By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
Christmas lists, every parent knows, tend to come in two versions: the things your children say they want, and the things you have to go purchase. For mothers, both lists can be a source of terrible exasperation and anxiety. It’s not possible, one young woman lamented last week when I bumped into her at the discount store checkout line, to even find the items that made their way on her children’s wish lists.
As for purchases, don’t even get me started. December seems to be the month most likely to see a household run out of items like baking powder or paper napkins or cough drops — things you don’t think of as essential until you need them. Their absence means another trip, perhaps late at night, to the crowded store, and a checkbook balance that never lives up to the second part of its name. Maybe we’ll change that to “checkbook teeter-totter.”
I decided this week to create a new kind of list for myself and my loved ones. Christmas Essentials. Unlike the other lists, this one is specific but not brand-specific, required but not inflexible. It also does not come with a deadline, though every item on it is just what its title announces: things that cannot be ignored, put off or forgotten.
First item: naps. Doesn’t matter if your household includes small people younger than age 5 or not. Sleep is the lubricant of holiday joy. Skip it at your own peril. I’ve become fond of living room catnaps on the creaky sofa, wrapped in the inelegant but super-warm fleece blanket my son inherited from his great-grandmother. It’s so comforting to wrap the heavy fabric around my shoulders and doze off. I never sleep long. Even so, that 10-minute reprieve has saved my own sanity and that of the family every day I allow myself to grab just a little extra sleep. Let's just not talk about the times I foolishly skip the nap.
Number two on my list: smiling at strangers. There is simply not enough of this in the world, especially as Christmas approaches. And that’s sad, because a smile changes everything. I know. Last week, as I hustled my way across the vast aisles of our locla superstore, I found myself slipping into a Grinchy mood. Who even thinks two-pound hunks of cheap chocolate add up to jolly times, and why are the Santa pictures so poorly drawn? That kind of snobby internal monologue will kill joy, and it was doing a number on me, until my cart nearly collided with an ecstatic little boy maybe three years old, whose face radiated expectation and wonder. And he smiled at me, right into my eyes. I’ve been passing along his happiness everywhere I go.
Third thing. Compare. Yes, I know, we’re not supposed to do this. I wasn’t planning on it, either. But as my mother always used to tell me in grade school, while it’s easy to find people who seem to have more than I do, there are always going to be twice as many people who have less. If you want to pay attention to whose life is better, spend some time thinking about people less fortunate than yourself. This is good advice at Christmas, if you can get the hang of it; that blinkered, any-poor-person-will-do approach that reduces those with less to statistics and dollar signs rather than human people not so different than we are, is disrespectful. Yet what my mom said is true, and it echoed in my mind as I worked this week. Just read the fire log, or take a glimpse at the hospital list and the obituaries. People all around us struggle through the holidays. A tantrum about the difficulties of finding white chocolate or a certain size of sweater hardly seems appropriate.
Fourth on my list: old, tired traditions. With three children in the thick of adolescence, I sometimes make the mistake of thinking the family traditions that once delighted them are no longer necessary. I’ve changed my tune, based on the observation that teenagers are really just toddlers in larger bodies. A couple years ago, the stockings were limp and pathetic, because I thought nobody cared about “special” candy and silly little trinkets. After all, they’ve all got one, two, even three part-time jobs and buy themselves treats regularly. The mopey disappointment on Christmas morning was probably the biggest holiday fail I’ve ever experienced. So, stocking stuffers are back on the agenda. So are sugar cookies, because no one ever becomes too sophisticated for colored sugar and snowman-shaped sweets. And we will sing “The 12 Days of Christmas,” in all its prolonged glory.
Fifth Christmas essential, of course, is Jesus. As my family makes our way through life, I’ve tried hard to model authenticity over automatic religious practice. For a pastor’s daughter who was raised to see every bump and dissatisfaction as an opportunity to serve, that’s harder than you’d expect. But even as my parenting and my personal journey have stretched to make room for hard questions, exceptions on the small stuff that really doesn’t matter, and growth, the core values stay the same. Chief among them: that little baby in the manger, the light of glory in his face, his hand outstretched to bless us all. That reason for the season thing? It may sound hokey, but it’s real. Don’t forget.