I have a history of almost ruining Christmas. I never mean to do it, and sometimes it’s not even my fault, but I have this history nonetheless.
First, there was the time when I was about 11, when I’d asked my parents for a very fancy Casio keyboard—the kind with the drum beats and the different melody sounds. My parents didn’t always get me what I asked for, and sometimes they really botched my request. (Like the time I asked for a trampoline, and instead of getting the big kind you can do bone-breaking gymnastics on—which is what I meant—they bought me a small jogging thing Jane Fonda might use. Um, not what I had in mind, Mom and Dad.)
Anyway, I asked for this expensive keyboard, and—with good reason—I was afraid they either wouldn’t get it, or possibly worse, they’d get me some kind of miniature doll piano instead. So one afternoon, when both parents were out running errands and my brother and I were flying solo for a few hours, we decided to canvas the entire house in search of Christmas goodies.
I swear, I never thought I’d find anything. I wasn’t crawling in the attic or opening hidden passageways. But it was right there, on the top shelf of the guest room closet, still in its box: a HUGE Casio electronic keyboard. The exact one I’d asked for.
I was stunned. On one hand, I was ecstatic that my wish would be granted, but on the other hand, I couldn’t believe I had just ruined my biggest Christmas surprise. Not only that, but I had ruined my parents’ big surprise.
What parent doesn’t love seeing the kids’ faces that morning when they open THE BIG THING they hoped and prayed for? Next to the real reason-for-the-season, it’s like the Best Thing Ever. I knew, even as an 11 year old, that I now had to pretend to be surprised on Christmas morning. There would be no giant, uncontained smile of real glee. Oh, the shame.
I never poked around for presents again. I also never shook a present or tried to guess the contents. I don’t let my kids lay one finger on any wrapped presents that appear under the tree early. And today, I have really, really good hiding places. Sure, Christmas is a joyous religious event, and a family gathering day, and all those warm and fuzzy things. But underneath it all, isn’t Christmas really about secrets?
Christmas is also about timing and health. I’m not so good with those things.
Take, for example, Christmas 2002. I’m married and pregnant with my first baby. Christmas morning arrives, and Matthew and I are celebrating with his mom in our house in California. We put out a cheese and cracker tray after opening presents, and then settle in on the sofa to watch a movie together.
Next thing I know, I start having this tremendous pain behind one shoulder, down into my rib cage. Being pregnant for the first time, I’m wary of any pain. And it doesn’t go away. I try lying down in my room for a while. Hours pass, and the pain intensifies. Finally, I tell Matthew to call the doctor. They tell him they don’t think it sounds like labor, but I better come in to the hospital.
The Christmas dinner preparations fall by the wayside. Matthew drives me to the hospital, where they put me in the L&D unit hooked up to a variety of machines that tell them a whole lot of nothing. No contractions, no apparent labor (I wasn’t due till early April anyway). They pump me full of fluids because that’s all they can do, so I lay there bored senseless (no iPhones back then!), uncomfortably pregnant, and swollen with saline to the point of cankles. Matthew eventually leaves me at the hospital at my request. Cankles and Christmas do not mix.
By the time Matthew brings me home at about 11:30 p.m., I’m under orders not to eat anything because the docs aren’t sure what’s going on. I’m exhausted. He’s exhausted. And so, for Christmas dinner, we sit at the dining room table and share bowls of lukewarm vegetable broth.
(Turns out I had gallstones. Go figure.)
I had another sick Christmas, in 2006. I’d been fine the night before at church. But by morning, I woke up knowing I was horribly ill with the flu. I had a fever and chills and nausea. As a mom, though, you can’t call off Christmas when there are little kids in the house. I tried to make it through, curled up on the sofa through the present-opening extravaganza, barely able to focus on my daughters as they tore through paper and ribbons.
I have few memories of that morning. Of the whole day really. After the presents were finished, I couldn’t fake it anymore. I had to go back to bed, where I remained comatose for the rest of the day. I stranded my poor husband and kids, along with his mom and my parents, to prepare and eat Christmas dinner without me. (They made omelets.) I felt terribly guilty—especially when my mother-in-law came down with it a few days later—but it was out of my control.
The reason I said that I have almost ruined Christmas, though, is because—miraculously!—Christmas hasn’t been tainted for me. Not in the slightest. I might have irritated the heck out of my family over the years, but I’m still a five-year-old kid when it comes to the holiday season. I get psyched for Santa. I throw parties. I decorate, PROUDLY, the weekend after Thanksgiving. I own not one but TWO horrendous Christmas sweaters, along with tacky snowman earrings. I prefer Elvis and Bing Crosby singing my Time Life Classic Christmas Carol favorites. I pull out the Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook that my grandmother gave me in 1980 and muddle through “The Christmas Song” on the piano when I’m alone in the house. I bake my mother’s pumpkin bread, Christmas cookies, and peanut butter cups. And I WILL NOT TOLERATE artificial trees.
Still, I wonder what I’ll do to almost blow it this year. Cross your fingers for me.