I love Christmas. I really do. The bright lights, the pretty paper and ribbons, the snow, the hymns and carols, the smell of pine boughs and baking cookies. I love it all.
But, I can easily become overwhelmed and crazed this time of year, rushing around, feeling like I need to buy the perfect Christmas gift for everyone I've ever met in my entire life.
When I catch myself again creating unrealistic expectations for the holidays, I take a deep breath, close my eyes and think back to my favorite Christmas memories, the ones that bring a broad smile to my face.
Not one of them involves a present.
I remember sitting on the floor as mom unpacked her Christmas village, helping her turn the cotton, twinkling lights and glittery cardboard Putz houses from her childhood into a winter wonderland on our coffee table. Over the years, she added ceramic and plastic houses to her village, joking it had become more of a city, and every year I'd ask her to tell me the story behind each piece.
I remember helping mom roll the braciole for our Christmas feast, sneaking tastes of her spaghetti sauce and snitching black olives from the relish tray I was in charge of preparing. Dad would laugh as I told them I felt sorry for my friends who had to have turkey and ham on Christmas instead of gnocchi and cavatelli, who had to eat cookies instead of cannoli. "So do I, pumpkin, so do I!" he'd say.
I remember driving around Northeast Ohio the weekend between Christmas and New Year's with mom, dad and my brother, looking at Christmas lights. This became a tradition when I was older, when P.J. and I were in college. Mom oohed and aahed at the light displays while the rest of us feigned boredom and annoyance at being dragged along. Actually, that was one of the few times the four of us were together those days, and we loved that car ride. Somehow we always ended up at a Mexican restaurant, where we talked and laughed so hard, I had tears running down my face.
I remember sitting in the living room with my father, with all the lights off except for the tree, and Bing Crosby singing in the background. Dad rarely talked about his childhood, but something about the Christmas tree always made him nostalgic. I cherished those quiet winter evenings filled with stories of my dad's life before me.
With mom and dad both gone, those memories become more precious to me every year, more valuable than anything I could find in a box or gift bag. And remembering them helps me remember that the best gift I can give those I love today is my time and my love.
So make some memories this year. Build a snowman. Read Christmas stories aloud. Bake cookies and don't worry about the mess. Go caroling around your neighborhood. Make snow angels. Drive around and look at the lights. Tell stories. And laugh.
I guarantee those are the gifts you'll remember long after the gizmos and gadgets are thrown away. And so will your family and friends.