As a kid, I loved Christmas. What kid doesn’t? I loved all the festive coloring and projects we got to do at school. We made everything from hideous paper/glitter/pinecone wreaths to cotton ball snowmen. Of course, I was bursting with pride each time I brought something home. It’s only now that I realize that those decorations unexpectedly disappeared quite soon after I would hang them up in the house. Apparently, my skills as an artist didn’t manifest until later on in life.
I LOVED putting up the Christmas tree. My dad would always make us wait until two weeks before Christmas before setting up a tree. We always got a real one. Whenever I smell pine trees, I think of the yellow walls of our living room and the faint smell of the wood burning in the fire place. It invokes memories of the four of us kids decorating the tree…and then my mom “fixing” it all when were weren’t looking. We all had specific ornaments that were ours. I remember Winnie the Pooh, felt camels and Wise Men, and quilted patchwork shapes (made by Grandma Una, of course). It was a total mish-mash motley tree and it was the best. I loved to sneak into the living room when everyone was sleeping. I would turn on the tree lights and lay underneath our glorious tree. If we’re being honest, I still do this. I wait for my kids and husband to be asleep, lay my head on the tree skirt under our tree and just enjoy the lights. There’s something so magical about Christmas lights. My seven-year-old self believed that. My 40 (something) year old self does too.
Growing up, I was fortunate to have two sets of grandparents close by me. Whenever we visited Grandma Cope’s house at Christmastime, we were always allowed to pick a candy cane from the tree. Between that and the glass jar of old fashioned candies, Grandma’s was sugar heaven. Well, unless you were Grandpa Cope. He was diabetic and Grandma ruled his diet with an iron fist…and a very loud voice. Each year for Christmas, Grandma always gave us girls a bottle of bubble bath. It was either Skin-So-Soft from Avon or the pink Mr. Bubbles bottle. We loved it. I guess we were easy to please back then. I’m not sure why it meant so much to us but it did. It made such an impression on my heart that a couple of years ago, I was shopping in Walgreens and they had “retro” Mr. Bubbles in the bottle. I bought two. I don’t use them, but I do, every once in awhile, open the cap, close my eyes, and breathe in the scent. It makes my heart squeeze a little bit because the vision that comes to mind is my Grandma’s cheeky smile and her gut laugh – oh man, that laugh.
Christmas morning, after all the presents were opened and we looked somewhat presentable, we’d load up in the car and head to Grandpa and Grandma Larson’s. It was tradition. We did it every year – even throughout high school. I’m pretty sure there are a couple of my college years we did it too. They always met us with hugs and smiles and listened to us as we excitedly told them about our Christmas gift. That was the coolest thing about Grandpa. When you spoke to him, you were the only person in the world. I never felt more special than when he was listening to me. Every year we went and every year Grandma served us cocoa and toast. Well, let me clarify. The cocoa was always a little watered down and the toast was always a little harder and more, well, um…burnt than I would have chosen. Please don’t think me the worst grandchild ever. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized Grandma watered down the cocoa so she’d have enough for all the grandkids. The toast was always hard and burnt because it was made from leftover bread. They had a budget and did their best to live within their means, but it was important to them to treat us to a special Christmas morning. The funny thing? To this day, I have to water my cocoa down to drink it, and when I finally do take a sip, I’m a kid again sitting on Grandpa’s lap telling him about the doll I got for Christmas and him looking at me like I just told him how to achieve world peace.
What has taken me so long to learn or to realize is that the reason I loved/love Christmas so much is because I had such awesome family to make it special. I’m sure there were lots of times my parents weren’t sure how to give us a Christmas, but every year there was something for us under the tree. Every year I was plied with candy canes and bubble bath. Every year I got my helping of watered down cocoa and burnt toast. And now that my grandparents have passed on, I’d give it all to have one more chance to tell them how special they are to me. As cliched as it sounds, I loved Christmas not because of the presents they gave me but because of the presence they gave me.
In our busy lives of hectic work schedules and everyday stress, let us try our best to give presence, not presents. Tell your family you love them. Hug them a little bit more. Worry less about the perfect gift or the perfect Christmas. Spend your moments looking at each other and not at the screens of your phones. Make your family feel like they are the most important things in the world because, well, that’s what they are.