What does the holiday season look like for you and your family?
Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. I love this time of year for many reasons… decorating and then enjoying the beauty of our and others’ Christmas trees, listening to and singing Christmas carols, lighting the candles on our Advent wreath, acting out the story of Jesus’s birth with nativity sets, picking out special gifts for loved ones and then getting to see them open their presents at holiday gatherings and most of all spending quality time with family and friends.
Over the past ten years the Christmas season has been both wonderful and difficult for our family. In December 2003 we celebrated our first Christmas with our son Sean, who was born in October that year. In December 2004 we experienced our first miscarriage. In December 2005 we were grieving another miscarriage in August of that year and an interstitial ectopic pregnancy that November. In December 2006 we were frustrated that after over two and a half years of trying to have another child that we had experienced three pregnancy losses and then had been unable to conceive again since.
In December 2007 we were ecstatic to be expecting again, via our fourth Assisted Reproductive Technology cycle, when just a few days after we finally told Sean that he was going to be a big brother, something we didn’t take lightly having waited until I was twelve weeks along and had many ultrasounds that led us to believe that things looked promising for our baby, yet again our world seemed to be falling apart. One night I began spotting and the next morning we learned that our baby’s heart rate was extremely low, in the 60s. That definitely made for another bittersweet Christmas. Our baby girl Molly survived until the following April and was born alive just shy of 30 weeks gestation. However Molly only lived for about ten minutes and we did not get to bring our daughter home. December 2008 was probably the hardest and saddest Christmas I have ever experienced, but we did our best to make it fun and memorable, especially for Sean, who was only five years old at the time.
We appreciate that many of our family and friends have tried to be sensitive with us through the years, empathizing with the losses we were grieving and knowing how much we wanted to be able to expand our family, to have another living child and for Sean to get to have one or more living siblings. We felt so blessed and lucky when that finally happened in September 2009, with the birth of our third child, our second daughter, Abigail, which made for an extremely joyous Christmas that year. One of the many ways our friends and family have shown their love and compassion for us is by giving us thoughtful ornaments to hang on our tree. I shared the backstory about some of these ornaments in these two posts (from which this post is partially adapted).
Growing up ornaments were a big deal in both Bob and my families. My maternal grandparents gave my sister and I each our own ornament every year of our lives before they died, so that when we grew up and got married we would have ornaments to start our own trees with. Bob’s parents also gave us some of his childhood ornaments for our tree after we got married. So when Bob and I spent our first Christmas together as a married couple in December 2000, our tree was filled with beautiful and meaningful ornaments from throughout both of ours lives.
Throughout my life if someone really means a lot to me, one way I show them is through buying them a special ornament for Christmas. The first year that Bob and I were dating, in 1996, I got him an ornament for Christmas and have given him (and eventually our family) one every Christmas since then. This year was Bob and my 17th Christmas together.
When we first started celebrating as a couple it was an adjustment to merge our holiday traditions, navigating everything from when we would get together and spend time with our extended families and friends to whether we would have a real (my way) or a fake (his way) Christmas tree, a star (my way) or an angel (his way) at the top of it and if we would place the garland around the tree before (my way) or after (his way) we hung the ornaments (which led to our first fight as a married couple in December 2000). Our opinions on these choices stemmed from what we both grew up with in our families and thus were used to. In the end we got a real tree for the first few years of marriage, until Sean was born, then we bought a fake tree (though every year our family and friends marvel at how real it looks). We agreed on having a star at the top of our tree, with the garland being placed after our ornaments have been hung on the branches.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas our family spends a lot of time decorating our home, wrapping presents and making homemade cookies (which was something my maternal grandparents did/brought every year when they would visit us for two weeks during the holiday season). As our children get older they enjoy helping us to decorate, wrap and especially bake chocolate chip, ginger snap and iced sugar cookies. As we do these things we enjoy listening to Christmas music or watching some of our favorite and nostalgic holiday movies including: It’s a Wonderful Life (my all-time favorite), The Family Man, The Family Stone and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
We spend Christmas Eve celebrating, eating and exchanging presents with Bob’s family and Christmas Day doing the same with my family. Our Christmas Eve gathering includes a delicious meal, usually turkey and stuffing, with lots of great sides and desserts. We follow our meal with the cousins/grandchildren acting out the Nativity Story in costume, which my mother-in-law organizes, and is very sweet. Then we engage in the chaotic excitement of helping and watching the children open their presents. After that the kids play with their new toys and the adults hang out and visit and eat and drink some more. When we arrive home we get cookies and milk ready to leave out for Santa, as well as carrots for his reindeer. Then we tuck Sean and Abby into bed and Bob and I do any last minute preparations for Christmas morning, often with It’s a Wonderful Life is on TV in the background.
Christmas morning we have a set time that Sean is not allowed to leave his room before, as he is an early riser and can’t wait to get up and see what Santa has brought for him and our family. This year the time was 7:30 a.m., but Bob and I decided to get up a bit earlier and surprised Sean when we came and got him at about 7:15 a.m. Then we all went into Abby’s room to wake her and head downstairs. Being a bit of a photo/video freak, I am usually armed with both my video and digital cameras to capture our children’s reactions to what Santa, Bob and I gave them for Christmas. It is so fun to watch them open their gifts and see what is in their stockings.
We give the kids some time to play with their new toys and other presents, before having a light breakfast, getting dressed up and heading out to 10:00 a.m. mass at church. We usually meet my parents there and enjoy a beautiful service with our parish’s festival choir helping us to celebrate the holiday with awesome music, including their annual breathtaking rendition of Silent Night/Night of Silence during communion, when I often serve as a Eucharistic Minister.
After church we go back to our house for brunch or lunch. If we are hosting Christmas dinner, we often have a lighter meal as we are preparing the big one (sometimes we serve turkey or other years ham). But as we did this year, we made a brunch with pancakes, sausage, eggs and donuts from a neighborhood bakery. Then we exchanged presents with my parents. Afterwards he kids had some more time to play with their new toys and we got to relax and hang out a bit before heading to my sister and brother-in-law’s home to have dinner, exchange more gifts and celebrate their son’s first Christmas with our family and some close friends. En route to my sister’s house this year we stopped at our daughter Molly’s grave at the cemetery. It was our fifth Christmas since Molly died in April 2008 and remembering/missing our baby girl always makes the holiday season bittersweet for my family and me. It also allows us to be more aware of and sensitive to those who are also celebrating the holidays with empty chairs at their tables.
As 2013 nears, I am reminded of another family tradition in which we gather to celebrate Christmas with close family friends and make resolutions for the New Year. We actually video tape each other every year and then report back the following year on how things went. I will share more about this in two weeks, when the prompt is to write about my new year’s resolutions.
I am writing this the day after Christmas and am grateful to have had another wonderful season of celebrating with our dear family and friends. It is often chaotic and tiring day after day getting together with loved ones, eating, drinking and exchanging gifts. But I do realize how blessed and lucky we are to have the time and resources to do so, as well as to have our beloved family and friends still living and near to us, that we get to spend time with during this holiday season.
This week marks the halfway point for The Today Voice. I continue to enjoy the experience of being Thursday’s Voice and look forward to twenty-six more weeks of writing here.
I hope that this finds you in good spirits and that you had a wonderful holiday season with your loved ones.
What does the holiday season look like for you and your family?
Kathy Benson is a bereaved and blessed mom, writer and group fitness instructor trying to live mindfully and find joy in the journey after dealing with secondary infertility and loss for five years. She lives in Chicago, Illinois with her husband and two living children.