I am 10 years old and it’s 4am. After hours spent imagining my Christmas tree’s bounty, laying with eyes wide open straining for the sound of reindeer on the roof to prove classmates wrong (please, please let it be real!), I finally giggled myself to sleep and now wake with a start. It’s Christmas. The air is cold and my anticipation is electric, buzzing in my chest. My bare feet smack the wood floor and then calm themselves and pad quietly to the door, around the corner. I must be the first one up; I am afraid to breathe, nervous that someone else will be awake & ruin the magic, worried Santa might’ve forgotten us & the tree will be depressingly bare. My heart pounds.
I silently, stealthily turn the corner, and there it is, our tree in all her glory, filling the room with her warm glow, presents spilling out from under her like candy from a too-full bag, doubled in the window and the dark early morning sky. My eyes widen and I slowly inhale as if trying to drink it all in – this beauty, this stillness, this moment that is all mine. I am reverent, awed by the childhood sacredness of the lights, branches, brightly-patterned paper and half-eaten cookies.
Then the excitement hits. I quench a rising laugh and slide manically over the floorboards to my brother’s room. I whisper, “Alex, Alex, wake up,” I get my face right next to the pillow and his 4 year old chubby cheeks, “it’s Christmas.” Immediately he’s awake.
“He came?” His little blue eyes are filled with wonder and trust, reflecting my joy.
“He came.” Alex shrieks as he disentangles himself from the sheets and crawls out of bed. We giggle unchecked to the presents, where we can’t help but pause, drawn to inspect every one – which ones are mine? – but are overwhelmed by their giddy promises and have to move on for fear we’ll rip them all open in a delicious frenzy. We burst into my parent’s room, a cannon of screaming confetti, and clamber up on top of their no-longer-sleeping forms; they groan but smile.
The most wonderful day of the year has begun.
Last year was the first time in my life I wasn’t with family for Christmas. I can’t really complain; I was in Australia, eating pig roasted on a spit, drinking in the sunshine, swinging in a hammock, swimming under the stars. But it didn’t feel like the holidays; I just felt like it was some summer party, a fourth of July maybe, until I skyped with my family and realized what I was missing. My cousins lovely in holiday sweaters, my aunt & uncle’s festive house, my grandma, who cried at the shock of seeing me, knowing I was half the world away. My heart broke a little.
But it’s inevitable. One Christmas had to be the first on my own. Things change as you get older; there was a first Christmas my brother woke up before me, a first Christmas our parents had to wake us both up, and a first Christmas we started opening presents after getting coffee. This year, my brother’s girlfriend will probably be there & my dad probably won’t. Things change. It’s bittersweet.
My family will never again be what it was when I was 10 and awestruck by the beauty of the Christmas tree. It makes me sad (there are actually tears as I write this), but I know this is just the nature of life. There are no endings, just an ebb and flow of people growing and circumstances changing. I know my family is tied together by the strong bond of love, no matter where each of is us. And I know I carry that love with me, every day, not just on Christmas.
Last year, as I made our family’s traditional Christmas Eve pierogies for the first time on my own & from scratch, in a hot Aussie hostel kitchen, surrounded by strangers & 2-week old friendship, I felt a new kind of Christmas spirit. Not the childhood magic, not the teenage celebration or the adult anxiety, but a personal sense of Christmas. Much like standing in the stillness of the lit tree’s early morning glory, I felt a light calmness that was mine.
There will come a first Christmas where my brother stays with his new family and a first Christmas I stay with mine. There will be first Christmases in new cities and first Christmases without loved ones. That’s life. Through it all, I will carry my calmness and my joy; I will carry my family’s love and my childhood wonder.
And the little girl inside me, still believing, wide-eyed, in magic, will always seek out those early Christmas morning moments in life, to stand awed by something beautiful.