Upon waking I can tell how cold it is outside because inside there is an uncomfortable chill lurking beyond the covers.
I open my eyes to the calendar next to my bed.
The haze leaves my brain and is replaced by the to-do list that perpetually spins with a rotation of tasks. Bring in wood; get fire going; put on coffee; let dog out; load dishwasher; fold laundry; fill out Christmas cards; Christmas shop.
Making my way around the house to get the morning going, the first thing I notice is the whiteness outside my window. I’m mesmerized momentarily by the starkness of Lake George as the flurries continue to drift to the ground.
Too much to get done. I’m wasting time.
After completing a portion of the list in my head and calculating the next rotation of tasks, I finally settle in next to the window with my steaming cup of coffee. The falling snow outside, and the warmth of the coffee in my belly and hands as they cradle my oversized cup, serve to sedate my overdriven mind. My thoughts quickly turn to Christmas.
Thinking of the upcoming Christmas, a mere twenty-four days away, sparks holiday memories that make this time of year so significant to me. I wasn’t a child, but I wasn’t an adult. It was my sixteenth Christmas season.
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The halls were abustle with sounds of excitement on the last day of school before my Junior year, Christmas break. Classmates were exchanging little gifts and cards around every corner, and teachers wore santa hats and handed out candy canes, while trying to accomplish even the smallest bit of educational decorum.
I made one last locker check before rushing to class, just to see if anyone had slipped in a Christmas card. Nope, nothing. That’s okay, less to carry in this ridiculously overpacked backpack anyway. Better get to Typing class before I’m late.
I hurried to class and made my way to my seat, awkwardly unloading my pack. I looked up at the blue streamers. Blue streamers? For Christmas?
Mrs. Herlihy went to the front of the room and ushered everyone to sit.
“As many of you know, Lisa is due January fifth so we don’t expect her back when the winter break is done.” Turning to me directly, “The faculty and your classmates decided this was a good time to give you a baby shower. We have cake and a few little gifts to welcome your little one and to let you know we care.”
I choked back the knot in my throat as I fidgeted with my maternity shirt trying to make sure it covered my belly and hid my father’s suspenders that I had been wearing underneath. My stomach had gotten so big that my pants would no longer stay up without the help.
“Come on up Lisa.”
Class was a blur. I was overwhelmed by classmates asking me about my pregnancy. What names was I considering? Was I scared? The unexpected gifts meant so much. A Care Bear from my typing teacher, an Osh-Kosh outfit from my business teacher, a front baby carrier from my social studies teacher, and a whole mixed bag of baby items from the class. Yet, the best gift was the gift of time and understanding when I never felt more alone.
When I turned sixteen I was three months pregnant and although I lived at home, I knew I needed to get a job to support the baby’s needs. I was immediately hired by a local fabric store in the mall. It was just down the street from my high school, making it perfect to walk to. On this special day I was saved the walk. My mother helped me carry the gifts to the minivan before dropping me off to work.
The surprise shower made my feet a little less heavy as I set to work putting bolts of fabric away. Not long after my shift began I saw a family of five looking around in the craft section and I waddled over to them and asked if I could help.
The father had clearly just come from work, and judging from his dirty steel-toed boots and grease-stained hands I remember thinking he must be a mechanic. The mom was plainly dressed and her hair a bit disheveled as she peeked through the tangles with calming, blue eyes. They had two boys around six and eight years old, and a little girl about four. Each child wore cloths that didn’t quite fit properly and their winter jackets were soiled from more than one winter of use.
It wasn’t their appearance that set this family apart. I was surprised to see the way they all stayed together as if on a mission. I approached and offered help, and was intrigued by the details of that mission.
In a soft voice the father explained that they were looking for felt by the yard in a dark green color. They couldn’t afford a Christmas tree and decorations this year so they were going to create a tree in felt, then make decorations with different colored felt squares. The children stood near the cutting table with their parents and attentively watched as I counted out a yard of felt for their tree.
Store policy permits an allowance of 1/4 of an inch if the last cut was crooked, so I allowed them 1/2 an inch for perceived crookedness on each side. I showed them the colored felt squares and watched the children carefully make their selections. They proudly brought their items to the register and without a word, I gave them my employee discount. When handing them the bagged items, the man reached out his hand, made eye contact, and with a gentle smile, simply said, “thank you.”
They left the store, and I had more questions than answers. What happens to poor children Christmas morning? Do they think they weren’t good enough for Santa to bring them a present, or even food? Is it even about the presents? This family was happy just to be together Christmas morning sitting under a felt Christmas tree. Perhaps that tree was more valuable than the most eloquent three-dimensional one. Perhaps that family had something the wealthy couldn’t possess.
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Days later, it was Christmas Eve.
My body was so disproportionate that I required help climbing the Methodist Church steps for the evening service with my parents and siblings. My fourteen year old brother was happy to offer me his arm. My pregnancy had made him protective, and it was a side of him I learned to cherish.
We made our way to the same pews generations of my family had sat in over the years. The organ began to play traditional Christian hymns and as I sat there gazing out the chipped stained glass windows, I felt something come over me. A peace. I can describe it no other way.
My fears and anxieties about being a mother disappeared as the choir sang Silent Night and I realized Mary, too, bore the burden of an uncertain birth and yet here we are so many moons later singing “Sleep in heavenly peace.”
The haunting eyes of gratitude from the hard-working father, and the compassionate voice of Mrs. Herlihy only a few days earlier flashed through my mind. “Sleep in heavenly peace,” echoed again like a dream.
That night on my bottom bunk, a child on Christmas eve and an expectant mom, I realized what Christmas means to me and what I wanted it to mean to my child. That isolated holiday season I received the gift of the Christmas spirit.