I can still vividly remember the day we returned from Christmas break in Mrs. Kent’s 4th-grade class. It was 1989 and I was sitting at my desk wearing my brand new (and super scratchy) knit tights, waiting patiently for my turn to tell everyone what I got for Christmas. One by one, each kid got a chance to stand up and brag about their loot. But since I didn’t come from a family with much money to spare, our Christmases looked a little different than everyone else’s.
“Sarah, tell us about your Christmas!” Mrs. Kent said, smiling down at me.
I looked around the room and, instead of detailing the biggest and most impressive toy I got under the tree that year, I began telling everyone about my truly favorite part of the holiday: when my mother let my sister and I wear our pajamas under our snowsuits while we drove around town on Christmas Eve, staring at all the beautiful lights in our neighbors’ front yards.
I can still remember the way those lights looked to this day.
Christmas, it’s always seemed to me, should be less about the stuff and more about the experiences. Of course, we hear people say this all the time; but at our house, we truly mean it. Now that I’m grown with kids of my own, my husband and I do a huge Christmas with lots of gusto, but most of it — in fact, almost all of it — takes place well before Christmas morning, when the kids rush the stairs to see who can get to the tree first.
We don’t have a lot of extra money to throw around once the bills gets paid and the groceries are bought, but that doesn’t stop us from decorating our hearts out at Christmas every year.
With a $2 pack of brown coffee filters, we deck out the living room windows to look like a snowflake-filled winter wonderland …
And with a few old strands of holiday lights and some cheap gauzy curtains from Goodwill, we make our dining room sparkle like fairy lights you see on Pinterest …
We bake sugar cookies and paint them with frosting, and cover the living room tables with children’s books that tell stories about Christmas, winter solstice, Kwanza, and Chanukah. Meanwhile, the fridge has wreaths made of green construction paper cut out in the shapes of my children’s hands.
I also do my best to find a project or activity to do every day during December that gets everyone in the spirit of the holidays. PBS has a family movie night on Friday evenings and in December, those tend to all be holiday themed, which gives us an instant family party — just add popcorn and hot chocolate.
Of course, it’s not all so magical behind the scenes. While the kids drift off to sleep in their beds, blissfully unaware of the financial strain my husband and I are currently under, we pour over our bills and worry how we’re going to afford the wish lists of gifts that our kids have asked for this year. In many ways, we’re pretty lucky that our kids don’t ask for much when all is said and done. At least, not yet. Since we cut the cord on cable, they never actually watch regular TV, and as a result have never experienced the avalanche of holiday toy commercials. This year, their wish lists were pretty modest — some new books and puzzles and snowboards.
As the days wind down to Christmas and the front yards in our town light up with more and strings of dazzling color, we’ll pile into our car while wearing our pajamas and sipping hot cocoa and drive around to ooo and ahh at the light displays once more. We’ll invite all the kids in the neighborhood to go sledding in the cow pastures behind our house. And we’ll make a big deal about making our own family holiday cards with potato stamps we carve ourselves.
The truth is, I don’t know how we’ll pull off snowboards this year, but I do know that in the days and weeks leading up to the big day, my kids will be steeped in the fun of what Christmas is really all about: family, love, generosity, creativity, and hope. We don’t need to spend a bunch of money or throw over-the-top parties (although those are definitely fun and we love getting invited to them!) in order to appreciate that Christmas can be big but on a shoe string budget.
When my kids are grown and off on their own, I hope that they remember our holiday traditions with a sense of fondness. I hope they know that we did all we could, with the little we’ve got. I wonder what activities they’ll continue on with their own kids and I wonder what, as time passes in long stretches of years and decades, Christmas will mean to them. If I’ve done my job right, it will mean that they take the opportunity this time of year offers and they use it to focus on what matters most: love.