It was Christmas 2006.
I was raising two very young children, ages 4 and 2, the youngest of whom was newly diagnosed with Autism. My then-husband had been in Mexico for over a year. He had gone to his visa interview, and was denied re-entry to the United States for 10 years due to initially entering without the correct legal documentation.
The previous year we traveled to Mexico City to spend the holidays with him and his family. But this particular year we could not afford to travel, so this was our first Christmas without him.
I had done my best to make everything beautiful for my kids, even though we had nothing. Throughout the year, I had sold most of my furniture and electronics to pay the bills, so we didn’t even have a TV. I felt empty. This wasn’t right.
I just wanted nostalgia.
And gifts, and Christmas dinner.
I just wanted Christmas to be right. Like Norman Rockwell right.
But in reality, I had less than $80 to spend on Christmas gifts for both of my kids.
I took that money to the Dollar General, and I bought as many toys as I could.
By the time I was done, I had a whole cart full of small items.
I went home and wrapped up those little gifts, and made them as pretty as possible. Every package had ribbon and bow, with a shiny tag. On Christmas eve, I snuck out into the living room, and worked for an hour trying to make that pile look as big as possible.
Once I was done, I sat with my face in my hands and cried.
I swore I would never make Christmas about big piles of gifts. I promised myself I would never try to keep up with the Joneses. I remember having money in years past to buy them whatever they wanted, and I didn’t do it because Christmas isn’t about things.
But somehow this year I was trying to make up for all the hurt in our lives with an $80 pile of cheap gifts.
I went to bed that night with a heavy heart. I missed my husband. I wanted Autism to go away. I wanted a normal family.
Christmas morning came, as always. Zoe ran to the Christmas tree, while Zion just sat in the middle of the floor, staring off into space. Zoe squealed and jumped around, dividing and delivering the gifts into different piles.
Zion barely moved. He wouldn’t even make eye contact with me, let alone cooperate in opening his gifts.
Zoe opened her gifts and hugged me each time, running around with each new present, waving them over her head as though she were flagging down an airplane.
Zion didn’t move.
Or even respond to the calling of his own name.
I had to practically hold my breath to choke back the tears.
When Zoe finished opening her own gifts, she went over to Zion and tried her best to get him to open his gifts.
And after a few minutes, Zion was in a full tilt screaming tantrum.
I tried my best to console him. It wasn’t happening.
He screamed so hard and so long, that even Zoe started crying.
I was on the verge of losing it.
Then the craziest thing happened.
Apparently when I was assembling our artificial Christmas tree, I didn’t get the middle section pushed far enough into the base. So right at that moment…kids crying, mom about to go ape…our Christmas tree broke right in half, and fell over on the floor.
I just started laughing.
I laughed, and laughed, and laughed some more.
I had to sit down, I was laughing so hard.
And then Zoe started laughing, just because I was laughing.
I laughed so hard that I cried.
Eventually Zion wore himself out, and went back into a trance.
And I promptly drug that Christmas tree out to the road, decorations and all, for the trash man to haul away. That was my version of a Christmas tantrum, telling all of the Christmas trees of the world to go to hell.
Now here we are, 11 years later.
I am divorced, still parenting alone…only now I have a full-time job, I have learned how to balance my life, and my kids are very happy. Zoe is kickin butt on the basketball court, Zion has been enrolled in junior high school for a semester , and they are both in LOVE with Christmas.
We have a countdown calendar on the refrigerator, and every day he tells me how many more days until Christmas.
He is obsessed with Santa. (not my doing)
And I can afford to do Christmas the way I want to, and that Dollar General Christmas is just a distant memory.
Christmas is right again.
The way I want it to be.
So the other day, I was making a list of decorations and craft items I needed to get for the season.
Zoe is 15 now, and we were talking about stringing popcorn, cranberries, and making paper plate Santas. She asked if I would make those little ham sandwiches for Christmas Eve again…along with the confetti cake popcorn. I smiled and nodded.
Then that beautiful little face looked up at me, and do you know what she said?
“Mama, my favorite Christmas was the one when the Christmas tree broke.”
I looked at her in disbelief.
I said “You CANNOT be serious.”
She said, “It was so much fun. There were a million fun things to open, I got to open my stuff AND Zion’s stuff, and I have never seen you laugh as hard as you did that day.”
Welcome again to my life, where the adult is the student and the children are the teachers.
I hugged her so tight.
Thank you little angel, for the perspective…and for the reminder of what Christmas is really all about. And that every Christmas IS right… when you’re together.
Now please excuse me while I return all of these electronics and head to the Dollar General.