A mother of three copes with the stress of the Christmas season

(Photo by Lauren Thomas)

I promised the kids that we’d have the wreath on Dec. 1, and by golly I was going to keep that promise. Off we went to the Wallkill View Farm Market. Of course, they wanted the biggest wreath with all the bling. Seamus wanted the one with the royal blue ribbon that was bigger than our front door, Taj the wreath with the chartreuse green ribbon and multicolored pine cones, Zofia the wreath all glittered in gold. I gently convinced them that a smaller, more traditional one was the way to go. We toured the rows of Christmas trees, drank hot chocolate by the farm market fireplace, perused all of the backroom holiday-decoration eye candy and headed back across the flats to hang the wreath on the door.

I felt accomplished. It was only Dec. 1 and we had a wreath! Not only that, but my Mom’s friend gave us some fresh greens, which I promptly put in two vases and the smell of pine was in the house. I put all of the fetid, squirrel-chewed pumpkins in the compost, tore down the kids’ hand-drawn turkeys, put away the Halloween-themed tablecloth and thought, “Wow! I’m really on top of things this year.”

Now it’s Dec. 12, with Christmas less than two weeks away; the greens are drying up, the wreath twisted to the side, the kids’ letters to Santa that they began writing in October and revised multiple times are not on their way to the North Pole nor to the store, but stacked in a pile in my bottom desk drawer.


No tree, no lights, no stockings hung by the chimney with care. Every Christmas I tell myself — and pledge to my closest friends, who have to listen to my last-minute panic — that “Next year I’m going to start earlier!” And each year, exhausted, thankful that we pulled it off, I mean it. I really do, but then…life just gets in the way of the smooth, Advent-calendarlike lead-up to the Big Day.

“How did my parents do this with such grace?” I think to myself. But then I wonder: Maybe it wasn’t graceful at all for them; maybe, like us, they just made it look that way for my sister and me. The more I reflected, the more I remember the fights over the tree: my sister and I always wanting the biggest one, my father explaining patiently (then less patiently) that we didn’t have a “G–damn cathedral ceiling,” nor were we “made out of money,” and that “This one will do just fine!”

My mother, hating the cold, gave up and waited in our station wagon, singing along with her soprano voice to the Christmas tunes on the radio. Then the lights: Oh the lights, the tree tipping, sometimes falling as my sister and I struggled to wrap them around while our Dad tried to shove the trunk into a too-small, rusted tree-stand. Out he’d go, dragging the tree with him, starting up the chainsaw to shave more height off of our tree. “No! It’s too small!” we’d scream.

My Mom would play the album of her boarding-school winter concert, pointing out her solo every time. My sister and I lobbied for more tinsel, the multicolored lights that blink on and off, but had to settle for only one pack of tinsel and lights that not only did not blink, but often wouldn’t light up at all, as our Dad searched for that one little bad bulb that was causing the entire green plastic strand of lights to go haywire.

This was part of it, part of the magic — because, no matter how imperfect our Christmas preparations were, the morning of Dec. 25 always came, the stockings were filled, the tree was standing, there were some presents from Santa and the plateful of cookies that we left out for him was gone.

Thinking back now, it was no wonder that my parents would let us wake at any hour and go through our stockings with the sole condition that we did not wake them until 9 a.m. That must have been some night for them. I know it is for me. My husband enjoys the Christmas rituals that we have, and like any parent beams when the kids squeal with joy upon opening a gift they had wished for. But having grown up in Communist Poland, where the only gift received was a package from the government (in good years) with candles, a ration of chocolate, tangerines and bottle of vodka, most of the preparation is left up to me.

As we pulled into town from a four-day swim meet in Boston at 1 a.m. this past Sunday night, I winced in my chlorine haze as we turned onto Prospect Street. I secretly prayed that our neighbors — particularly my best friend Kristen across the street — had not spent the weekend decorating, Christmas lights flickering from already-decorated trees, garlands wrapped around porches, pine trees glistening with festive white lights, Nativity scenes on front lawns that would only make our house look darker, sad, spiritless. No!

God bless Prospect Street and my best friend, because her porch was not yet aglow; and maybe my neighbors are as behind the eight ball as I am. Phew! And the one present I ordered had arrived! Although the cardboard box was soggy from rain, the contents were there, and I quickly threw it into a closet before the kids stumbled out of the car and into bed.

Now, that’s one present for one child, when there are three children and multiple lists: one for Santa and one for “Mom and Dad.” Oddly enough, not one of those lists states, “All I want from Santa is for the mortgage to be paid on time.”

The lists are funny. They say a lot about each child. Seamus, 12, is very thought-out. He wants a TYR swim parka, which he Googled and wrote the sale price next to; an iTunes gift card; and a pair of skinny jeans (as if he weren’t skinny enough!).

Now the list of Taj, our 10-year-old surfer dude, was a bit more scattered. On there is an “Alien Conquest Lego Set,” a “cool hat,” boxers, some “good books,” a basketball and “the koala thing I got last year or a different animal because I lost mine.” That just made me smile.

Now onto our 8-year old, Zoe, who’s a little girl living in mostly a boys’ world. “Pretty pajamas, earrings, a soft pink sweatshirt, new markers, a drawing pad, hair-ties and fuzzy slippers. P.S. Santa: My Mom hates Barbies, but I really like them, can I have just one? It doesn’t have to be blonde.”

That slew me. Of course you can have a Barbie (even though I hate them), but I know that the boys will end up using it to fight with, and then you’ll cry and we’ll lose those annoying miniature shoes and silly Velcro clothing and…

Wait. It’s Dec. 12! How am I going to get these things and write for the paper, coach swimming all week, get a tree and find the decorations that are buried in the shed? Calling all angels!

But you know what? They always answer — somehow, some way. As I close our kids’ bedroom door, I think to myself, “They’re healthy, they’re happy, they’re loving beings; and really, what other gift could one ask for?”

Dec. 25 always comes; the stockings are hung…we don’t have a chimney, but my grandmother hand-sewed them, and they are certainly treated with care. The tree will be up, even if we cut it from our backyard the night before; the lights will be strung (as long as the Central Hudson bill is paid); and I know that St. Nicholas will arrive, with or without the Barbie. Zoe will be happy with slippers, Seamus with a parka and Taj with a Lego set, maybe some new boxers and of course, a “cool hat.”

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a healthy, happy, peaceful Christmas night. ++