The holidays for me have always been a bit of a scattered time. When my brother and I were kids, my dad would pull us out of school and take us to Aruba for two weeks around Thanksgiving. It was usually the best two weeks of my entire year. I would come back tan, happy, and excited about Christmas break.
I remember one year when we got back, my mom and her boyfriend had decorated the whole house and it felt magical. My mom isn’t really one to celebrate Christmas so her doing so meant so much to me. It made me feel safe, loved, and cared for.
Those weren’t really emotions I felt too much growing up. You see, my mom has struggled with drinking for as long as I can remember. Her and my dad separated when I was little, and in the process of figuring out custody, my mom took me and my dad took my brother.
My mom had to work a full-time job, so she often relied on my Grandma to take care of me. Over the years, my Grandma became a second mom to me, someone who consistently loved and showed up for me. My mom did her best, but I often felt (and still feel) a longing to be loved by her.
Anyone who has a family member that struggles with addiction can relate to the void I’m talking about. When you love someone so deeply and want the best for them, but they continue to make choices that hurt themselves and you. It’s an awful cycle.
Once I was old enough to choose, I started going to my aunt and uncle’s for Christmas. They welcomed me into their family traditions with open arms and always made me feel as included as their own kids.
My aunt knew me well and always gave the most thoughtful gifts, and I tried my best to reciprocate, usually breaking my piggy bank to get each of them something small. I remember one year I got my Uncle Kenny a model airplane (he had his pilot license and a small Cessna airplane) and it sat on his shelf in his office for many years after.
Another year I counted out my favorite number in cash — $23.18 and $18.23 respectively — and gave it to my cousins (I’m not sure how that even constitutes as a gift). That same year I remember my Aunt Janet cried reading the card I wrote thanking her for including me. Which made me cry because I was so truly grateful to be included.
It’s funny the things that stick out to you later on.
Those Christmases meant so much to me. I remember the excitement of getting to my Aunt’s house in the days preceding Christmas and going room to room to see the different trees she had set up.
Her house was always so clean and organized and the fridge was always stocked to the brim with anything you could want to eat or drink. Around Christmas that usually included Eggnog and yummy homemade treats, not to mention dinners that rivaled Martha Stewart’s.
It was so different than my house which felt unkempt and chaotic. At one point my mom and her boyfriend even moved into my dad’s house, so that was interesting. Weirder still was that it felt so normal for all of us to be under the same roof.
My mom’s boyfriend played basketball with me almost every day. We had take-out often, but in the mornings sometimes my dad would make pizza and eggs (don’t knock it ’til you try it). Sometimes my mom would fill the fridge with our favorite foods and my brother and I would race to eat it all.
But it lacked consistency. And I craved consistency.
So I started going where there was plenty of it. Mostly to my Grandma’s. My Gram was the best.
She would take me to school on time and be there to get me as soon as the bell rang. Then she would make sure I started my homework before watching TV, and always had fresh baked cookies cooling on the counter. Dinner usually had courses, and I was always supposed to drink my milk.
Life had a rhythm and she kept us in sync with it.
Christmas usually consisted of some variation of family gatherings. I would wake up at my aunt and uncle’s to the sweet smell of sticky buns that my Aunt Janet would place into the oven in the wee hours. My cousin Jeff would wake up with the sun, barge into our rooms and tell us to come downstairs. My Uncle Kenny would have the video camera set up recording as we came into the room.
And we would sit together, often on the floor around the tree, passing presents, eating sticky buns, and basking in joy and gratitude. Later, after unwrapping and playing with our gifts for hours, we would get dressed and head over to my Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Michigan for dinner.
At this point, we’d be joined by my cousins and other aunts and uncles, and sometimes my mom and brother. My Grandma and Aunt Linda would be busy in the kitchen, whipping up the same delicious meal year after year. Some variation of turkey, ham, stuffing, green bean casserole, potatoes, and rolls.
My cousins and I would run around, playing games in the bonus room, heading outside to snowmobile, ice-skate, or build a snowman. Then we would come in, starving, and eat everything in sight.
After dinner, my Grandma would pass out the presents, one or two for each of us, and everyone would be quick to open theirs at the same time, though I always remember wanting to slow down the process. Gifts should be opened one at a time, I thought, savored.
The thing is, I need only look over at my cousin Melissa to know what I was getting. My grandma believed in fairness and gifting was no exception. If she got me a sweater, she got one for Melissa and Lauren, too. Sometimes a different color, but always the same thing.
Still, I’d usually wait until everyone was done opening theirs to open mine. I never rushed. In fact, I’d usually wait until I got prompted to open mine. When I did, I’d carefully unwrap it piece by piece.
Those Christmases were magical for me, and as a kid, I thought they’d last forever.
Now as an adult, my Grandma and Grandpa are no longer with us. Our memories with them in Michigan are just that, memories. The cousins I spent Christmas with have families of their own, so I spend Thanksgiving with them instead.
It’s all left me feeling a little displaced this Christmas.
Until I remembered the feeling I’m longing for — that feeling of home — is something you can take with you, as long as you’re in tune with what home looks and feels like to you. For me that means waking up, surrounded by love, warm treats, and gratitude.
This year it looks like staying in LA, having a sleepover with my best friend, waking up to homemade sticky buns and delicious eggnog lattes. Tossing a casserole in the oven, listening to Christmas music, playing board games, staying in pajamas all day, and reflecting, with gratitude, on all I have to be grateful for this year.
It means starting my own traditions with the ones my Aunt Janet instilled in me. Being consistent and showing up for myself in the way my Grandma always did. It means calling my mom and dad and telling them how much I love them.
Facetiming with my cousin Melissa to see what Chase got under the tree. Having the phone passed to my Aunt Janet who will likely be knee deep in wrapping paper, beaming from the joy of watching her grandson experience Christmas like we did all those years before.
And that will be my Christmas. Different than when I was a kid, but beautiful in its own way. It will be a Christmas of hope, expectation, and joy. And if at any point it gets sad or lonely, I will reflect on the miracle of Jesus.
How God had a plan, a purpose, and a time for everything to come to pass and how the same is true today. I will ask for God to use me on Christmas to be a blessing to other people. I’ll ask Him to help me trust Him with all the things I don’t understand. I’ll ask Him for the patience to wait for His plan, knowing it’s better than my own.
I will cling to the treasures of it all — God’s mystery and His promises — just as Mary did.
“But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had seen and heard, which were just as they had been told.” — Luke 2:19-20.
For at the center of it all is Jesus. From the moment he set foot on Earth, he was not shielded from sorrow, hardship, or temptation. Yet, he navigated it in a way that was fully trusting of God’s will and completely loving towards mankind. He was not self-seeking or narrowminded. Jesus did not run from the oppressed but towards them. He did not let up, even for a moment, on what God had called Him to do.
When life gets hard, if the holidays get lonely, I will try to remember to live like that. With an open heart, an outward focus, and choices that stem from faith, not fear. I don’t know what your Christmas will look like this year. Whether you are just celebrating for the first time with the family of your own, or you’re surrounded by your siblings in the house you grew up in, or you’re on your own, in a city that’s become your city, with friends that have become your family.
But I hope — I pray — that you are surrounded by love, and that you know that you are loved, by Jesus, and by God, the creator of life itself, who has a purpose for every season, a plan for your life, and a promise for your future that will exceed every expectation and hope you could ever have.
Wishing you all a very merry Christmas.
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