Sometimes the greatest Christmas gifts come wrapped in mishap and disaster.
the title of this article intends no disrespect to those of you out there busily sewing matching Christmas outfits for the children while the hand-rolled-and-cut sugar cookies cool enough to ice. In fact, there is nothing wrong with your amazingly uniform thumbprint cookies, and if you show up at my house with a handwoven basket full of your perfect confections, I promise to put the kettle on!
The arts of homemaking, especially during the holiday season, bring beauty and joy to the home and cheer to the hearts of those we love. It has been my joy and privilege to be a full time homemaker for more than a decade. I know firsthand the thrill of anticipating everyone’s happiness when they see the beautifully decorated Christmas table where they are about to assemble for a communion of food and friendship. It is these moments of bringing joy to those we love that remind us that serving one’s family as Homemaker-in-Chief is a great way to spend a life.
However, there is a dark side to all this happy hubbub. The quest for the best recipe, the cleverest decorations, the perfect present or cutest holiday photo EVER can quickly become an end in and of itself. The difference between striving to create a cheerful Christian home and self-serving vanity can be surprisingly fine! With Christmastide beginning tomorrow, we do well to pause and make sure our actions and intentions really are headed for Bethlehem.
Christmas 2000 taught me this in a way I hope never to forget. We had just had our third baby and were having health challenges. I was working part-time in addition to caring for our three-under-five. We closed on our first house in Houston and moved five days before Christmas. Two days after that my parents were scheduled to arrive from Virginia and my aunt from Florida. There were boxes everywhere. I was "bumpin’ into furniture tired," fighting mastitis and not even sure where everyone was going to sleep. Hadn’t it been just the previous Christmas when my girls had appeared at Mass in their hand-crafted matching jumpers? I had standards and a reputation to uphold! My inclination to call the whole thing off was strong, yet the thought of keeping the grandparents from their grandbabies and of my aunt being alone for Christmas stopped me from canceling.
Instead, I announced that we were not going to have a "Martha Stewart Christmas." My relatives’ ready sense of humor and abundant spirit of adventure came to the rescue. My mom insisted that she would be in charge of the fine china and showed up with lovely paper plates and matching napkins. Aunt Barbara took over the "bakery" and procured dozens of the finest store-bought cookies available at her local grocery store. There was probably some sort of tree, but I do not remember.
What I do remember is how we laughed like crazy when the water heater gave out the day after Christmas and eight people crammed into a tiny chaotic house had to take cold showers. "Probably all St. Joseph got in the stable," my dad quipped. Next there was the emergency trip to the pediatrician’s when the five year-old mysteriously came out in hives. Aunt Barbara, a nurse, accompanied me there and suggested many possible diagnoses, none particularly comforting. She had seen this before! The verdict turned out to be an allergic reaction to the brandy on the fruitcake the children were not supposed to be served. I told my aunt I was shocked that my little one could have gotten into the cake and served herself while we were sleeping. It seemed so unlikely. I still remember the mischievous laughter in my aunt’s eye’s as she realized, "OOPS! Sorry kiddo, it was me! I am not used to being around little kids and it never occurred to me not to give her some." Overcome by our lively appreciation for the absurd, we laughed till we cried. And what a laugh Aunt Barbara had! I would pay money to hear that again!
Yes, that turned out to be my last Christmas with Aunt Barbara. In September of the next year she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and the following Christmas, her last, was spent 1200 miles away in medical treatment. I remain grateful that we had that crazy, discombobulated Christmas together.
I did a little baking over the weekend, but nothing, mind you, that would impress Martha Stewart. Yet there is a lasting joy in knowing that this holiday will be spent with my parents, husband and children and that I already have everything I need for the perfect Christmas celebration.