Most people take a few weeks to get ready for Christmas. We had one day, a hazard of living in two places. At 51 though not all that old yet (I keep telling myself), I still have energy (most of the time), also excitement (pretty much) about life and its tasks. Ironic that vacations and holidays become tasks, a series of jobs to get done in order to be able to take a break from work. I’m thinking too many of my adult Christmases required too much work. Part of my problem comes from being such a transient, taking work in such far-flung locales as Bombay or Louisiana. I suspect travel only magnifies the already considerable work of a holiday like Christmas, like shopping, cooking, cleaning, being hospitable.
One Christmas when we lived in Louisiana, me a pastor, my wife the mother of two young boys and a baby girl, we exerted tremendous effort to finally celebrate the holiday. As clergyman and church organist wife, our weeks and days before Christmas were full of services and events. They all took time to plan, time to do, and time to recuperate from. The penultimate service, glorious Christmas eve, was always the best (the carols, the joy), and the worst (it ended after midnight), because after we finally dragged ourselves home, exhausted, we still had to put overly excited children to bed (after hanging stockings and setting out the milk and cookies) fill the stockings, and assemble whatever gifts still needed it, tasks that sometimes moved our bedtime to 1:30 or 2:00, a tough proposition for a pair of church professionals needing to lead yet another service at 10 the next morning after seeing what Santa brought us, feeding and clothing our energetic young Christmas-hyped children (and ourselves) and going to church. Whew!
The year I’m remembering, we had purchased, a few days before Christmas, parts to turn our regular passenger VW van into a camper with beds and cabinets. On top of every other Christmas thing we had to do we installed these parts, needed for the low-cost, convenient, overnight rest at a campground four hours into the 12 hour drive to my parents home where we planned to arrive late on the 26th. Most people pack their car for a trip. We remodeled it.
We somehow got through Christmas, somehow got the work done: the services, the children, the presents, then the packing for five, (but definitely no cleaning: every room of the house was littered with wrapping paper, dirty clothes, toys), the last minute checks, and (deep exhalation) we’re all in the van (I’m all in, in the van), minute one of a 12 hour trip. Four hours later we pulled into a campsite and before I could turn the engine off, the van died. The engine simply stopped. And as we all finally snuggled into our sleeping bags (trying not to worry too much about the engine), my wife asked if I thought, as she did, that our four month old daughter had a fever. I did. In a campground in the middle of nowhere, in a van that might not start, exhausted from a four hour drive after a blizzard of Christmas work, and now, with our baby girl feverish, we laid our heads on our pillows and bid that Christmas day a not very fond farewell.
The next morning, we started the van by rolling it down a hill directly in front of where we’d parked it and, popping it into gear (good-ole VW van!), we were on our way. For the entire 500 mile trip we didn’t stop the engine even to re-fill the gas tank. For eight or so long, anxious hours we entertained children, cared for the baby (she wasn’t too sick), and drove north, not sure when the van would die again. Finally, a mile from my folks’ house, with an impressive sound like chains being dragged across a large metal object, the van stopped not to move again until towed to the garage, not to move on its own for the three weeks it took to have the engine rebuilt.
This story continues (see New Years), but the point at the moment is that so many Christmases required a hefty sacrifice of work, a down payment in advance of receiving the holiday itself. I could grouse (we did drive for nine hours after all) but this year was not even close to that earlier one. After leaving work a little early on the 23rd and fighting dense Washington traffic, the two of us, plus cat, drove all the way to Indianapolis, arriving a little after 2 a.m. A few hours later, we started Christmas prep from scratch, buying food we’d need to host 14 for Christmas dinner the next day, buying, putting up, and decorating the tree, cleaning the house and getting ready for church and extended family in the evening. Routine holiday work, small potatoes compared with the days of yore I mentioned above. I think those days with a thousand things to do were some of the richest, most memorable times of my life though exhausting, hard and anxiety-ridden at the time.
This year for my Christmas work I get to drive around and buy groceries, joined by my married adult daughter (the one with the fever on that long-ago Christmas night). We chat and laugh and reminisce about Christmases past while buying the ham, the cheeses, the vegetables and wine and bargaining the tree seller down a tad. Soon we’ll be back home, decorating the tree, setting out snacks, washing a few last dishes, getting ready for the evening, for dinner, for presents. The best present, worth all the work to get it but available for free, is the love of dear ones and of the One born on Christmas Day.