I love Christmas. Always have.
The music, decorations, baking. Family and friends. The holiness of the meaning behind the celebrating. As a kid, Christmas was… magical. My older sister and brother were all in where Christmas was concerned, happily leading me down that glistening lane. In fact, in fifth grade I was one of the lead characters in a school play all about the magic of Christmas. Get it? For me, Christmas = Magic.
Fast-forward to today.
I work in a toy store.
Yes, I have a degree (not in toys). When people ask my profession, I reply that I’m a writer (not a retail person who likes to play with toys). My mom says I never wanted to grow up. My man says I never did.
I work in a toy store.
It's supposed to be part-time. As in, maybe fifteen hours/week. When the holidays arrive, though, it gets busy. When said toy store is full of items that everyone seems to want, it gets even busier. And when said toy store is short-staffed, any form of the word “busy” doesn’t come close.
I’ve been in this rodeo a few times now, so holiday planning and organizing start in early October for what I know is coming. And, every year, my plans crash. This year they not only crashed, but flames were involved.
Our yard is usually one of those mile-marker houses at Christmas— people could give directions using “that house on Barron with all the lights”. It’s nothing difficult— we just fling string after string of fairy lights into the trees— all colors— until it looks like Christmas fairies threw up. And, it’s beautiful! People actually honk when they drive by and see the lights.
This year, I got the outside lights up the weekend before Thanksgiving, but only about half as many as usual. And nothing else. No wreaths. No bows or ribbons. No giant ornaments hanging in the trees. And absolutely nothing in the back or side trees. A few people honked while the lights were going up. But there have been no joyful honks at night— they might think we’re in mourning.
Interior decorating began on a high note— the day after Thanksgiving. First things first— a tree! And we succeeded in finding… a see-through tree. “What’s a see-through tree?” Answering that question requires a short detour. Buckle up.
Now, our living room ceilings are fairly high, so normally we get an 8-9 foot live tree. (Or, better put, a “used-to-be-vibrant-and-alive-but-now-that-it’s-been-cut-off-from-its-roots-it’s-alive-but-dying” tree.) One year we lucked out and got a ten-footer on sale! This wasn’t that year. Circumstances hung a price tag of $220 on our “usual” tree— before taxes. My man gets growly when we approach even a third of that, so I didn’t even ask.
We looked at smaller trees. Then we looked at much smaller trees and, finally, found ourselves in the right price range— but there was no way one of those triangular shrubs would hold our collection of ornaments. In desperation we wandered through the tent, searching where we’d already searched, hoping that maybe we’d just missed… something. Our usual cheerful, adventurous mood began to don a cold, wet blanket.
Then, at last, outside, in the dim lights of the parking lot, we found it! Seemingly banished into the dark was a grove of mis-fit trees and there, rather hidden among those poor, beaten and broken wraiths of Christmas spirit, stood… The One. It was the right height. It was the right diameter. It was straight. It was even a Noble Fir (my favorite for reasons too detailed to go into here). It wasn’t as full as the trees inside, but we figured we’d be able to see the ornaments a little better. And, the price was right. We bought it, threw it in the back of the truck and put it up as soon as we got home. Mission accomplished, we went to bed.
The next morning, I headed through the house and… froze. The sunshine was beaming through the back windows— the windows behind our new Christmas tree. Silhouetting it. With the light behind it, the trunk and branches looked like the x-ray of a tree’s skeleton (if they had skeletons), only reversed. In negative. Like a "Spooky-Halloween-Night" kind of tree.
Outside, I could see one of our pesky squirrels, scurrying around on the patio table. Only, from my vantage point, the bushy-tailed rodent might have actually been in our tree. Images of Chip ’n’ Dale immediately popped into mind. I began to hyperventilate.
I'm not sure what sound I made--or what words I might have said-- but my man was quickly at my side. (He gets up earlier than I do and had likely already had a glimpse of the future.) He patted me on the back, trying to be reassuring. (I think some comment was made about meeting a beautiful woman in the dark, only to discover in the morning... but, I may have imagined it.) Anyway, knowing how much I like the Peanuts Christmas show— in an effort to make me feel better— my man cheerfully named it “The Overgrown Charlie Brown Tree”. To me, it was (and will always be) “The See-Through Tree.”
Detour taken, back to the tale...
We held out hope that lights and ornaments would do the trick as they had for other— albeit, less pitiful— trees. Except… I work at a toy store. It took two weeks to get that tree decorated. In desperation, I pulled the boxes out and began pawing through them, knowing some ornaments would not make the cut. We bought new strands of lights— the small fairy ones because there was no way the tree could hold our regular sets. Lights? Check. Ornaments? Half-check. Tree? Done.
Somehow, over the next week, we managed to get some of the other interior decorations into place. (I admit resorting to bribing my twelve-year-old with Starbucks.) And then we tossed the still-half-full boxes back into the garage. Next?
Like others of you, I do some extra cooking at Christmas. And, I bake. Oh, baby, do I bake! We’re talking breads, cookies, cakes, pies. And I make candy— fudge, pralines, candied pecans, etc… By Christmas Eve there’s an overflow of yummy. And, as I mentioned before, I had a plan! Each day, there were one or two things to make— Cinnamon bread. Pistachio Twists. Pralines. And each evening, my list grew more and more backlogged. Baking? Barely. I got the bare necessities made— fudge, Hello Dolly, Gingerbread boys and a half batch of sugar cookies with dough that I’d found in the freezer from some prior cause. My daughters pitched in with a few recipes, my momma sent her peanut brittle and that was pretty much that.
Gifts. I’d started shopping (yes, of course, online) in November and at least I had that pretty much under control. The wrapping, however, was not. Presents bought a month early, I finally wrapped them the day before Christmas Eve (that would be December 30th), but pretty paper was pretty much it. Curly ribbon tied around packages was not necessarily curled. For others, I was pulling off the little papers and slapping on stick-on bows. Gifts? Check!
I inherited my grandma’s dining set and holidays are made for loading that long mahogany table with a feast fit for a king. (Well, one "King of the House", two "Princes of Texas" and three "Lone Star Princesses") This year was a little different. Ham? Yep. I’d had it in the deep freeze since October, having heard there might be a shortage. Mashed potatoes? Yep— sort of. My mother doesn’t judge so I can say it— write it— “Hungry Jack to the rescue!” I made my Rum Carrots with a bag of already-peeled baby carrots and the green bean casserole had to settle for being… green beans. I had managed to bake my Christmas tea ring— and I always use half of the dough for rolls— so those were ready. And, butter! I had a stick of butter to go with them! (Actually, I had 23 sticks of butter— remember the baking that didn’t happen? I was so totally stocked up for it…) That, my friends, was the sum total of the feast.
Finally, our family always goes for an outing of some sort— a concert, The Nutcracker, etc… We also always take a drive in our old beast of a suburban to look at lights in the neighborhoods. We pack along cookies and a thermos of hot chocolate, though the thermos is gradually being replaced by travel mugs. This year? Nada. Instead, we'd collapse by the fire for a bit before bedtime.
Looking back at what I’ve written, I understand the “glass-half-empty” viewpoint. But, that can’t be right. Not for me. I’m almost always a “glass-half-full” kind of girl. So, as a good writer should, let's add a twist: context.
2020 was a crazy year. Pretty much for everyone. But, 2021? For our family, it was even crazier. (Seatbelt still buckled?)
In early April, the first “Smith Crew” wedding took place. Our eldest daughter (Princess #1) married a wonderful young man. She did almost all of the planning and prep herself— but it was still a busy time. Beautiful and perfect, but busy.
In May, our younger Prince graduated from college— the 4th member of the Smith Crew to hold an Aggie diploma. Family and friends coming in— and then, not. Social distancing at the graduation meant only 6 tickets— and with a family of 5 kids, they were all already spoken for. So, the big celebration was a little smaller— but still just as wonderful. And, a bit busy.
A few days later found me on a road trip with dear friend— a fellow writer— heading out to grow our writing skills, friendship and exploratory experiences. Over 2,000 miles. Tremendous fun, but busy. (I still need to patent that bumper sticker for her—“Wildlife fear me, Vultures follow me.” That’s a tale for another time.)
In July, The Baby (aka “Princess #3) got to go to summer camp for the first time— waitlists and Covid had done a number on previous attempts. So, a drive up to the southern Rockies for some trout fishing, a few days with family after dropping her at camp, and then back to pick her up and drive back home. Wonderful opportunities. But, busy.
September saw my man and I celebrate a milestone anniversary. Trying to decide how to celebrate it, picking a token to mark the occasion, dinner out-- this was admittedly the least busy event. Still, important on the calendar.
October was my annual “Trip Away From Home So I Can Actually Get Some Writing Done”, which went very well for five days, and then my man flew up to join me. The next five days went well, too— though I didn’t get much more writing done. But, actually, now that I think about it, my man-and-me time went VERY well as it culminated in TEXAS A&M BEATING ‘BAMA!! (Insert good-natured “Whoop!” here…)
As mentioned at the top of this post, October also meant holiday planning. And toy selling. And Christmas shopping. The fall passed in a blur.
In early December, my mom celebrated a milestone birthday and we made the trip back up to celebrate it with her. Complete with firetrucks and firemen and two birthday cakes!
A week before Christmas, our middle daughter (Princess #2) also graduated from college, bringing the number of A&M diplomas among Smith Crew members to five. (That might be the seed for another post…) This time, family and friends were in to celebrate.
(I’ll be honest— I wasn’t ready for this one. She wasn’t supposed to graduate until May 2022, but Covid had cancelled her required semester abroad two summers in a row. The university was offering to waive that requirement, so she decided to double up and graduate early. I understood, but hated it.)
Finally, it should be noted that on the previous New Year’s Day (1 January 2021), our oldest Prince proposed to his girlfriend. They set the date very quickly: 1 January 2022... January 1st, 2022... New Year’s Day, 2022. There’s a reason I repeated the date— Even though my son wasn’t the bride (THANK GOODNESS! Lol), we still had “stuff” to do. And the time for doing “stuff” accelerated through the holidays.
Now for Perspective…
You know what? It was a terrific year. Crazy. Busy. Crazy-busy. But absolutely wonderful. So many momentous events. So many smiles and hugs. So much laughter. One daughter is married to a wonderful man. One son earned a hard-fought-for degree. One daughter earned hers after a semester “in the fire”, as it were. One son transitioned from the Marine Corps and into a marriage with the sweet young woman. And “the baby” of the group was in the middle of it all, continuing along the path from child to young woman.
So, Christmas 2021 was a little different. But…
There were lights.
There was music.
There were decorations.
There were gifts.
There was good food.
There was a Christmas Eve Candlelight service with all of my dear ones near me.
There were precious old memories and precious new ones.
My glass isn’t half-empty. It isn’t even half-full. It runneth over.
P.S. If anyone who shops at my particular grocery store was unable to find butter before the holidays--I could maybe sell you some now. At a discount. Just sayin’…