For the first time since I left Washington, D.C., for Colorado four years ago, I am spending Christmas with my three boys, two daughters-in-law and grandchildren -- all nine of them -- under one roof. In the intervening years, it has been a hodgepodge of spending Thanksgiving with one family, Christmas with another, floating from house to house. I missed the joy of spending the day cooking my special dishes in my own kitchen and having everyone gather in the afternoon in a house smelling of cranberries and turkey and wild-rice and sausage stuffing. But this year, we will be back around the same table in a small farmhouse in Fort Valley, Virginia. As lovely as Colorado is, the Virginia countryside beckons when holidays arrive.
But as the day approached, I realized it is not just Christmas dinner that I miss. I miss the fun of buying Christmas presents -- actual presents -- for the kids. Now the grandkids all want gift cards so they can pick their own gifts. But hitting a few keystrokes on my computer just isn't the same as spending time looking for just the right present.
When my boys were young, Christmas shopping entailed days strolling the malls in search of the gifts each boy had on his list. I would take time off from work and head for the malls with my friend Andy. He had no children, but he loved to shop for his nieces and nephews and friends' kids. We'd start in the morning and make a day of it, with a nice celebratory lunch thrown in. I've never been much of a shopper, but with Andy at my side, the day became an adventure.
Inevitably, the latest Nintendo game or car set or new Lego creation would be hard to come by, necessitating our moving rapidly from one store to another, sometimes arriving just as another shopper reached for the last cherished item off the shelf. There was no resorting to the Internet to find what you wanted. But the image in my mind of a disappointed boy on Christmas morning kept me going, even when my feet were aching and my temper was wearing thin. If the toy wasn't available in one store or mall, there was always another one a few steps or a short drive away.
Giving is one of the great pleasures of Christmas. It is the way we show appreciation and love. It is the one day of the year when we both give and receive. And though gift giving is not the only or even the most important part of Christmas, it is surely an essential one. It's about sharing what we have with those who are near and dear.
When my boys were young, I looked forward to getting up early Christmas morning to watch them opening their gifts under the tree. With wrapping paper flying and shrieks of delight filling the room, it was always the happiest moment of the year. I miss those days, more with each passing year.
It's never possible to re-create the past, but this Christmas I am hoping to capture at least a faint glimmer of that old joy. The grandkids will all get their gift cards, but I spent the week shopping, as well. I want Christmas presents under the tree, just little ones -- pocket games, cars, Lego sets, art supplies, jewelry-making kits, things to keep them occupied while I make Christmas dinner.
I'm keeping the cooking simple, cutting out a few dishes that I loved but the kids barely touched, the Waldorf salad and yam and apple casserole. And I stopped at Costco to pick up fancy disposable plates; the farmhouse is 200 years old with a kitchen from the '50s and no dishwasher. We'll have to set up some folding tables to accommodate 16, but with the temperature in the 70s, we may end up using the picnic table outside.
It won't be our old Christmas, but perhaps this year will mark the beginning of a new tradition. We will all be together again, kids playing, parents stuffed and everyone thankful for the love of family.