Four Christmases

I. I started working at a nursing home when I was 16, and the first winter I worked there, I forgot to ask for Christmas off. The residents needed to eat, and it was my job to pour their drinks, roll silverware into napkins, and do the dishes. While most teenagers would’ve been really excited about time-and-a-half pay, I felt guilty for derailing our family tradition—we wouldn’t be driving to my cousins’ to spend Christmas Eve together. We wouldn’t see my grandparents or have cake for Jesus’ birthday with all of our aunts and uncles. Instead, we pivoted.

After my eight-hour shift (and after I changed out of my scrubs and hairnet), my family loaded into our red minivan and drove to the movie theater for a Christmas Day feature, something we’d never done before because we were usually traveling. I don’t remember what we saw, but I do remember that I got to indulge in movie popcorn (my favorite) on Christmas, that it was nice not to spend three hours in the car the night before, and the peace of a quiet day together, just the five of us. It was the first time I really appreciated that some people don’t get holidays off, the first time I understood what an essential worker was, the first time I traded tradition for a new kind of celebration.

II. Twelve years ago, just five days before Christmas, my husband and I hopped on a plane (or two) to St. Lucia for our honeymoon. We spent our first married Christmas on the beach eating grilled lobster tails, listening to the waves, and laughing as a skinny Caribbean Santa waterskied by. I think we exchanged cards, but there were no gifts, no candlelight Christmas Eve service, no holiday ham with family. And while the resort had lots of elegantly-decorated trees, none of the ornaments belonged to us. It was the first time either one of us had been away from family for Christmas, the first time we traded snow for sand between our toes.

III. Last Christmas, my husband had been back from deployment for about seven weeks, and we were in the last days of resting in our little cocoon before he had to go back to work. I picked up a Honeybaked Ham and ordered a birthday cake for Jesus. I printed three tickets to ride the Polar Express on Christmas Eve, and we had popcorn and hot cocoa in the dark while we watched in the living room. My husband and I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” and wrapped presents. We laughed at the whimsy of the cardboard chimney our daughter had made, complete with little stockings for the kids’ dolls. We stayed in our pajamas all day on Christmas, relaxing, eating treats, and playing with new toys and games. It was our last Christmas in that house, our last Christmas in Las Vegas, our last Christmas in the military, and our last time spending Christmas together, just the five of us.

IV. We went to the tree farm on the first Saturday in December this year. The kids and I had never cut down our own tree, and we joined my husband’s family to find one just right for our new home. The next day, we decorated the tree with ornaments we’ve gathered over the last 12 years and all over the globe: bride and groom snowmen from our wedding, bright orange torii gates from Japan, koalas from Australia, a trolley car from San Francisco.

We’ll spend Christmas Eve with one side of the family and Christmas Day with the other, plus a little time in between for ourselves. We’ll eat ham one day and prime rib the next, enjoy games and jokes after our meals together. At the end of the night, we will say goodbye and drive to our own home, where we will sleep in our own beds. On Christmas Eve, we will tuck in the kids before we watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and wrap gifts. There is a good chance we will get a white Christmas.

In addition to the first visit to the tree farm, it will be the first Christmas in awhile that we won’t have to FaceTime family members. It will be the first Christmas in years that we won’t have to ship gifts ahead of time; we will hand presents to one another in person and say thank you with a hug. It’s the first year we have two trees: one from the farm and one artificial tree we purchased while living in Japan. It’s the first Christmas in our new house. The first Christmas after what is probably our last big move. The first Christmas in a place that feels familiar and foreign all at once. The first Christmas in a place I’ve missed but also can’t believe is home again (why the perma-gray skies, Michigan?).

And all of it—the old and new, the traditions deeply rooted and the others only weeks old, the lasts and the firsts—points to the actual first Christmas. It all leads to a family going back to their roots, finding shelter in an unexpected place, and the wondrous, miraculous arrival of Emmanuel, God with Us.

Looking for more stories about motherhood, military life, and finding beauty in sacred/ordinary moments? Subscribe to my newsletter, Late to the Party. Every couple of months, you’ll receive a short note from me, some personal recommendations, and a journal prompt.

This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “Then and Now.”

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