As a parent at this time of the year it can sometimes feel like we are struggling magicians posed at the center of the holiday season frantically waving our wands against a mounting pressure to make everything special. With words like shine, cheer and merry swirling around we’re aware that these are the moments that count. After all, these are the memories that will be forever etched into our children’s hearts.
I do believe that the new and old traditions that I’m both creating and upholding with my children provide a lineage linking generations before me to generations after. However, I should have learned during my first holiday season as a mother to also believe in something else. Something equally powerful and sacred. I should have learned to believe in unexpected magic.
During that inaugural holiday season as parents, my husband I left our then 11-month-old with family for a night and took the train up to Manhattan. For the three hour ride, we steadied ourselves against the sway of the train roaring over the tracks, giggled and poured Bloody Mary’s from a Thermos canister made for coffee or soup (nine years later the Thermos still carries both a subtle tomato juice taste and stain).
We delighted in the rare opportunity to return to our carefree and childfree ways. It felt like an eternity since we had slept, relaxed, dined or drank. While we were madly in love with our son, even at less than a year into this grand adventure called parenthood, we were ready for a brief respite.
The respite would indeed be brief. In just 24 hours, the gig would be up, the spell expired and we’d be back in a pumpkin returning home to reality. So we prepped ourselves for fun as our carriage, disguised as a train, roared up the Northeast Corridor. Out of DC, then past Baltimore we zoomed. As the tune goes, we went over the river and through the woods in Maryland and Delaware as we continued on our way. Next we raced past the Philadelphia Zoo, and through towns of New Jersey before ducking into a dark tunnel, plummeted deep into the bowels of the great city and then popped back up smack dab in the middle of the island called New York and in the station called Penn.
The city instantly greeted us with hustle and bustle and sights and sounds. So much so that it was impossible to deny the Christmas spirit swelling all around us. In fact, it really did feel like we were under a bit of a spell as our faces gleaned with excitement at the beauty taking form before our very eyes. The streets were strung with twinkling lights and adorned with works of art delivered by way of department store windows.
We pulled our scarves tighter around our necks and stretched our gloves up over our hands. My arm swung through my husband’s elbow as we put thoughts of sleep schedules and diapers aside and set off to explore a city alive and vibrant. Down Bleecker, Barrow and Bedford we sloshed making our way through the very streets where it is fabled that Clement Clarke Moore was inspired to pen “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. We ducked into tiny pubs and cozy former speakeasies raising our glasses to both the season and to ourselves. Cheers! Despite medical stresses and professional changes, at nearly year in we were surviving this thing called parenthood. And since this was our big break from the duty of raising a child, we toasted and toasted and toasted some more trying to prove to ourselves that we were still the old us. Parenthood hadn’t changed us or slowed us down. No way!
But of course it had changed us, rather evolved us. As the night chased away the day, our energy soon followed, but we resisted telling ourselves that we should go for it and stay out all night long! With our baby in the safe care of others this was our chance. Finally communicating without words, but instead through shared yawns, we admitted that we would rather sleep and headed up the avenue towards the promise of a comfortable bed and the possibility of our first uninterrupted night’s rest in quite some time.
The cold, crisp air of the night sky set against the back drop of the lively city structures created an almost electric energy similar to what Mr. Moore described as the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow giving a luster of midday to the objects below.
We enjoyed peering into the windows as we passed by. From our quiet perch on the sidewalk, my husband and I laughed and whispered as we created stories of the people or parties on the other side of the panes of glass.
When a yellow light radiated from a bar window ahead we stopped to look in. Our eyes settled past the steam resting on the window’s cross bars and we spotted a bearded man in red with a pint of beer in his hand. I turned to my husband and smiled. Oh what a story we could create with this scene! He grinned and pointed back towards the window. Next to the bearded man in red was another bearded gentleman in red and yet another and another. As we looked more closely we saw at least three-dozen Santas in the bar all carrying on and patting each other on the back, and raising a drink. We stood at the window for a few more minutes quietly observing this unexpected, yet quite magical scene unfolding in front of us. Standing on the cold sidewalk, we could feel a certain kind of warming glow put forth from this community of individuals who spread cheer to others sharing in a moment of camaraderie and celebration with one another.
During the rest of our walk we excitedly traded thoughts on what the Santas were doing in the bar and cracked jokes that started with “so a Santa walks into a bar….”. We were so taken with the idea of the Santas that we continued our dialogue on the train ride home the next morning. And while they were likely a group of pub-crawlers dressed in costume, years later we still discuss the possibilities of that event and that night. It’s a wonderful kind of indulgence to let the imagination run free for a bit, isn’t it?
And there it was beyond the dinner and drinks and decorations. Unexpected magic.
Another world away, far from the Santas and the sparkly city, we were returning to every day life with jobs and a child and demands. Our brief escape was over.
Back home with our young son we celebrated his first Christmas and did some hustling and bustling ourselves to attempt to create our own magic. We made a trip to see Santa and sent out holiday cards. Of course our son fussed during the visit with the Big Guy and we took about 80 shots before capturing a halfway decent candidate for the card. I acknowledged to myself that if this was what Christmas with kids felt like, it seemed more stressed and sweaty than magic and miracle. The previous week’s trip to New York and the Santas seemed like a long, long time ago.
But then the actual Christmas Day rolled around and our little guy served up a little pixie dust of his own when he took his first steps, across my parents’ living room floor and in front of our extended family. While every adult in the room paused and acknowledged the fun, at age 90, my great aunt laughed a familiar and deep chuckle, clapped her hands together and said, “well now, isn’t that something? I never thought I’d get to see that!” A teacher and a kindred spirit herself, she never had children of her own, yet loved them dearly.
I knew she would not live long enough for my son to know her directly, but I also knew that I would share this story with him and form a bond between the two even years after her death.
It wasn’t the card or the presents but for a second time that season it had struck again. Unexpected magic.
When I think back to that first Christmas as a mother and reflect on my desire to reclaim my old self it seems like a wish that is foreign to me now. Nearly a decade in, there’s no old self or new self. There’s just this self. I don’t want to say that my children define me, but they are most certainly the axis at which the rest of my activities and decisions rotate around in some form or another.
Certainly there are the stressful moments like getting everyone out the door to a special holiday meal, or the inevitable stomach flu that will hit as you’re doing so. Trying to take a family photo in the beautiful great outdoors while potty-training a toddler is particularly challenging, I know.
But interwoven in those stressful moments are other things. Now in our tenth Christmas as parents our family has grown and there is a wonderful collection of photographs perched on our mantle of visits with Santa and another set to match of pajama-clad kids anxiously awaiting at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning. The gifts have have slowly progressed from ones that are simply something to open with a favorite cartoon character on a box of band-aids or a toothbrush to more coveted bigger toys or electronics. Somehow we have managed to pull off a Christmas card photo every year that captures our children growing up. Their faces change each year as they grow older and longer and their smiles sometimes have gaps with missing teeth before being replaced by bigger teeth the next year.
I’m sure there were arguments as we snapped those photos or tension in the lines at the stores to secure those gifts. But that’s not what I remember. What I remember is the look on their faces and more importantly the feeling in my heart.
Sure there are sacrifices, but parenthood is not a duty or responsibility. Parenthood is privilege at all times of the year, but especially during this time of the year.
Now I don’t want to escape my children at Christmas (mostly…), I simply want to soak up every moment I am given with them to bask in their glow of anticipation and excitement. And so our traditions continue, but in different ways.
We no longer live on the East Coast, but now Chicago. Last weekend I wanted to do some of that treasured memory making and took my oldest two kids on the inbound train to enjoy the holiday windows in the store fronts and to see Elf the Musical. As we took our seats in the theatre I overheard some people a generation or so older than me sitting behind us talking a bit too loudly about how kids are spoiled these days and what they really need is a good old-fashioned spank’in. For a moment I felt self-conscious about bringing my children to the theatre and sank a bit in my seat. But then I stopped myself and thought about the season and the show we were about to see. This isn’t a time for grumpy complaints. This is a time for cheer and fun. I began to happily point out all of the fun things in the auditorium to the kids and a game of ‘I Spy’ ensued until the lights dimmed and the curtain opened. As the music started and the actors performed my kids laughed out loud, clapped, smiled and bounced in their seats. At a particularly upbeat song, my son started waving the Santa hat he was wearing. I thought of the grouchy people behind us who were probably irritated.
At intermission I prepared to issue an apology to them but instead I overheard a much different conversation taking place. They were chuckling and saying how much fun it was to see this show with young children around enjoying it so much. They were commenting about how they had missed being around kids.
Abracadabra! There it was again. Beyond the theatre tickets or excursion. Unexpected magic.
I smiled and let myself off the hook at bit. While at this stage of life with children aged 9, 5 and 3 I’ve been given the gift of sharing this special season with them. It feels like the light of the season is shining right on them and I am posed to play a significant role in their Christmas.
But I’m not the maker of their magic. I’m simply the guardian of the season’s spirit and the usher of their memories. I can prepare and plan and orchestrate, but the real magic is being made and spread in the most unexpected of ways. I just need to help make sure that my children and I am able to see it.
Its treasured, but limited time that I get to accompany these little people through this season and bask in their expectation, wonder, awe and belief. Someday a time will come when the light of the season shines most brightly on my children’s children or others who are younger than me. And when that day arrives I’ll sit back, trust and enjoy their glow.
But as for right now, and our current version of ourselves, my husband and I look forward to a different kind of night. It’s the evening in December when we tuck ourselves away in the basement and have a secret wrapping session. It may not be the streets of New York, but over Scotch tape and bright rolls of paper we share a glass of wine and give a toast to the season, and a toast not to ourselves, but to the family we’ve created and the miracle that we are. And that’s pure magic.