The holiday season often feels like a sprint to the finish. From the moment the Thanksgiving table is cleared, my brain shifts to the list of “essential tasks” preceding Christmas Day. In no particular order I know we will a) put up a tree, b) hang the lights, c) decorate the house, d) write and mail greeting cards, e) send packages to distant family members, f) shop for the Christmas dinner, g) bake cookies, and of course, h) purchase gifts for the family. We don’t always get everything done. Some years – like this one in fact – no lights get hung. Other years no cookies get baked. There’s never enough time, the calendar mercilessly counts down the days, and just forget about intentions of healthy eating at any point in the process.
Thankfully all of this Christmas prep includes a few heartwarming activities. My family and I always seem to find time to drive around the neighborhood to see the lights. We don’t trim the tree until the week before Christmas, choosing from more ornaments than we have branches. We watch several of those cheesy Hallmark Channel movies, with the formula love stories and terrible acting and without-fail-happy-endings. We keep egg nog in the frig and candy and cookies on the kitchen counters. We tune our car radios to round-the clock holiday music stations. We never miss Christmas Eve church.
More than twenty-five Christmases celebrated with my immediate family leads me to this conclusion: the spirit of Christmas is not born from the “prep list” I talked about above, nor even from the heartwarming activities I know will take place year after year. Rather, the provenance of the spirit is moments that become memories, and memories that last far longer than the Christmas season itself.
I have a favorite Christmas memory from my childhood. A neighborhood near where we lived staged an annual decorating contest between its several streets. Not only were the houses fully adorned with lights and ornaments, but the streets themselves had Christmas themes, so decorating was consistent from sidewalk to sidewalk. I remember one street decorated primarily with candy canes, another with bells, and still another with angels. They even changed the street names for the season (i.e. “Candy Cane Lane”). You always knew which street won the competition by the huge blue ribbon hanging from the first lamppost. After touring every last street of this neighborhood, my brothers and I spent several hours at a nearby mall, purchasing gifts with the precious-few dollars we’d saved as kids. Finally we’d join up with my parents for a late-night dinner out. This memory of an evening of family fun stands the test of time – more than forty years ago by my estimate – and always brings a smile to my face. This memory seems uniquely mine, as if dozens of other families didn’t tour those decorated streets or shop at that busy mall.
I have an equally favorite Christmas memory from recent years. To slow down the events of Christmas morning, my wife and I created a trivia contest for our kids. They stand at the top of the staircase outside their bedrooms and we start the questions. Correct answers earn them a step down the staircase (closer to the gifts). Incorrect answers cost them a step backwards. The trivia delayed the inevitable, but the first to reach the bottom stair won the privilege of opening the first gift. It’s a tradition we’ve carried on for years, and a memory that will stay with me long after children stand at the top of our stairs on Christmas morning.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The Christmas season will always be hectic as long as there are gifts to buy and greeting cards to write and family members to visit. But there will also be moments – some planned and some not. And memories – some fleeting and some longer-lasting. It is those memories that without fail bring you comfort, joy, and Christmas spirit.