I remember those sleepless nights of childhood as Christmas approached. A fresh-cut pine tree adorned our family room. Christmas lights and lots of tinsel glowed in the dim evenings of a warm holiday home. My mother pinned Christmas card along the folds of the living room curtains. She baked cookies for days.
On one of the last nights the week before Christmas, we would pile into our car and drive around our little hometown and look at the Christmas lights on the houses. It was often too hot in the car, with my sisters and sometimes my cousins all squashed together, but it was part of our routine.
Then, the night before presents were opened, we put up our stockings and laid out homemade cookies for Santa Claus. Then my mother tucked my sisters and me into bed, rubbed our backs, and sang Christmas carols to try to help us sleep.
You know the rest. The cookies were gone in the morning, crumbs littering the plate. We opened presents, visited relatives, opened more presents, and eventually returned to a house full of torn wrapping paper and exhausted family members. Often, at least one of us broke a toy before Christmas day was even over.
Somewhere along the way that part of Christmas was replaced by the joy I saw in giving presents to my family members – making things for them or shopping with my own money to buy just the things I thought would bring smiles to their faces.
Then that magic changed, too. It was the excitement I saw in my own children as I rubbed their backs on Christmas Eve and sang carols to them that brought me joy. The magic for me was their excitement as each present was opened and most of their wish-list was acquired.
But once again, the magic changed. I began to find enjoyment in seeing them find joy in giving and in the thoughtfulness they put into their presents to each other.
I suppose the magic will change again as I get older, wiser, and learn more about the world, but there is a common theme, of course, and that is joy. I used to think the magic was the joy of getting presents. Then I became more sophisticated and believed the joy was in the giving. But in reality, it is both of these things and more.
It is the joy of seeing relatives, the joy of eating too much and eating foods we don’t have very often. It is the joy of shopping, wrapping, and watching those presents under the tree until Christmas morning. It is Christmas carols and lights and a time of year when people who ordinarily wouldn’t speak to one another say hello and look for the positive in their lives.
It is fascinating how many lessons about life can be learned from Dr. Seuss. “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” is one of my favorites. As nearly everyone knows, the closing lines note that when Christmas came, “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags!”
But Dr. Seuss got it wrong by just a little bit. The packages, boxes, and bags are important if only as part of the mosaic that is Christmas. Packages are icons just like Christmas lights, Christmas carols, and cookies on coffee saucers.
Your childhood routine was undoubtedly different from mine and your adult routine is probably as different from childhood as mine is. But whatever your routine, enjoy your family. Christmas comes whether we have presents or not because the real present is the process.
Love your children. Enjoy the lights in their eyes, and have a very merry Christmas.
[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., a regular columnist for the Healthwise section of this newspaper, is also a college professor, a licensed counselor and an author of “Survivors: What We Can Learn From How They Cope With Horrific Tragedy.” His website is gregmoffatt.com.]