakan takes has helped, but I know full well that the prognosis is not good, and every time he drops the salt shaker or needs to lie down during the day, I need to work hard to rein in the galloping panic that threatens to trample any semblance of composure that I have. How could I give myself fully to Christmas, a holiday that holds out a promise of hope, when despair was tugging at me?
But humans need to believe. When my daughter, Nina, was about five years old, she went through her first “death phase.” She seemed abnormally concerned about the possibility of death. During that time, Nina struggled to postpone my inevitable departure from her room in the evening.
“Wait,” she would say, after I had given her a goodnight hug and kiss, “I have something to tell you.”
I would pause at the door, then return to her bedside. “What is it, sweetie?”
“I’m scared that you might die tonight,” she would say, frowning, and holding out her arms for an extra hug.
“Chances are I probably won’t, and most likely I’ll see you in the morning,” I would say.
Nina would then hug me very tightly and make another attempt to keep me in the room. “I have a secret to tell you.”
“What is it, Nina?” I would say, and I would start to feel the first tickles of frustration.
Nina would then recount a long, drawn-out, somewhat cohesive story about an event, real or imaginary. I would do my best to listen sympathetically, then say “good night” again. The pattern would repeat. After a few more stories from Nina and “good nights” from me, I would usually give in to irritation and announce that it was time to sleep in a rather more stern voice than I would have wished.
I guessed that I was probably not helping Nina get to sleep by sidestepping the question of my continued presence in the morning, but I had moral misgivings about telling her I would without a doubt be there to welcome her awakening in the new day. The fact was, to tell her that would be lying. There was no guarantee that either of us would open our eyes in the morning.
At coffee one morning with some friends, I recounted our sleep issues. I mentioned my hesitancy to answer Nina’s continual question about whether or not I would die in the night with a definite no. One friend in particular was adamant that I must change my approach.
“You have to tell her you’ll be there in the morning, Beth,” my friend said. “It’s not lying. It’s your best guess, and even if it were lying, she needs to hear it. She’s only five! No wonder she’s not going to sleep, I wouldn’t either if I were in her shoes!”
When my friend put it that way, something clicked, and I saw that my desire to be truthful was doing more harm than good. I started telling Nina, when she asked, that I was absolutely, positively going to live through the night, and that there was no question whatsoever that I would see her in the morning.
After about a month of this new strategy, a month that also included a visit to Westminster Abbey to see the many graves and memorials there, Nina began to move past her “death phase.” The bedtime routine slowly became easier. Nina is six now, and she lets me leave her room in the evening without a second thought.
I missed Santa last year. It felt like a treasured guest was missing from the Christmas celebration. But this year Santa is back, even though my daughter has insisted on several occasions that Santa is not real. We spread glitter over the back lawn to make it more attractive to the reindeer; we offered them a reindeer cake that Nina had made at school. Our kids composed a letter to Santa that we left for him with a midnight snack. Our son even placed his Santa hat in the Christmas tree, with a note reading: “Dear Santa, if you lose your hat, feel free to borrow mine.” Santa has returned because this year I am offering them every opportunity to believe. Whether they believe in Jesus, Santa, or the promise of spring is up to them.
My children will need to be believe. They are growing up in a country that neither of their parents calls home, and while we have good friends here, we have no family. Their father’s illness has already affected them, and will undoubtedly give them reason to lose hope as the years go by. I want my children to have a bedrock of faith so that when there is an earthquake in their lives, there may be cracks, but the bedrock will not be shaken.
The celebration of Christmas is about building that faith. It is indicative of my state of mind at the time that last year I reached my lowest point regarding Christmas cards. After several years of sliding downhill, last year I felt that Christmas cards were at best frivolous, and at worst, an opportunity for one-upmanship. What was the point of sending cards? If I saw the potential card recipient frequently, why not just say “Merry Christmas”? If I didn’t see them frequently, why bother? This year, as the cards began to arrive, I confessed to myself that I actually liked receiving them. Yes, they may sometimes be sent out of a sense of obligation rather than a sense of generosity, but it struck me the week before Christmas, as I looked fondly at our collection, that the Christmas cards contribute to the hopefulness of the season. By Christmas Day our mantelpiece is crowded with cards: cards to our children from their friends, cards from neighbours, cards from organizations, cards from friends near and far, and cards from family. Every card is like a little candle, lit by the one who wrote it, sent to brighten the Christmas season just that little bit more. I felt a bit like the Grinch at the climax of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss, when the Grinch realizes that the Whos will still hold hands and celebrate the coming of Christmas morning although he has stolen all their Christmas trappings. My heart grew three sizes, and I sat right down and started my Christmas cards. When I took them to the post office, the Tuesday before Christmas, the clerk there looked at me like a teacher would look at a student handing in late homework.
“You really left these until the last minute,” he said, peering over his reading glasses at me.
“I know,” I said. But like anyone whose heart has just grown three sizes, I wanted to look at the positive. “At least they’ll be postmarked before Christmas,” I said, smiling.
The clerk’s countenance softened. “Very true,” he concurred.
I am more at peace with Christmas this year. Our situation has not changed—if anything it is more precarious than it was last year—but I am convinced that without faith, it would be even worse. And Christmas, as I understand it today, is God’s way of saying to people, or people’s way of saying to each other, or maybe a little bit of both, something very similar to the message I learned that I needed to give Nina every night: “There is darkness, but even in that darkness, there is hope, and one way or another, morning will come, and when it does, that morning will be good.”