For the entirety of my adult life, the holiday season has more or less been spent in a weird dance of trying to recapture some tiny fragment of the magic I felt as a child, and mostly failing. I’ve come up with various traditions that I always think will help me get back some of that loopy joy – watching Elf with a Chinese food picnic on the living room floor; going full Christmas Explosion on our house; drinking hot chocolate whenever possible, et cetera – but…it’s different. Of course it is.
When I was a kid, my parents always unplugged the tree at night to keep the place from burning down, but were apparently willing to risk an apartment fire on Christmas Eve, because every year I woke up before sunrise and ran out to the living room to find the tree aglow. Even when I was tiny, I always resisted the (overwhelming) desire to sprint into my parents’ room and get them with the program for a few minutes, just so I could stand there in that perfect, sparkling quiet and feel…
I still force myself to wake up on Christmas morning before everyone else, just so I can go out into the dark living room and look at the tree all lit up, like I used to when I was little (and then, obviously, go back to bed and hope my kids will give me another hour or two). Except I’m forcing myself, and that’s a big difference. And even though the scene is the same – the glowing tree, the full stockings, etc – it was me who left on the lights, me who stuffed the stockings. I know what’s behind the curtain, and it’s an exhausted parent armed with rolls of Santa-specific wrapping paper and Scotch tape.
Around the time I graduated from high school, I remember telling my mom that I was sad that Christmas felt like it had “gone away,” like I couldn’t get back to what made that time of year so exciting, so joyful – and I also remember what she told me: that it would be that way again, one day.
She was right, but not exactly.
Nowadays, I may know that all those Christmas lights come with a very un-festive electricity bill, and I may drink my hot chocolate with one hand while placing 20,000 Amazon orders with the other, but there is also, in my house, a four-year-old who literally vibrates each morning when she wakes up and finds that yes, THE ELF REALLY MOVED. Who treats the prospect of cookie-baking with Mom like the equivalent of a trip to Tiffany’s with someone else’s credit card, and who can spend a solid hour sitting rapt in front of a music box, watching miniature ice-skaters make endless loops through a glittering mountain to the strains of We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
We finally figured out precisely how to handle our first holiday post-split, by the way – and it’s by being together as much as possible. Over the next couple of days we’ve each planned separate one-on-one outings with each kid, but then Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – Christmas Day? Together. All four of us. (Albeit with specific rules about arrival and departure times, so as to lower the possibility that one or the both of us will have enough, and explode. No exploding on Christmas.)
Is it ideal? Of course not.
But all that joy and wonder that I miss so much…it belongs to my daughter now. And to my son. And our job as their parents is to help them hold onto it for as long as they possibly can. So we, the newly divorced couple, will sit side-by-side on Christmas morning while the cats bat the paper and our daughter discovers that Santa remembered the pink wand she asked for and our son tries to guess what’s in “the big box.”
It won’t be easy. But it won’t be about us. And in its own way, I have a feeling it will, in the end, be quite magical indeed…because it won’t be about us. It will be about watching our children watch the world.
It will be just as it should.