This article appears in the December issue of Woman’s Day Magazine:
The Best Christmas Ever
The kids were asleep, or at least faking it, as my husband and I pulled presents out of well-worn hiding places and stacked them under the Christmas tree. One after they other, out they came, wrapped in my cheap dime store paper. Some had my “Santa “ writing on little tags, others were designated with a black plain black marker.
I’m one of those Moms who buys Christmas present in July. But the problem with that is sometimes you forget how much you have. I had gone way over-board this year. There were lots of little things, nothing truly expensive. But by the time we finished unloading the stash it was an embarrassment of riches.
The next morning my kids’ eyes popped out when they spotted the tree. And as our slow, methodical way of opening them dragged on, even the younger ones lost enthusiasm for the pile. I snuck a few unopened presents away to stash for their birthday in April. So what if they were wrapped with snowman paper? I was practical and thrifty.
It wasn’t my kids who had asked for lots of stuff. This was me, trying to make it the best Christmas ever, hoping to add yet another wonderful remembrance to the family memory bank. “How did we get here?” I wondered, looking at the dozens of useless items strewn around the room.
When I thought back, my best Christmas ever had been the complete opposite of this past Christmas of excess. It had been the very first one my husband and I had spent as a married couple. Bob and I had just been married in the fall of 1988 and had moved to Beijing, China where he was teaching and I was working. Our “home” was a simple concrete dorm room with twin metal beds pushed together and no drinkable water in the bathrooms. We’d arrived in China with backpacks and had mailed a few boxes of other supplies by sea, which showed up months later. As the holidays approached, we realized we had no decorations, nothing in this communist country to make us feel like home. Both of us missed our families terribly. It would be the first Christmas each of us had spent away for them.
The week before Christmas, a box arrived from Bob’s mother packed with some practical items we’d requested like cereal, a warm vest and some tall flip flops to avoid the group bathroom’s filthy floors. Nestled between these gifts was an eight inch high, fake Christmas tree, complete with mini ornaments. Pulling the tree out of the box and unwrapping it, my heart soared. When an American couple at the school gave us an Amy Grant Christmas tape for our boom box, we had all that we needed.
I don’t remember what, if anything, I gave Bob or he gave me. It was a time in our life when we needed few possessions. We had nothing, just one another and the new foundation of marriage we were building. Our first four months in this very foreign land had been difficult in so many ways and magical in others. We had come to rely on each other, respect and love one another without the usual newlywed distractions of the brand new house, sparkling engagement ring, wedding presents, circle of friends and family in which to confide or vent.
I can still picture the room that Christmas morning in 1988 when we awoke. The song “Tennessee Christmas” will always take me back to that holiday, where we lit a candle under that miniature tree and played the Christmas tape that has now become part of our annual family ritual.
The little tree is still in our ornament box. Battered from having moved so much, it’s branches have opened and shut like a parasol for the last two decades. For the past five years, I’m not sure it has even been unpacked, so voluminous are our decorations.
In reaction to this past holiday, I have decided to make that little tree the centerpiece of our holiday this year. I will tell the story of that first Christmas to my children, explain to them that although there were no presents to unwrap, the gift to each other was the beginning of our family, the understanding that the best was yet to come as our life together stretched before us. This year there will be fewer items under the tree and more of the gifts that really count; love, music, togetherness, home-baked cookies, less rushing and more cherishing.
Of course, real life being what it is, it may not happen exactly the way I envision now in the months leading up to the holidays. But just the thought of slowing us down, of focusing on the simplicity and meaning of that little tree, rather than what lies under it may bring back some of the magic that the holidays offer to the very young and the very in love. I want to teach my children that the best gifts are the things we say and do for one another, the moments we can remember and hold in our minds long after the present has passed. These are the greatest treasures of families throughout the world, the gifts that evoke the magic of that long ago, very first tree.