This year was the year a lot of things went wrong. But it was also the year Christmas started to work.
When you spend the holidays with a big group of family or friends, little kids aren’t such a big deal. You celebrate the way you always do, you trade off with the kids, and it’s the same as every other year. But when you spend the holidays with just your little family and your family has only one adult, the formula changes.
At our house we have thrown out most of the holiday trappings. I don’t spend hours working on a big meal, partly because it’s hard to do while also keeping an eye on kids, and mostly because the kids wouldn’t eat any of it anyway. And the traditions I’ve wanted to put in place haven’t always worked, little kids are fickle and everyone has to be treated the same and that just isn’t always going to fly.
But this year! This year we kind of got it.
I didn’t put in a lot of extra effort this year. Actually the week before Christmas was really awful, a pile-up of bad thing after bad thing. So I came into the weekend with a bare minimum of plans. What I remembered, though, was my previous attempts at starting holiday traditions that crashed and burned because the kids were not interested. So this year we had traditions, but like much of our lives, they were simple and low key.
We bought a real tree this year. We’ve never had one before, and it was definitely a sacrifice this year in particular since the move has money tighter than usual, but it looks great. The kids helped me pick out ornaments and a star for under $30 and a few leftover ornaments from previous years plus gifted ornaments from friends meant we had a real tree decorating this year.
A few more presents than usual under the tree this year, thanks in large part to our family and friends. I know the kids will be happy. I'm so glad there are so many people who love them. Every year Christmas Eve is a bittersweet night, just as December is a bittersweet month. I scrimp and save to make sure I can put a few presents under the tree. And tonight I sit, alone, wrapping them, knowing it is another year that I'm doing this by myself. This year in particular has been hard, and I'm glad we've made it. It was our best Christmas Eve yet, the year traditions finally took root and began to stick. Our little family will be okay.
One tradition I’ve been committed to doing with the kids is one my parents started. If you don’t give allowances and budgets are tight, kids can still give gifts with little money and risk with one simple trip: the dollar store. This one mostly worked, but neither Graham nor Tessa likes being alone. At all. And since secrecy is part of the deal, logistics were a little tricky. But each of them got two dollars to buy a gift for each other and for me. Dollar store gifts mean expectations are low, but the impact was really there this year. They both kept talking about the gifts they’d chosen, I had to tell them about a hundred times, “It’s a secret!” They were just really excited. Graham had me open my present from him before he opened any gifts himself. And while Tessa got me a card with a kitten on it “for a favorite niece,” I’m calling it a win.
Christmas Eve pajamas are always a win. You can take that to the bank.
After we opened pj’s, I decided to do a Christmas Eve dinner that was different and fun, but still the kind of stuff my kids actually like. So I got a bunch of red and green veggies (bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cucumber, celery), cut them up, and served them with a big bowl of ranch (and hummus for me) to eat while we watched Muppet Christmas Carol. The kids were thrilled to eat on the couch and enjoyed the dipping. I was just happy they ate and that it took only a little while to prep.
I stayed up after the kids went to bed to wrap presents and watch White Christmas, a little tradition of mine ever since the divorce. In the past it’s been bittersweet, but this year I was just used to it, it was the thing I always do, so it felt better. I thought about cooking our Christmas breakfast (strawberry muffins, settled upon after a few other efforts that flopped) then but ultimately decided the kids would eat the candy from their stockings in the morning anyway and no one would be wanting breakfast until at least 10. Which was 100% accurate.
I let Christmas Day just be. The kids enjoyed their new things, we went to a movie, we had a normal dinner. What makes my kids happy is routine, safety, comfort, so we had enough of normal with special thrown in to keep everybody happy.
Christmas was Sunday, the kids were staying until Wednesday, and there would be no reinforcements. No school, no camp, no childcare, just me and them. The holidays are notoriously awful to try and do a big thing with your kids to get out of the house because everyone else had the same idea. So I was trying to think of ways for us to use the time. I planned a few activities.
But in the end, we didn’t do most of them. Because we were fine. Everyone got along. I gave one time out. I didn’t need to yell and only a couple times had to be called in to mediate or separate. Instead we were all just good.
Sure, I let them eat more candy than usual. I let them watch TV. I let them play video games. Because if not Christmas break, when? Everyone was in a good mood. We listened to music. Tessa and I played card games over and over again. Graham gave me regular updates on his video game status. Everyone was just good.
I took family pictures, which was a hilarious undertaking. Turns out my camera doesn’t take a wireless remote and no one carried a wired remote in the store so I had to use a self-timer. I also couldn’t find my tripod so I had to set it on a chair, squat down to make sure it was in the right place, hit the button, jump up, sit back down, pull the kids in close, and hope it turned out. Did that about 20 times. The kids were great sports, though. And I need to do it more often.
The kids left and I didn’t feel tired or worn out or in need of quiet time. I realized I had days left in me, which is much better than I usually feel, even when everyone has school or I keep the kids for a short time.
I was on my own for New Year’s Eve but had an invitation to go out and took it. I danced in the year and it felt good.
This year was not an easy one. It was not a good one. There were not personal victories. In many ways I accomplished less than the previous year. But this last week was a reminder that there have been lots of little good things along the way, there have been bright spots in the thick darkness.
I do not have a milestone or accomplishment to present as my 2016 thing. I had hoped to finish the first draft of my novel this year but realized this summer that it wasn’t going to happen and made peace with that. Life gets in the way and that is nothing new. But that manuscript is over 80,000 words and I did most of that work this year. If I was going to pick one thing this year that I’m proud of, it’s that this year I decided to act like a person who is a real writer. I call myself a writer. I think of myself as a writer. And the funny thing about that is that you start to believe it eventually, even if I don’t feel like I have a lot to show for my writing this year. It’s a long process, it’s a tough process, and I’m squeezing it into the small openings in my life and that is okay.
I am not approaching 2017 with any particular goal (though I would really like to start my 2nd draft by June). I am not going to say that it will definitely be better than last year. If 2016 taught me anything, it’s that thinking you are on an upward swing doesn’t mean anything. Things can turn bad quickly and they can stay that way regardless of how hard you work or how much you deserve. I’m building a life and I just want to keep laying bricks this year. And that will be enough no matter what happens.