Growing up, Christmas was a huge deal at our house. We started celebrating at Thanksgiving and didn’t stop till after the New Year.
But when I say Christmas was a huge deal, I’m not talking about gifts. My parents handled gift-giving so wisely, no matter how much or how little we had on any given year. They got us each just three gifts, both on years when my dad was in corporate upper management, and years when we could barely make ends meet. (Grandparents usually gave us one gift each.) One of those gifts was always a book. We were never encouraged to ask for what we wanted, but rather to be happy with whatever we got, knowing it was chosen with a great deal of thoughtfulness and love.
Christmas remembrances are among my sweetest. My parents taught me that Christmas is about more than how much there is under the tree. We focused on the birth of Christ, of course. And we just made memories.
This week I told my kids a story about one Christmas that could have been less joyful than others. I was a teenager. We had just come through a very devastating situation, spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and we had a lot of healing to do. My parents bought a small farm in East Texas, with a tiny old house that needed extensive renovation. We had money set aside to fix our new place, but my dad was unable to find work. So in the meantime, we put most of our belongings in storage and rented another tiny old house two miles up the road.
It was a little yellow place, pier and beam. We could see daylight between the floorboards and dirt sifted up through the cracks. The tiny living room had a crooked wallpaper border, and the dining room was covered in a jarring coca-cola pattern, red, black, and white. The boys had to pass through the girls’ room to get to theirs, which was essentially a big closet. That was an exceptionally cold winter, and the house had no insulation. There were a couple of broken windows. We woke up many mornings to icicles hanging on the inside of the window sills. The only heat was provided by a couple of antique porcelain space heaters that would burn you or melt your clothes if you stood too close. The septic system was a mess, and we had to take drastic measures not to overload it. Among other precautions, several of us usually had to share bath water (there was no shower in the only bathroom) to keep the whole thing from backing up into the house.
We thought for sure we’d be out by Christmas and things would be better, but December rolled around and Daddy still hadn’t been able to find work, in spite of his best efforts. (On one hand, he was free to work on the new house when he wasn’t job hunting, but on the other I know this was a really difficult time for him because he has always been such a conscientious, hard-working provider.) The remodel was taking longer than anticipated, as so often happens. We realized that we’d still be in the little yellow house for the holiday.
Looking back, our spirits should have been dampened, but they weren’t. I have to applaud my parents for never allowing self-pity or discouragement to take over and ruin that time. (This applied to other times as well, probably why I have no patience with negativity and complaining.) I’m sure they were stressed and worried, but that didn’t affect the atmosphere at home. After all, we had enough to eat and wear and we were together. It wasn’t perfect, but we could make the best of it. We were thankful for what we did have.
Some of my best Christmas memories are of that Christmas…Singing carols with friends in the small, cold living room, making cookies, my sister and dad working puzzles in the coca-cola dining room. I have no idea what I got that year, although I’m sure it was no more than three gifts. Gifts didn’t matter though. Love made it a great Christmas.