News & Commentary

Capturing the Joy of Christmas

christmas tree Photo by Jessica Lewis

When I was a kid, Christmas was downright magical. My mom and dad excelled in the art of the holiday season; my mom filling the house with sweet and savory smells to complement the red and green decorations, my dad always piling too many presents underneath the live Christmas tree. In the O’Brien home, Christmas was a huge extravaganza. And I assumed it always would be. 

But now that I’m a parent, my own family’s Christmas spirit looks pretty different than that of my family of origin. Raising five kids means that decorations are limited, both because of our tight budget and because pretty things get broken with a constant stream of toddlers in our midst. And while the pile of gifts under the artificial tree might still be substantial, each person gets fewer gifts when they’re divided among seven people. On top of all that, I am a far cry from the cook my mother is—in both quality and desire.

A Holiday Struggle 

I am definitely not recreating my childhood Christmases here; and yet, I still dearly desire for my own kids to experience this holiday as a magical, enchanting time. I want them to carry memories of our spiritual practices and religious traditions that evoke feelings of wonder and awe. Every year, I wrestle with how to do this in a way that doesn’t concede to consumerism, waste, and greed; every year I wonder if I’m giving my children anything magical at all. 

But what is so easy for me to forget is that the minds and imaginations of children are already explosively dynamic. It really doesn’t take much to captivate them: Little things like hot cocoa on the stove, a single string of secondhand lights, and a Christmas movie on TV are enough to fill them with giddy anticipation. When I see our home from their eyes, I am reminded that it’s not the huge, showy things that are necessary for Christmas joy—it’s the little things that come alive in extra special ways. 

My husband reminds me that he, too, treasured Christmas as a child, and yet his family celebrated the holiday in a more understated way than mine did. Having him bring his perspective in to add nuance to my expectations helps to keep me from falling into the belief that there is only one “right” way to celebrate Christmas. It can all be magical; it can all be holy.

A Perfect Celebration 

This year our five children range in age from 2 to 11, so I’m sure Christmas Eve Mass will be as chaotic and rowdy as ever in our pew. After Mass, we will return to our warm, cozy home in the snow, bake and frost some sugar cookies, and light candles to twinkle alongside the lights strung around the living room. 

And in the morning when we rise, there might not be lavish decorations or gifts—and I will very likely make a subpar dinner—but there will be a sparkle in my children’s eyes and a joyful spring in their steps. And there just might be in mine too.

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