What I dreaded most was decorating the tree. Part of me wanted to skip it this year, but I knew that wasn't an option. So on the weekend of Thanksgiving, Allyson and I went to Walmart with my sister Amy to pick out a $39 pre-lit tree, a pretty star, and a $2.50 tree skirt.
On the first Sunday in December, I sorted through a box of memories, about twelve years' worth of ornaments. That was hard on me, but fun for Allyson as she asked the history of each decoration. We took about half and saved the rest for Bill. And then the two of us wrestled that sparse tree together.
After dinner, just as we were about to start decorating, Ethan calmly asked if I could bring some towels. Why? Because the toilet was overflowing. I raced into the hall to find rivers of dirty water flowing across the tile to the carpet. "Jiggle the handle!" I shrieked as I flung open the linen closet and pulled out all the towels.
"I tried that but--"
"Jiggle the handle!" I repeated.
He obeyed, and the water stopped.
"I'm sorry, I--"
I tossed him a beach towel as I hit my knees with my own towel. "Just soak it all up as fast as you can."
Twenty minutes later, after I'd thrown every towel we own into the wash and mopped the bathroom floor twice, I called the kids out to the living room to decorate the tree. I had to laugh, because I felt about as Christmasy as... the Grinch.
At that point, Allyson pointed out that we had no eggnog. "We always drink eggnog when we decorate the tree," she said. (I'm clearly not the only one who's hung up on traditions.)
"I'm sorry, but Ethan drank it all and I forgot to buy more," I said.
"Can't you go to the store?" Ethan asked.
"No! I'm not going to the store!" I snapped. In a softer, more reasonable tone, I added, "It's almost Allyson's bedtime."
So I got on the Internet and found a recipe for homemade eggnog. Another 15 minutes later, I presented each kid with a frothy mug of deliciousness and cholesterol. For tradition's sake, I had a token serving even though I usually avoid both eggs and dairy.
Allyson took two swallows and said it was okay, but she was full, thank you. Ethan took one swallow and said it was gross, not at all like the kind they sell at Braum's.
"This is wayy better than that gloppy store-bought stuff," I protested.
"Nnhhh," they replied.
I couldn't possibly waste such amazing eggnog, so naturally I drank both of their servings. And now I had a bellyache to go along with all of my other aggravations.
At first, Ethan sat on the couch and watched us hang the ornaments. "That's a pretty crappy tree," he commented.
"It's a cheap tree," I agreed. "But I think it's cute. It's a Charlie Brown tree."
"What's a Charlie Brown tree?" both kids asked.
"Oh, you guys have got to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas," I replied. (Allyson and I did, on Christmas Eve.)
When Allyson asked if she could hang his ornaments, Ethan finally got off the couch. In the end, the tree looked pretty sweet, especially with the two of them beside it.
That evening, we started a new tradition, the Jesse Tree. Each of the 24 nights leading up to Christmas, we sang "O Come Emmanuel," read a story of a person in Jesus's family tree, and hung an ornament. Actually, we stopped hanging ornaments after we ran out of ornament hooks and paper clips. But we thoroughly enjoyed the singing and the stories. (To be more accurate, Ethan only tolerated the singing.) On Christmas Eve, we read the story of Jesus's birth and then sang "Silent Night."
After Allyson had gone to bed on the night we decorated the tree, I started another new tradition. Before, my favorite part of decorating the tree was admiring it afterward over a glass of wine, hand-in-hand with my sweetheart. I thought of sharing this tradition with Allyson, but school was already going to come way too early the next morning. And Ethan? Not happening.
"Oh, Lord," I prayed. "This hurts. But I know that I am not alone. Will you sit with me?"
So I poured myself a splash of wine and sat in the darkened living room in front of the tree. I thanked Jesus for coming to dwell with us. I thanked him for my family and all of our memories. I asked him for peace, and then I rested in it.
The next evening, I went to a ladies' dinner at my friend Leisa's church, along with two of our coworkers. The speaker was Kelly Minter, a Bible study author and singer. She read the story of Mary visiting her Aunt Elizabeth, who was pregnant at a very old age with John the Baptist (Luke 1). Kelly pointed out Elizabeth's words: "The Lord has done this for me." Of course, John's conception was part of God's plan to change the world for all of us, for John came to prepare the way for the Messiah. But the fact that He did it for all of us in no way detracts from the fact that He also did this wonderful thing for Elizabeth, who'd suffered decades of shame because of her barrenness.
Kelly urged us to take the Christmas story personally, to realize that God gave us Jesus because He wanted to be near each of us, individually. I pondered her words as I sang "Oh Come Let Us Adore Him," hand-in-hand with my three friends. In that moment, I thrilled to the true meaning of Christmas as never before. Oh, I'd always known it was all about Jesus, but.... (How can I explain this?) Because I rejoice in my salvation all through the year, to me Christmas had always been more about family traditions than about the Christmas story itself.
How foolish that seemed now. What did it matter if I couldn't celebrate all the same traditions in exactly the same way? Didn't I need Jesus, God-With-Us, more than ever this year? All the way home, I marveled that the Savior of the world knows my name, that He delights in spending time with me. Just then, I had an inkling that I would do far more than just survive this Christmas season.
|Fran, Leisa, Me, Lisa|
In all that I've gone through the last year and a half, I've never been bitter because I know I'm simply reaping what I sowed years ago. It's not that I'm being punished, but that I am experiencing the natural consequence of my past choices. This brings me comfort because I know that my future is being written by the better choices that I'm making now. But I have big regrets for my children, who are reaping what they did not sow. And that hurts even more now, when I cherish my own childhood Christmas memories.
In that open sharing circle, understanding dawned! If God's grace can cover my own sins, can it not also cover my children? His grace is a big enough blanket for all of us!
I basked in that truth for days, but at times my sorrow was still sharp. One night I was brushing my teeth when a wave of grief struck without warning. On the floor of my prayer closet, I asked God for signs of his love. "I need my manna, like you gave me before."
Throughout the Christmas season, God answered that prayer in beautiful ways. For example, when I cried at the thought of filling my own stocking this year, my friend Gentle informed me that she'd had a call from Santa, and I was not to worry about my stocking; he had it under control. And she also offered to come and help me wrap presents, another thing I'd been dreading.
When she arrived a few nights later to be our personal Santa's elf, what did she find on our porch but a box from Santa himself! Allyson gaped at the inscription: "To Sarah. Do not open until Christmas. From Santa."
Oh, how that mystery tormented her over the next couple of weeks (and me, by extension). Why would Santa send me a box? What was in there, and why didn't he just bring it on the sleigh? Most importantly, did the box contain goodies for herself? It was literally her first waking thought nearly every morning.
Allyson was briefly distracted by our tradition of making marshmallows and handing them out to our neighbors. This year, at her suggestion, we used tiny cookie cutters to make Christmas shapes. This worked out well because that meant we got to eat all the crazy scraps ourselves.
|Allyson in the Marshmallow Sweat Shop|
My next bit of manna came at a Moms in Prayer meeting one Wednesday morning. I confided that I'd been struggling, and the other moms prayed fervently over me. Victoria prayed, "We know this is not Sarah's portion. No, you came to bring peace and grace. You delight in giving good gifts, and you came to set our sister free." As they prayed, it seemed that a physical weight was lifted as I felt God's love wrapping around me, that blanket of grace.
And then there was my family's gift exchange, this past Saturday. When my 16-year-old niece Hillary set a large gift bag at my feet, I eyed her quizzically; we don't usually give gifts to the adults.
"It's a present," she said.
"You're going to make me cry," I said, as my vision blurred.
She laughed. "You haven't even opened it yet."
My curiosity mounted as I waited for all the kids to open their many gifts, and then Mom and Dad, too. (It was almost as bad as Allyson's suspense over the Santa box.) At last, Hillary said it was time to open her gift.
With trembling hands, I drew out a purple canvas with a cross on it. When I read the verse, I began to sob. "I told you she would cry," my sister Emily said. And then I was laughing and crying at the same time.
|Me, Emily, and the Best Christmas Gift Ever|
The answer came before I could even complete my thought: "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine." Since then, that verse has come to mind over and over. And I'd been searching for scripture art featuring that verse to hang over my bed. But the only thing I'd found was a black and red plaque that totally clashed with my purple decor. Frustrated and disappointed, I asked God to please help me find the perfect piece so that I could have that daily reminder that I am His.
Around the middle of November, Hillary and her sister Savannah asked about my favorite scripture. I gave them several, and I also mentioned to Hillary that I wanted Solomon 6:3 for my room.
A week or so after that, Hillary was assigned an art project at school, to paint a place that had meaning for her. She decided on the cross. (Hallelujah!!) And then she decided to give it to me, for my room. But she couldn't remember which verse I'd wanted. So she asked her Aunt Amy to find out for her. Which explains why Amy randomly texted me one morning and asked for my favorite verse. I'm sure I gave her several because it's impossible to choose just one, but thankfully Hillary was able to remember which one I wanted.
And that is how Hillary came to paint the very verse that I asked God to help me find for my room. It was her very first painting, and she chose to give it to me!
|The Beautiful Artist and Her Beloved Aunt|
"I think this is the best gift anyone ever gave me," I said. "I know I will treasure this for the rest of my life."
And then I smiled all the way home, and all the way through cleaning my disaster of a kitchen. I was smiling when I fell into bed at 1:00 a.m., and smiling when I woke up the next morning. And each time I think about it, I still smile. I suspect I always will.
One more story before I call it a night.... On Christmas Eve, it took so long for Allyson to fall asleep that I feared I might fall asleep myself and then Santa wouldn't come. Around 11, I started on their two stockings. With a pang of guilt because I knew how Allyson had been looking forward to opening that Santa box, I cut it open with a steak knife. Inside was the most gorgeous stocking I'd ever seen and a gift bag. I set both on the hearth without so much as a peek and left the opened box next to the fireplace.
In the morning, after announcing that Santa's cookies were gone, Allyson asked, "Why is the Santa box open?"
I pressed my lips together and feigned interest in the apple pancakes I was pouring (which she was far too excited to eat). "I guess Santa must have opened it."
"I don't know. Sometimes things just remain a mystery, Allyson."
"Oh," she said. And then exploring her stocking drove away all her questions.
|Her Favorite Santa Gift|
After breakfast, I opened my own gifts. They were full of treats and little treasures that made me feel so loved. But the best part was that every item was emblazoned with a scripture. That stocking and gift bag were chock full of treasure!
|Stocking on Left|
Oh no, I didn't just survive Christmas! Surely I will look back on this season as the most special ever. What did I ever do to deserve such love? Nothing. And that's what makes it so precious.
Merry Christmas to you and yours.
|Santa's Workshop Event at Allyson's School|