When I was a single mom, I spent Christmas alone. No tree. No gifts. I had negotiated with my ex-husband for Thanksgiving, and gave him Christmas. His family could afford to give my daughter the Christmas that I couldn’t. No, Christmas is not all about the presents, but when you’re 6, let’s be honest, it’s all about the presents.
When I met my new husband and we blended our families, I got a new 12-year-old daughter. She came to live with my husband, my now 8-year-old daughter, and me. It would be her first Christmas away from her biological mother’s house. It was around this time that a certain phrase emerged. “We used to …”
“We used to make sugar cookies for Christmas and decorate them,” my husband said to me. So, I made sugar cookie dough. The kind you have to stick in the fridge for hours and then come back to roll it out and shape it. I botched it. It got warm beneath my frustrated rolling pin and stuck to everything. My husband tried to comfort me by saying, “I remember when we tried to make them for the first time. We screwed it up, too.” A curious knot formed in my stomach and a jealous ache attached.
“We used to make breakfast pizza, and cheesy potatoes for Christmas morning,” he said to me on a walk through the grocery store. My throat tightened. I felt like a replacement. A stand-in for some once-upon-a-time that I had nothing to with.
At home, I put the groceries in the fridge and I heard the intro of yet another anecdote beginning with, “We used to …” He started to say it, but I didn’t let him finish.
“If you’re trying to recreate something you had with someone else, then why am I here?” I asked. I wanted to create new, different memories with the man I loved and our new family. The last thing I wanted to bring into our home were traditions of some other marriage that ended badly.
He stopped unpacking a grocery sack and looked at me, “I hope you understand that all of this isn’t for me.”
The knot inside me unclenched. In his face I saw the worry that only a father could carry. This wasn’t about what he needed for his holiday. How could I have missed that?
Later, I retrieved the Christmas decorations from the basement. “I love ornaments,” the 12-year-old said to me.
Smiling, she reached into the plastic tub, looked over the decorations and pulled them out one at a time. There were crocheted ornaments and wall hangings my mother had made when I was a child. I still even had the crocheted stocking mom had made me. Ornaments I had made in school were in there as well as baby ornaments for when my 8-year-old was born. Plus, more decorations from her craft days at school.
I watched my 12-year-old grow quiet and her excitement vanished. In this tub of decorations, she didn’t exist. Her childhood ornaments and holiday memories where someplace else. I didn’t have to say the words, every item in the box screamed, “We used to … without you.”
“Great,” she said. “So, everyone’s going to have stuff to put up except me.”
She started to walk away — to retreat to her room.
“What a minute.” I said to stop her. Then, I shouted to my husband who was in the other room, “We’re going to the store.” I put her in the car and drove. I wanted to say something. My face was pinched and I was mad. What was I doing? I had no idea. All I could see was my husband’s worried face and hear his repeated attempts to save the pleasant scraps from his past for his little girl … our little girl. The now silent, angry little girl in my passenger seat. We arrived at the supermarket. I turned off the engine.
“Listen,” I said with a heavy sigh. “I can’t bring back the past, or duplicate your traditions. I can’t go get your ornaments. I wish that I could, but I can’t.”
She looked out the windshield and didn’t blink. It wasn’t like I was telling her something she didn’t already know.
“Here’s what I can do,” I said. “I can promise you that we’ll create new traditions together.” She looked at me doubtful. “Let’s go,” I said.
We got out of the car and I took her to the seasonal department of the supermarket. “Pick out some ornaments. Whichever ones you want,” I said. She looked at me and I knew it wasn’t the same, but we had to start somewhere. She went up and down the aisle and settled on a multi-pack of blue and silver ornaments of varying shapes and sizes.
At home, I opened my sewing machine. I had named it Ole Betsy because I’m pretty sure Betsy Ross used it to sew the first flag. I sewed everyone a stocking to hang over the fireplace. The 12-year-old’s had penguins on it, for the 8-year-old, cookies, and my husband’s featured bears.
While my mom was visiting, we made salt-dough ornaments. You make them like cookies. They could be baked and painted and would keep forever thanks to the salt. Well, the ones the dog didn’t eat off of the tree would keep forever anyways.
Then, the 12-year-old and I went to a local paint-and-bake ceramic studio. We painted Christmas ornaments for a family gift.
Each year since then, I’ve made the girls a Christmas ornament with their name and year on it. Some are cross-stitched and some are painted.
“For how long will I get these ornaments?” My oldest once asked me.
“Until you have babies,” I told her, “Then I’ll make the ornaments for my grandchildren.”
“I might never have kids then.” She said and I laughed.
Last year I cross-stitched an extra ornament for my now 18-year-old. It had the year 1996 on it along with her name. I gave it to her privately on Christmas Eve. “Every baby deserves a first Christmas ornament,” I told her. If I could’ve turned back time and made her mine from day one, I would have.
I’ve also mastered the sugar cookies in my own way. A friend gave me a recipe that doesn’t require the dough to be refrigerated. This works for me. I make cookies with the girls every year. I also make cheesy potatoes. Turns out they’re really good. I renegotiated my holiday schedule with my ex-husband and most years now, the 8-year-old is with us, too. I’ve gone from having Christmas alone to having a family Christmas, one with new, meaningful traditions for all of us. Sometimes the best gifts take a while to unwrap.