The first Christmas I spent away from home I was working at a homeless shelter, and spending more time than I am proud of feeling sorry for myself. I was far away from family, my housemates were also working, the weather was dreary and I spent the afternoon alone. And not the kind of alone spent wrapped in a warm blanket, drinking tea and contemplating the wonders of the universe. I was alone, and lonely.
The next I spent with my in-laws, awkwardly adjusting to holiday traditions that were familiar, but not quite my own.
The third Christmas away from my family, I pushed myself back from the table, my swollen belly rivaling that of St. Nick’s. That year, the last twelve days of my pregnancy aligned with the twelve days of Christmas. I spent more time than I am proud of wondering why Mary got to have her baby already and mine was still nestled snug in his bed.
Now, I am away from the home I grew up in, but spending Christmas in my own home. It is an awkward transition. Christmas is no longer a time of reliving memories, telling stories, doing things just as we have done before. What little “before” we have is still fresh, the ink not yet dried on the family journals. I long to recreate the Christmas Eves of my childhood – eating shrimp scampi by candlelight, opening gifts from the siblings, curling our hair and dressing in fancy dresses before heading into the chilly night to light candles and sing Silent Night in a small brick church. It won’t be the same, and I know that. The schedules of young children create necessary adjustments, the allergies that plague our family change the menu. The goal of Christmas Eve tonight will not be creating a perfect evening, but getting the kids through mass with as few tears and possible and to bed because Santa still has some toy assembly to do in his workshop.
Our meager collection of ornaments on the Christmas tree in our living room is growing slowly each year. There is the collection of handmade ones from the year with the swollen belly when my husband and I couldn’t afford to buy real ones. There are baby’s first Christmas ones being added, and ones exchanged on Christmas Eve.
Decorating the tree as growing up, I would unwrap each ornament, and remember the story I had heard behind it. The one my sister made in preschool. The one I painted in third grade. The one my mom was given in nursing school. The ones my grandmother had brought with her when she moved in. Hanging them on the tree, we were crafting a story, each ornament a paragraph in the tale of our family.
I do not have the same sentimentality for the ones on our tree. They are too new, none are missing parts, and the only ones that have gotten broken are the unbreakable ones I purchased from Target. Our family is just beginning its story, still in the opening paragraphs. The freshness can feel momentous and exciting, but it is also raw. It is the leaving behind of the worlds we have come from, with the edict to create anew, while still weaving in the memories of the past.
My boys do not remember last Christmas. And next year, it is likely they won’t remember this one. I am thankful for the grace in that, to give us time to adjust to the transition of becoming parents. I wonder which ornaments on our tree now will become their favorites, which traditions we are creating now will become their own.
I will eventually lose count of the Christmases spent away from home, until home begins to mean the place where my children have grown up.