Christmas past was a carefully orchestrated celebration when my children were young. From the moment I carried the first box of decorations down from the attic on the day after Thanksgiving until I tucked it back at the New Year, our house was a whirlwind of activity. We spent many hours baking cookies to give to elderly neighbors and to fill little tummies. We built our share of gingerbread houses (not my favorite endeavor). We had a special tradition of buying a new decoration for each child every year, then taking a short trip to the country to cut down our tree and returning home to decorate it while Christmas music played in the background. Of course, this wasn't the idyllic scene you might think -- often by the time we got the tree into the stand we had three tired and cranky children.
Each year we tried to visit a local historic site dressed in its holiday finery. I helped organize the holiday parties at school and for the Scout troops, which often required lots of telephoning and baking. Buying and wrapping gifts for our extended family and my children was a daunting affair.
Christmas Eve was a marathon. Most of my day was spent in the kitchen preparing for dinner the next day. Then, we took three cranky children to the evening service at church. I still have memories of those late-night sessions putting together the toys from Santa - bleary-eyed and exhausted. But, nothing can compare with the sight of a child's face in the morning as he holds a longed-for toy in his arms and truly believes in Santa.
Sometimes it seemed I spent my entire holiday cooking, setting the table, and cleaning up after meals -- Christmas dinner for extended family, an after-holiday family party, dinner celebrations with friends. By the time the New Year rolled in, I was physically exhausted, but the warm memories we created remain with my children to this day.
Now, it tires me to even think of all the physical and mental labor involved in those celebrations. I have pared down my traditions over time as my energy level has decreased. The house is still lovingly decorated, but on a more subdued scale. Christmas cookies are non-existent in our house, although I'm sure as my grandbabies grow we will resurrect some cookie-baking. My gift giving is far less lavish. My celebrations with friends now involve more dinners out and less work for me. Last night I invited my sister and her husband for a simple meal of soup and bread, served on my lovely china by candlelight -- a most peaceful and enjoyable evening.
Christmas Eve will be quiet this year -- mass with my son and his in-laws at 4:00, and then an evening at home. Christmas dinner will be large, with an abundance of food, flowers, candles, special table settings and family togetherness. Today I will be shopping for the food and flowers for this special meal. I will have the time to savor the process of wrapping the gifts this afternoon. Probably I will bake my pies and enjoy the aroma of pumpkin and pecans lingering in the house.
Most importantly, I will remember the hectic years with fondness, but be thankful for this time of life when I can step back from the whirlwind and savor the simple joys of the season.