Last year, the message of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” took on new meaning for me.
Written December 26, 2015
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?”
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!”
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”
~ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss
When I was growing up, my mom made sure every holiday was celebrated (and there were decorations for each one), but Christmas has always been our favorite. My daughter and I now carry on many of the traditions from my childhood.
Just as in my childhood, my daughter and I always choose a big tree (we get ours on an annual pilgrimage to the State Farmers’ Market) and string it with a ridiculous number of lights. Putting our ornaments on the tree after I have finally slogged through the light-stringing is one of my favorite holiday rituals.
We have a collection of ornaments that tell stories and jog our memories and make us think fondly of the people who gave them to us — or take us back to a special place where we bought them to commemorate a trip. Some are glittery and fancy, and some are whimsical or weird; my sentimental favorites are made of construction paper or felt and date back to my girl’s preschool days.
Hanging our stockings is one of the first things we do after Thanksgiving. I still have my red felt stocking from childhood, which (as I like to tease my mom) is a typical last kid stocking … not quite as elaborate as the stockings for the first three kids. Many years ago, my crafty sister searched high and low for decorations that would enable her to made a red felt stocking for my daughter that closely mimics those earliest stockings my mom made for my siblings. (It took talent and a solid command of ‘spatial relations’ for my sister to render my daughter’s NINE-letter name in bugle beads across her stocking as my mom had done with our mercifully shorter names way back when.)
We have an Advent calendar that I try to fill before Dec. 1 with either small presents or “coupons” for fun things for my daughter.
But this year, life didn’t accommodate our traditions.
My sister was diagnosed with cancer in June, and her treatment hit a very rough patch in November and December just ahead of the Christmas season, which she dearly loves, too. The first day of December brought a short, unexpected hospital stay, the first since the early days of tests and biopsies, and after she came home, she continued to feel under the weather.
Then last week, “under the weather” became “thrown under a bus.”
Since Dec. 20th, she has spend most of her time in emergency rooms and hospital rooms; her brief return home on Dec. 23 didn’t go well, and by midday on Christmas Eve, she was in an ambulance returning to the hospital, where she was once again routed through the hours-long ER gauntlet before finally being readmitted.
Accepting the fact that she would have to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the hospital was hard — for all of the big, important reasons, as well as the less important, personal ones like Christmas Eve and Christmas Day rituals we would need to set aside.
A few hours after she was finally resting in a new hospital room on Christmas Eve, I hunkered down on the couch at home to try to muster a little Christmas joy from my not-so-decorated but still sparkling and beautiful tree.
I cranked up the soundtrack to my childhood Christmases — the album Merry Christmas by Johnny Mathis — and did feel a little Christmas spirit.
But I also ran through a list of what had not been done as usual this holiday (this could also be called a pity party):
Only a fraction of my ornaments had made it out of boxes and onto the tree.
The wreath I had bought two weeks before had a bow, but had never been hung; I couldn’t find my wreath hanger this year, and my plans to improvise with a stick-on hook and some fishing line just never panned out. Its home for the holidays became the ledge near the front door.
Our Advent calendar was never filled (the idea that I thought I could come up with 25 ideas to fill those little pockets in the middle of everything else going on now seems laughable, but I had been determined).
The stockings were never hung by the chimney with care; like the wreath, they made it close to their destination but never quite landed. The box with the stocking holders was never found and brought up from the basement, and an alternative plan I had cooked up involving stick-on hooks never materialized.
I didn’t get to finish my Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve; I had scrambled to have my daughter’s gifts ready before she left to spend Christmas with her dad on Christmas Eve morning, but I was counting on having a few hours that afternoon to shop for my family. (Shopping at the eleventh hour on Christmas Eve is also a family tradition.)
This also meant no fevered, last-minute Christmas gift wrapping or stocking stuffing close to midnight; that was a first, for sure.
I know this sounds like small potatoes, and it is in the grand scheme of what my family is facing this year. But these rituals are important to me, and I couldn’t help mourning them.
Christmas Day wasn’t much merrier than Christmas Eve. Hopeful, we arrived at the hospital yesterday morning carrying the presents from under my sister’s tree, but she felt too awful to be able to enjoy presents or much of anything else. Seeing her so miserable on Christmas morning made us all feel helpless.
All in all, it was hard to find anything merry or bright about the day.
But when I came home late last night — Christmas night — I thought of the lines above from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and I realized that like the Whos down in Whoville, Christmas had still come for us, too, just not with the usual trappings.
It came via my sister-in-law, who drove from Virginia with Christmas dinner fixings and presents to spend the holidays with us and lighten our load; when everything took such a terrible turn and we landed back at the hospital, she was with us through thick and thin.
It came via homemade macaroni and cheese brought to us by one set of friends on Christmas Eve, and again via a gourmet dinner delivered to our door by a second set of friends between hospital visits on Christmas night.
It came via bags of presents dropped off by friends, including one overflowing bag from a Jewish friend who later confessed that she couldn’t get us out of her mind in the middle of the night, remembered that Kohl’s was open 24 hours on Christmas Eve and decided to go shopping for us at 3 a.m.
It came via the cheerful, compassionate nurses and nursing assistants who took care of my sister and were away from their families on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
It came with a special delivery: A half hour after my sister was readmitted to the hospital, dear friends came and picked up my 86-year-old mom and took her to a Christmas Eve service, a bit of holiday normalcy and inspiration that was a bright spot for her in a hard day.
So we didn’t have filled stockings or present opening around the tree or a Christmas ‘Roast Beast’ all together around the table yesterday as we’d envisioned. Instead, we had the opportunity to understood better than ever the Grinch’s ephiphany that Christmas did “mean just a little bit more,” as we celebrated all of the unexpected gifts of kindness and friendship that came our way without ribbons or tags.
We are grateful.
A few fitting words from another holiday classic:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Originally published at writerskitchensink.wordpress.com on December 31, 2015; my sister Viki died on May 14, 2016.