Christmas was only a week after my birthday. And this year was the first time we were going to have Christmas with just the three of us. Mom did her best to make it feel like Christmas for us. The first thing we did was go to our favorite tree farm. This was more fun for me this time because I felt like there was more space for me in this family dynamic. It was cold, as was typical in Wisconsin, but we had fun finding the perfect tree. The man at the farm was kind, and cut the tree down for us, and lifted it on top of our blue Volkswagon, that looked a little bit like a mini station wagon. Mom remembered to bring the rope to tie the tree to the car. She cleverly opened the windows and wrapped it around the tree and through the car several times to secure it. We thought it was a great idea, until we tried to open the car doors. Mom was frustrated, but laughed at her mistake. She and John fixed it and it became one of our favorite Christmas stories throughout the years.
In our home, everything happened on Christmas Eve. The tree would go up, the house would get cleaned, the lights would go around the living room window, Christmas music was played on the stereo, and the excitement would build throughout the day. My mom explained to me that she did everything on Christmas Eve because the kids would get so excited, she decided to make an outlet for all that energy by having lots of things to do on that one day. Then she didn’t have to deal with all the excitement days or weeks before. I don’t know if it was something she developed over time, or just thought it was a good idea from the start. I do remember she made Christmas cookies a few days before my scheduled birth, and hid them. When she went into the hospital and Grandma babysat, my older brother found the cookies and ate every single one. I heard that story over and over how furious she was at him. That may have been the beginning of making the cookies on Christmas Eve as well.
In the evening we got dressed up for church. I loved wearing my best dress on Christmas Eve. I especially loved the red velvet dress with velvet-covered buttons. It came with a white shirt that had beautiful red embroidery on the collar and sleeves to match the dress. The dress itself was called a jumper – it had no sleeves and buttoned down the front. I wore it with my tights and shiny black shoes. These were the shoes that could only be worn for special occasions. I loved wearing my special clothes.
Going to church on Christmas Eve felt very ceremonial and sacred to me. I remembered it being one of the few times it felt like I had a family. Before my parents split up, my dad would even come with us. He usually didn’t go to church with us otherwise. I loved the mood of the church for Christmas, soaking up the beautiful lights, being drawn to Baby Jesus in the nativity scene, wondering what it was like to be there the night He was born, and singing the traditional Christmas songs. That feeling of the meaning of Christmas was embedded in me. I think part of me felt that the event must have been important if the whole family was going to church for it. Later in my early teens I couldn’t understand people who celebrated Christmas that didn’t believe in Jesus. After all, it was for His birth, right? The Christmas “machine” was not something I had put together at that point.
Things were so much more peaceful this year with Dad, my older brother, and sister gone. You’d think I would have missed them, but Mom did such a good job inviting Christmas into our house, that it felt like one of the best ever.
Last year, Dad and Ken stayed home due to their big fight. When the rest of us came home from church, Dad said they heard Santa’s reindeer on the roof and went outside to find more deer and sleigh tracks. I loved Christmas magic, and the idea of Santa was delightful for me. But since Dad told his side of the story, I had big doubts, and knew it couldn’t be true. Santa always came while we were at church, and when we came home, the presents would be under the tree, and the milk and cookies would be gone. But last year was so intense, the magic didn’t feel real anymore. I also reasoned that Santa couldn’t be real because he never brought my brother, Ken coal – and I was shocked every year that he received any presents at all. He was such a mean child.
Little did I know, Mom had made some special arrangements to bring that childlike wonder back into my Christmas this year.
“Hey Julie!” John said, with the enthusiasm of a brilliant plan. “Let’s make Mom go in the car first, and then we put our presents under the tree. Then we’ll get in the car with her, and there will be no way she can put any presents under the tree. Okay?” (I’m pretty sure he was part of the plan. It’s very possible that he came up with this plan in the first place.)
I loved this idea. If there was a Santa, then we would see the extra presents under the tree, and there would be no way Mom could have done it. If there wasn’t, then we could clear the air right here and now. We could also make the tree a little more special for Mom, so she could come in after church and see our gifts there. We would be the Christmas magic!
John and I excitedly put our few gifts for each other under the tree, and made sure the milk and cookies were on the kitchen table. We went out to the car, all warmed up with Mom waiting for us. This was perfect.
The three of us going to church together was even more special this year because we had extra intentions to make it nice for each other. We knew it was different. We knew there was still grief in the air, but we didn’t let it ruin our Christmas. We hung onto each other for comfort, and we were kind and loving to one another. I felt so much peace.
After the service we embraced the cold and hurriedly made our way to the car. We turned the radio on for Christmas songs and sang along all the way home. I was excited for Mom to see our presents under the tree, and wasn’t sure what to expect other than that. “C’mon!” John yelled. “Let’s see if Santa came!”
His joy was contagious and we ran into the house together. Not only were the cookies and milk gone in the kitchen, but Santa left us a note! It was in unfamiliar handwriting and John and I read it together. Santa had thanked us for the cookies and milk and had said that we had been very good children this year. It was a note filled with love and magic. I was enthralled. He never left us a note before. This was very special.
We ran into the living room and the tree was surrounded with wrapped presents. “He came!” I yelled. I ran for Mom and took her hand, “He came! Santa came!” I was spellbound. Santa was real! It was an evening of joy that we all needed. The love and the kindness that we shared that night created a very special feeling of what family was supposed to be. All the loss we had experienced in that year had created a bond between us that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. We became a family - a real family that cared for one another.