A Touch of Magic for the Holidays

You know how every now and then, a moment in your day… a day in a month… a month in your year… is somehow lit with a magical glow? It can happen unexpectedly in the middle of the mundane — a casual glance out the window while mopping the kitchen floor that takes your breath away with a golden-crowned rainbow, or a spontaneous drive on a damp day that turns into a lifelong memory of a romp in a fairytale playground.

This holiday season was like that. Somehow, everything aligned just perfectly to make a magical, memorable holiday. Aaron’s job has been a bit less demanding for the last couple of months, and he’s had to travel much less. My migraines have been much more under control and less intense than before, and the medication I’ve been using has generally been effective in stopping them — I’ve had maybe five or fewer days in the past month that I had to actually go to bed to vanquish one, and only one or two that affected me for an entire day. Sofia has reached an age where she makes a perfect playmate, able to imitate and adore her brother, and she and Niko have been playing together just delightfully — of course they have tiffs and occasional tantrums, but for the most part, watching them together has brought warmth to my heart.

I feel like we jam-packed this season with memories. The kids saw Santa twice. The first time was at our little town’s local tree-lighting, just over a week after we put up and decorated our own Christmas tree. There were cookies, candy canes, hot chocolate, and photo ops with Santa; someone had brought barrels for warm fires; kids ran around tossing glow sticks, which Niko first took for flying angels; and then, after just about the perfect wait time, the gigantic pine tree lit with multicolored lights from top to bottom. The second time was at Niko’s holiday concert (during which he actually stood in his place with his classmates, and sang the appropriate songs at the appropriate times, with minimal support from his teachers).

Memory-making moments can be tricky to orchestrate, but this year we made one after another in joyful succession. The tree-lighting and Santa encounters were certainly stand-out moments, though I didn’t have a whole lot to do with creating them. But that wasn’t all. We made Niko’s very first gingerbread house, and I managed to arrange it with minimal fuss — I made the dough during lunch one day and let it chill during nap time, then let Niko cut out the gingerbread shapes — I have a set of very convenient house-building cutters —  when he woke up, plus a few people and snowflake shapes. Sofia woke up just in time to cut out a few at the tail end of the session. We baked them off during supper, then the next day I mixed up a quick royal icing during nap and let Niko put the house together and decorate it, with Sofia once more pitching in at the end. Then they decorated their gingerbread people with liberal adornments of candy, Niko’s in a somewhat humanoid fashion, Sofia’s with no limits whatsoever. We admired the finished house for a few days, then ripped into it the day after Christmas.

It was a quiet holiday season, but we did get a visit — two visits, in fact — from family. My aunt, who was visiting family in California, came up for a lovely two days, during which she thoroughly charmed the kids and did as much work around the house as I did myself. And we got a surprise visit from Aaron’s aunt a few days ago, a quick stop during a long layover that turned into a pleasant overnight visit when her standby connecting flight fell through. The holidays don’t feel quite right without some sort of family gathering, so having two visits made the season just that much more special.

Santa, tree lighting, gingerbread houses, decorating the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving… treasured memories, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure the weather was responsible for the most exciting moment of the season. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the kids awoke to a magical snowfall. Last winter, our first winter here in our new home, there had been no snow at all; the year before, living in a rental home about twenty miles from here, we’d had snow in February, but none at Christmas. So the sight of that glorious skim of snow covering the lawn brought enormous excitement. We ran through the snow, the kids dug in it with shovels — well, they scraped at it with shovels, as there really wasn’t enough to dig — and we even built a mini snowman together. Then, of course, we went back inside for hot chocolate to warm up, just in time for Sofia to lie down for a morning nap.

Christmas Eve just kept getting better. The snow melted in time to make a drive to a Christmas Eve service at church stress-free, and Niko loved singing songs with us rather than going to Sunday school. Then, back home for barbecue chicken wings that had been simmering all afternoon in the crock pot, and finally the crowning moment — opening a special Christmas Eve box for each child, packed with winter pajamas, a tiny toy, and a baggie each of popcorn and hot chocolate mix. I made popcorn and hot chocolate while the kids put on their new jammies, and then we watched our traditional mini-series episodes of Prep and Landing, a Pixar story about the elves responsible for getting houses ready for Santa’s arrival.

Christmas Day was calm and surprisingly peaceful, for a day that’s often hectic. We’d been cooking for days ahead, which made our labor for Christmas dinner on the day itself minimal. Aaron made beef Wellington, and the sauce he made took a total of three days’ of work, from making broth, to reducing the stock, to finally making a rich concoction that simply isn’t adequately described by the word gravy. I’d made a pecan tart two days before that far surpassed my expectations, the caramel flavor of the filling and the toastiness of the pecans merging to make a dessert I actually liked (I’m not a fan of pecan pie — as a Canadian, I resent the crunchy nuts that interrupt the smoothness of a butter tart-like treat). We started the morning with a semi-traditional Tannenbaum coffee cake, and while it baked, the kids opened their Christmas stockings. After breakfast, we dug into our gifts, enjoying the kids’ delight at their pair of stick horses and other treats. And then we simply enjoyed the day together, Aaron and I working together to finish dinner preparations, watching Christmas specials, reading stories, and going for a traditional Christmas Day walk. Our day was warm, loving, and joyful in a way even a pesky (and short-lived, to my relief) migraine couldn’t spoil.

I just can’t get over how…perfect…this season was. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak — for a catastrophe, an illness, a personal struggle, or whatever, to mar the succession of joyful, peaceful days. But, other than a few unpleasant migraines (including the one on Christmas Day and one on New Year’s Day), it’s just been a peaceful, joy-filled holiday season. We’ve had struggles this year, with changes to my mental and physical health making their impact on maintaining our two-acre home and on our family dynamic, but for the past couple of months it’s felt as though things are smoothing out. We’ve been able to enjoy baking, playing, decorating, shopping, and being a family. I’m grateful for this holiday season and for my patient and supportive husband, and I’m excited for the new year and all the ventures we’ve planned.

All I Want For Christmas…

Christmas felt different this year. This year, at the age of four, Niko was more aware of the onset of Christmas than previous years yet. For one thing, he understands time a bit better, and the anticipation was agonizing. Grandma and Grandpa’s visit seemed unbearably far away, and, when wrapped gifts finally appeared under the tree, he inquired every day when it would be time to open them. The excitement, the longing, the anticipation — all were new.

This was the first time our son really thought about Christmas in terms of gifts. It was difficult for me, in a way, to see how much space gifts occupied in his mind. My family and my church didn’t celebrate Christmas at all as I was growing up, and I was raised to believe that one of the vices brought by Christmas is the avarice and materialism displayed by overindulgent gift giving. I’ve moved past that particular part of my upbringing, and I love Christmas now — lights, ornaments, gifts, and all. But despite my current embracing of the holiday, I cringed a bit at Niko’s obvious desire and worry that he might not be getting what he wanted. Since he saw some of his baby sister Sofie’s gifts but none of his ahead of time, the accumulation of Sofia’s gifts seemed to far outweigh his, and he was desperately worried that we had forgotten to get him any. On the other hand, his little Christmas list remained modest and consistent. I asked him some time ago what he wanted. His response was prompt and clear: “I want an Olaf snowman and an Olaf book and a toy dog.” Each time afterwards that we asked him for his Christmas list, he repeated the same items with only minimal variation. As anxious as he was over the gifts, he really had only three simple items that he desired.

But it wasn’t all about the anxiety of anticipation. He rejoiced in the colored lights, thrilled at the responsibility of plugging in the tree lights each morning, and delighted in learning Christmas songs at preschool. Opening the doors of the Advent calendar each night (well, many nights — I wasn’t that great at remembering to do it) was a ritual that he loved. In fact, he loves everything about the holiday. He loves the sparkling candles, the colorful ornaments, the hope of snow.

One day Niko, Sofia, and I went shopping at an outdoor mall we’d never visited before, and there was a giant lit tree in the center square with two lovely snow fairies posing for photos with passersby. His eyes lit up with amazement: “FAIRIES! Those are REAL fairies! Can we take a picture of them for Dad?” (His dad travels often, so Niko thinks in terms of taking pictures so Dad can see whatever it is we’re excited about.) He was absolutely amazed, and even more excited when he got to stand by them and have a picture taken. I’m pretty sure that was a highlight of his Christmas.

We saw Santa numerous times over the holiday, and Niko was never quite convinced that it was a person wearing a costume; he hasn’t really accepted our story of a kind man named Nicholas who lived long ago, whom we now remember as Santa Claus. He’s pretty sure Santa is real, and Mom and Dad just haven’t caught on yet. Every time he spied Santa his face would beam with pleasure. “There’s Santa!”

So it wasn’t all about the presents. Not even close. I’ll admit, though, I worried a little that Niko would be so overwhelmed by all the gifts we and his grandparents had gotten for him that he would forget gratitude, that he would become numb to the joy of finding something new in each package. But Niko is the master of being amazed, and he was thrilled with each and every gift.

To my delight,one of his favorite gifts was a fox face cut from an old shirt of his, that I sewed into a pillow and that he’s slept with every night since Christmas. It was inexpertly sewed, but still, the fox was a highlight. About a year ago, that shirt had been almost new. He’d sneaked away with his scissors one day and snipped all over the front of it. When I saw what he’d done, I was upset, and so was he, because he hadn’t realized how destructive the scissors were. He thought he’d never see that fox again. On Christmas Day, when he pulled the fox- shaped pillow out of his stocking, he recognized it right away. He smiled with his entire body as he hugged the little pillow. I guess the reason his pleasure over that pillow delighted me, too, is that it shows he isn’t entirely captivated by shiny new THINGS. He understood the value of the fox pillow immediately; realized that I’d taken something he’d destroyed, and lovingly transformed it into a huggable bedtime cuddle friend.  He understood that the pillow represented time spent, and hard work, and thoughtfulness, and he responded accordingly. His understanding and gratitude are now one of my favorite Christmas memories.

As it turns out, all I really wanted was to see genuine joy on my son’s face. I saw that, and suddenly all my worries about materialism and avarice evaporated. Watching open his Christmas presents was the most fun I can think of!

Here are some of Niko’s amazed faces: