Many of my 48 Christmas celebrations have passed with little to make them stand out – but this year will be one I remember, because it is the first since Tom died where I feel a genuine sense of peace and even joy. There have been no complicating bouts of intense grief, but only grateful memories of our life together and gratitude for the life that I still have. But it got me thinking about some of the memorable Christmas days of my life.
The first real memories I have of Christmas come when I was ten or eleven. We were living in Monterey, California and we had a new baby in the family. We were all so thrilled that Alex had joined our family and we all fought to be the one to hold him, to play with him, to show him off. I remember how exciting it was to arrive in Utah with this exciting baby to share with our grandparents. It may have been the same year, or maybe the next, but I remember I received a pair of overalls that my mother had made and embroidered with a rainbow – I LOVED those overalls and biked up to my best friend’s house to show them off in the hour or so we had before our family packed up our truck to head to Utah.
Another Christmas from my childhood that stands out in my memory is one we spent in Topsham, Maine. For once there was snow on the ground and another baby in the family. Together with another family in our church congregation we had a Christmas Eve program with a live nativity – all of us children dressed up and taking parts, with my youngest brother as the baby Jesus. It was a singular experience in our family to act out the Christmas story and even my teenager self felt some stirrings of the Spirit and the wonderful gift of our Savior’s birth.
There was the Christmas in San Diego when my next youngest brother, Travis, woke all of us up WAY too early in the morning and we huddled around in his darkened room, waiting for the hour when our parents would FINALLY let us get up – Dad going first to turn on the Christmas lights and ready his camera. I remember all the Christmas wrappings going up in flames in our fireplace, followed a few days later by the dying Christmas tree!!
My first Christmas away from home was spent in St. Sebastian de los Reyes, Spain. I was a missionary for my church and I was sharing a small apartment with two other American women. There was a Christmas party with the all the missionaries in the mission a few days before – we got a chance to meet up with friends from the various areas we had served in, sang carols and picked up packages from family, and were challenged to remember why we were serving as missionaries and to keep our focus on the message of the Savior that we were sharing. The night before, the two Elders in our district had joined us (they staying out in the hall to follow the rules) to exchange goodies and a couple of carols. On Christmas morning we opened our packages from home and then were invited to spend the day with an American family living in the area. I think we got to call home and visit with family – but international telephone calls were so expensive in those days, that the call was surely brief and I don’t remember it.
Two years later I spent my last Christmas with my family as an unmarried child. I was determined to have this last Christmas with them before everything changed. We had a close friend and neighbor join us for Christmas Eve festivities and there were musical numbers performed. My dad filmed the evening and we have had a lot of fun watching our younger selves. What I remember most is that my fiance was not pleased that I was in San Diego, California and we were getting married in Salt Lake City, Utah two days later and he was worried that something would happen!! But traveling on Christmas day was practically a tradition in our family – after all the present opening was finished, we piled into our cars and headed eastwards. I was sick the next day (another worry for Tom!) and on the 27th he was so relieved when I showed up to the wedding breakfast healthy and happy to be there.
Our second Christmas as a married couple will always be a special one because it was the day we discovered we were going to be parents. I had my suspicions, so we decided we would do “the test” on Christmas morning. It was a big gamble, looking back, because we had been trying to have a baby for over a year and it would have been such a disappointing day if the test came back negative. But I was pretty sure and we must have been anxious about it because we woke up early (4:30 or 5:00am) and couldn’t go back to sleep. Finally I got up and did the test and there was the positive indicator! We were so excited and awed and in disbelief. Of course we couldn’t go back to sleep so we just laid in bed and talked and planned and laughed. And then … we kept it a secret. I look at pictures of that morning and I can see how happy we were and how we looked like we had this amazing secret. But it was kind of cool to have this special thing just between the two of us. It still ranks as the best Christmas gift I have ever received.
Our first Christmas as a family of five was pretty exciting as well. I made new Christmas stockings for the family – the kids requested giant size stockings and got to pick out their own fabrics. For once Tom and I felt the stress of Christmas Eve preparations – stuffing stockings, finishing up gift wrapping and setting everything out under the tree – it was all such a bigger production than we had ever had before – but it was also so fulfilling to finally have a full mantle of stockings and to feel like our family was finally starting to feel the way we had imagined when we first got married.
One more memory – the year we decided to change up our Christmas day traditions and introduced a bit of torture to the game. Tom felt like Christmas was practically over by 7am and wanted to mix things up a bit. So together we came up with a new routine. When the kids got up we opened Santa gifts and stockings – and then we made them all come to breakfast. Tom always made something yummy for breakfast and we all got into the act, helping make juice and rolls and whatever tasks he gave us as his sou chefs. Then we told the kids to go get dressed. And then we told them we were going to the movies. They were a little appalled that there were still gifts to be opened and we were LEAVING THE HOUSE but they got over it! And thus the Christmas day movie tradition was born in our home. After the movie we returned to our home and took turns opening all the family gifts. It was the perfect new tradition that made our family feel more united and gave us great memories to look back on.
Christmas looks different now – this year it was just Haley and I at home. Spencer and Kayla are making their own family Christmas memories. Andrew is spending his second Christmas away from home. I’m sure in the coming years, things will continue to change and there will be new special Christmases to remember. And one common gift of each year will be the gift of our Savior, Jesus Christ, whose birth and life and death can change our lives and bring peace in times of sorrow and meaning and joy at all times. How grateful I am that every year I have the chance to celebrate and worship the gift of God’s only begotten Son to the world.