Growing up, our family didn’t have a lot of money. My sisters and I didn’t know that though, especially over the holidays. My parents created special holiday memories for us regardless of the size of their bank account.
That magic didn’t come in big, shiny, wrapped packages adorned with bows either. We didn’t arrive back to school after winter vacation wearing the latest fashions or a new watch like most of our friends. What we did have were holiday memories which held a kind of magic you can’t find in a store or the pages of the Sears catalog — and my siblings and I still cherish them.
My mom made cinnamon rolls every Christmas morning. Before we were allowed to come downstairs, she’d slide them in the oven, turn on some music, and light up the Christmas tree. I can still feel my feet walking down the stairs as I smelled those cinnamon rolls and heard that music playing. It was the same comforting sounds and the same delicious smell every Christmas morning.
People like to think you can buy anything if you have enough money, but I disagree. You can’t buy the feeling I had every Christmas morning as I kid. If you could, I’d bottle that shit and sell it everywhere because I know it would make me rich.
When I had kids of my own, all I wanted to do was make them feel the same comfort and love I felt over the holidays. The kind of comfort that still gives me goosebumps and makes my tummy do a little flip when I think about it. The kind of love you want to wrap yourself up in as tight as you can because it’s secure and warm and you never want to forget that feeling.
I had good intentions about delivering this type of cozy holiday to my children, but somewhere along the way, I veered off the path. I had a reality check when my youngest was a baby, screaming his head off in the toy aisle. I was shoving toys in the cart for my two older children just to get the shopping done. I had to find matching outfits for the parties we had to attend, then rush home and take care of all the baking I’d promised I do. I was a frantic, stressed out mess.
I looked at my son’s screaming, red face and it hit me — I wasn’t creating any kind of magic at all. I was stripping it away, trying to make things perfect by doing too much and going through the motions just to get it done. What I really wanted to be doing in that moment was to be home with my family by the tree, watching a holiday movie or letting them decorate some cookies for Santa. None of us were having fun in that toy aisle, and I wanted to join the baby and start crying too.
Thinking back on my own childhood holidays, I realized my parents were never concerned with how much they bought us, or how many events we attended, but they were concerned with how much they gave us. That giving came in the form of memories which included quiet nights baking cookies, watching It’s A Wonderful Life with a bowl of Chex Mix, and having the neighbors over for a slice of coffee cake.
They didn’t rush around trying to create something perfect. They spent quality time with us. They didn’t complain about the debt they’d accrued after buying gifts for their children, friends, neighbors, extended family and the mailman. They knew their limit and didn’t exceed it. They didn’t feel the need to put on a show; they were present and content and made it clear they were going to enjoy their holiday too.
By doing that — by slowing down and not trying to manufacture feelings through gifts, or doing all the things — they created some of the most magical memories of my life. Memories I probably wouldn’t have had they overspent and over-scheduled.
Over the holidays, our kids will remember the tone we set. They will remember if we seemed happy. They will remember if we are throwing things in our cart, clenching our jaws just to get it all done. Children can practically smell that kind of energy, even if it’s covered up by sugar and pine and fancy wrapping paper.
They’ll notice how the tree looks when it gets dark, the feeling of lying in bed listening to us wrap gifts, and the hum of our voices.
They’ll remember how we let them have the extra candy cane, even though they had already brushed their teeth.
They’ll remember a certain Christmas song as we are driving them extra slowly down the street, so they can see all the Christmas lights.
They’ll remember how they felt, not the things they received.
Perhaps getting everything on their Christmas list will make them happy for a moment, but the real magic is tucked away in the little unexpected moments.
It’s found in writing that list with the help of a parent or grandparent.
It’s found in watching you put up the Christmas wreath and smelling its familiar scent.
It’s in the taste of the French toast and the smell of the first snow and first few notes of their favorite Christmas song and helping you cut out cookies.
That’s what your kids will remember about the holidays. And now that you are a parent, that’s what you are going to remember too. Don’t forget that this year in the hustle and bustle.