• Sarah VanderMeiden

Christmas: From Ho-Ho-Ho-Hum to Grief to Joy

I’ve always enjoyed Christmas in a ho-ho-ho-hum sort of way.


Sure, I am enchanted by Christmas lights, love some Christmas music (if they only could start playing it just a week ahead of time) and never met a Christmas cookie I didn’t like. Though the true meaning of Christmas is deeply significant for me, I’ve never gone over the top in celebrating it.


You know what I’m talking about.


There are some people who are just nuts about Christmas. Like the person who always has their eye out for that perfect Christmas gift - even in the height of summer. The collector who makes a beeline for the Christmas section of any gift shop they happen to visit. Those in possession of at least 10 bins of Christmas decor. People who are happy that stores are decorated for Christmas before October. And the fanatics who joyfully decorate their houses for days.


The kind of person like - my mom.


My mom absolutely LOVED Christmas! From the shopping to the collecting, to the baking and the decorating and from that first song to the last - mom lived and breathed Christmas starting at least in October but in all honestly it was pretty much year-round. Her living room could have easily doubled as a gift shop. Her wrapping skills rivaled those of Martha Stewart. And you could always count on getting at least two Christmas cards from her - one would be beautiful and sentimental, the other would be funny.


And don’t even get me started on my Mom’s Santa collection. Santa ornaments, Santa figurines, Santa towels, Santa candles. Nostalgic Santas, silly Santas, David Frickman Santas, ornate Santas. Tall Santas, long Santas, short Santas. Plump Santas and skinny Santas.


I kid you not, she even had a Santa sitting in a lighted outhouse reviewing his naughty/nice list.


And that wasn’t her only collection. I won’t bore you with the details of her Christmas tree collection. Let’s just say there were a lot of them. Then there were the angels. And the nativities. And the lighted village.


I think you get the picture.


As my Mother’s daughter, I was content to allow her to do the heavy lifting on Christmas. Sure, I’d put up my own tree - when I got around to it. The shopping was usually done in a day or two and I was content to just enjoy my mom’s cookies. The Chip-Its were my favorite (btw, easiest recipe ever: Melt 1 cup each of semi-sweet chocolate chips and butterscotch chips, then mix in 1 cup each dry roasted peanuts and chow mein noodles - or rice crispies for a gluten-free option. Drop by spoonfuls on wax paper and chill. Mmmmmmm…..).


Having my own daughter definitely forced me to up my Christmas game. Now, putting up a Christmas tree isn’t optional (ugh), we’ve gone to Bentelyville to see Santa almost every year and usually get around to making cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve day.


Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that I am skating dangerously close to being a Christmas scrooge. Having a child in your life definitely gets a person into the Christmas spirit and over the years, our family has created our own beloved traditions. We usually go to Bentleyville on a weeknight, arriving just before it opens and running like crazy people to be one of the first to see Santa. After going to our church’s Christmas Eve service, we return home to a beautiful candlelit smorgasbord of crackers, cheeses, sausage and cookies before opening our presents. And of course the cookies and milk our daughter sets out for Santa are always gone by the time she wakes up Christmas morning.


But just after Christmas 2013, whatever joy I had mustered up for the holiday began to darken.


The tasks of daily living had become harder and harder for my mom to manage and in January 2014, we decided that Mom could no longer live on her own. Thus began the long, arduous task of searching for an assisted living facility, going through all of her belongings and selling the items that simply would not fit into a 1 bedroom apartment. And most of these items were the ones that brought my mom her Christmas joy.


But it wasn’t that we had to separate my mom from many of her beloved Christmas items. It was like Christmas had completely abandoned my mom. Dementia will do that to a person.


As the years have gone by, my mom has declined to the point that she no longer knows what day it is, much less what holiday it might be. Confined to a wheelchair, her shopping, baking and decorating days are long past. And, although she seems to enjoy our family gatherings at her nursing home, the memories created fly away from her forever the minute we say goodbye.


And it absolutely destroyed me.


For a few years, I tried hard to create the kind of Christmas she had provided for me. I wanted to make sure my daughter had her own special holiday memories of her and her grandmother. So, during a visit, we would put out what was left of Mom’s decorations, make some Christmas cookies and listen to her numerous Christmas CDs.


But it never felt like it was enough. Christmas was simply not the same as it used to be.

I began to dread the Christmas season because it represented so much of what I had lost. My mom was all about Christmas and now she wasn’t. I never really was all about it and now I just couldn’t.


I tried to put on my happiest holiday front for the sake of my daughter, who like any rational kid LOVES Christmas and wants to do EVERYTHING related to it: The shopping, the decorations, the pageant, Santa and his reindeer - the works. Of course, I indulged her but each time I tried to experience the joy of Christmas I was hit with waves of overwhelming grief. The only thing that really pulled me through me was my beloved family and the special traditions we created together.


Then one day it finally happened. This is a little embarrassing to admit but I came to the realization that Christmas wasn’t all about me anymore. That it was ok for me to move past my grief because my life is right here, right now with my family. The best thing I can do to honor my mom is to create the kind of memories that will bring my daughter the same joy I experienced while growing up.


And you know what? A few years ago, something amazing happened! While walking through Christmas displays, I began to notice the only emotion I was feeling was that warm glow of Christmas spirit. I could hardly believe it. I felt no grief whatsoever. In fact, I actually felt a little…joy! I decided to challenge this new reality the day after Thanksgiving with a quick shopping trip. All I felt was joy and excitement at looking for great deals, marveling in the beautiful decorations and watching my daughter be delighted at all the gifts and displays. Oh, what fun!

That year, decorating for Christmas became a joy. And the very first thing I put out was that silly Santa in his outhouse.


I love you, Mom.

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