The tree was smaller than the year before. Usually much larger, past Christmas trees strained and puffed themselves to fill the sunken family room parenthesized by an entire wall of brick at one end and a long bar at the other. But now, the bar and brick hibernated: the small tree occupied a small corner in the upstairs living room. Not all the ornaments the family owned fit but like many proud women, the tree wore her best pieces. The most meaningful. History dangled from each branch: here was the starched white angel the mother crocheted and the ceramic snowmen she made in pottery class; in the back, a kindergarten Santa hung with two left arms; and right there, clapping like a plastic mobile, were the Shrinky Dinks the daughters colored with pencils. Presents were delicate acorns scattered around the Nativity. Intimate, this. The family itself had become smaller; yet look at the blessings that remained.
For me, that first Christmas after my parents’ divorce was the purest.
My mother, not having much money, determined that my sister and I would not do without a celebration. Items that in earlier years would have been mere stocking stuffers were all wrapped prettily. Small things: a Christmas pen, Hello Kitty toothpaste that tasted like Tic Tacs, a small notebook. Lovely items. Thoughtful but not expensive. After we opened our gifts, my mom cried. She had wanted to do so much more for us; and yet what she didn’t realize then, and maybe even now, was that Christmas was my favorite. We were together. Our lives had just begun to suffer loss, but for the moment, huddled in that little room, we were together.
I thought of that Christmas today as I shopped at the grocery store. A dozen plastic trees greeted me at the door. Two aisles were dedicated to cards; four to ornaments. End caps showcased sprinkles for baked goods while red and green plastic storage boxes created an obstacle course. Normally, I would have begun in the cards, searching for something made from recycled paper for both Christmas and Chanukah. Then I would have moved toward the toys, brow furrowed with very real concern that I had chosen the wrong Thomas the Tank Engine. I would have despaired with every cent I had to spend.
But not today. Today I walked by peacefully. Stress-free. This year, there is no money for Christmas.
And I couldn’t be happier. I’m looking forward to this Christmas, and it’s been a long time since I felt this way. My husband lost his job in September and we have a choice: use our savings to pay our mortgage and bills and to fill our propane tank, or spend it to make the thirty members of our immediate families momentarily happy. Not a difficult decision. Nor an embarrassing one. It is what it is.
Not having money for Christmas feels somehow special. Like getting back to basics. Like the old obligations and old ways of thinking are being stripped naked. It is rebirth.
That doesn’t mean I won’t celebrate. I will still decorate and make homemade biscotti. I will visit my family and my husband’s. And a few minutes will be dedicated to phone calls to those friends who have become close even though they all now live thousands of miles away. I will keep what is meaningful.
Yes, this is a good Christmas. It’s smaller. More intimate. Pure again. Dripping like melted snow from the branches of a Christmas tree, the tears I now cry are borne from gratitude.
Once again, great loss has returned to me the true meaning of Christmas.