Ah, the paradoxes of the holiday season. The most wonderful time of the year, yes. But at what a price! So much rushing around in the cold! So many activities to be a part of! The decorating, the baking, the wrapping, the post office lines and deadlines! And, as if to emphasize the harried nature of the season, so many articles, commercials, and radio pieces advising you to de-stress and simplify this holiday season.
As if I could simplify. As if I could decide what the least important thing was and cut it out. As if I could attempt a “quiet” holiday. Although, even if I could, I wouldn’t. And the reason is simply this: it’s too important to me. Christmas is a holy day. The season is one of magic and love and giving things that my children need to learn. Those things take effort, time, and planning to teach, and it’s my job to teach them.
Sometimes, those teaching moments come at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.
For example: The other day I took my 3 kids with me to do some “Secret Santa” shopping for a boy at our church. He needed a new coat and some clothes, and that evening after school was the only time during the week I could fit it in. So although there was a “light wintery mix” coming down, we stopped at a mall on the way home from school to buy the clothes. I thought it would be a good opportunity to teach my kids about giving to others, about not needing any recognition, about seeing a need and quietly filling it.
They were excited by the idea at first, but lost interest about the same time we had to abandon our shopping bag temporarily while we went on an urgent search for a restroom which the store did not provide. Out to another store, then back to the task at hand. My daughter sat quietly in the stroller, but after we found what we needed for the boy, my sons lost interest and discovered a game in which they ran into each other and fell on the floor. It was enough to distract them while I covertly added a few more items of clothing to our shopping bag.
But between my gentle reminders to stay out of people’s way and my attempts to judge whether this sweater or those socks were the ones to get, my brain was pretty frazzled by the time we got in the checkout line. A glance at the clock told me that we had plenty of time to get to our 6:00pm appointment, and with any luck, we’d be home by 6:30, finished with dinner by 7:30, and able to read a few more pages of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which we read every December and finish on Christmas Eve) while we dipped marshmallows in chocolate and sprinkles a special holiday treat I’d had planned for weeks before bedtime at 8:00. (Ha!)
But, you know, things never go smoothly. After several minutes the line still hadn’t moved a bit. The customer at the register had a complex transaction for the cashier to execute, and it took a long time. When it was finally our turn, the very last item was missing a barcode and couldn’t be scanned. The cashier said she would finish my transaction, minus that item, and then I could go back and get one that had the barcode and she’d ring it up separately no need for me to wait in line. But of course, I did have to wait in line again (though, thankfully, it was much shorter). Then, on our way to the elevator my younger son realized he was missing a glove, so it was back to the register to find it. We then made it halfway to the exit before I thought I’d dropped something and we went back to the elevator only to find the thing I was looking for the moment the elevator doors closed. On our third attempt to exit we made it through the doors only to have the alarm bells ring as we went through the security scanner. A quick check of our bag and the security guard found that the anti-theft devices on two of our items had not been removed, so it was back to the elevator and to the cashier to have her take them off.
I was near tears and struggling to hold it together when my older son said, “This store is like a trap! We’re never getting out of here.” He was totally right. It was a trap, and we were in it together. And with his words, I was strengthened: I had felt alone and ignored as my kids had played while I shopped, but I realized that we were in it together. They had been very patient. This shopping trip was different from those ones in which they ask every few minutes when we are leaving and why I am taking so long. Even if they hadn’t been attentive, they had been enjoying themselves they had realized that this was something special, something important.
And that’s the thing. The holiday season is important. Things that are important are worth putting extra effort into. And often (always?), when we put a lot of effort into something important, it doesn’t go like we’d planned. I had thought we were going to the store so I could teach my kids about giving freely and anonymously. But you can’t try to teach something without learning something, and the lesson I came away with is this: it’s not about me.
That is why I’m happy to embrace the holiday stress fest. Because this season isn’t about me. It’s about giving and loving, it’s about that magical feeling of being part of something important. And that takes a lot of effort. But, thankfully, it pays off sometimes in unexpected ways.