Happy holiday season, everyone. As the stress of shopping and baking and decorating and running around threatens to take over our holiday cheer and interrupt our peace and joy, I thought this piece (which I originally shared on December 12, 2011) was a timely re-post. And some necessary food for thought. Enjoy!
I should probably clarify right away that, overall, I am not anti-Christmas. I even love the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, not because he is an angry, nasty little miser, but because he eventually sees the beauty of humanity that often comes alive at this time of year - and more importantly, he realizes his own capacity for growth and compassion in the process. I love that, despite the anger and hatred that often seem to permeate our world on a daily basis, this time of year inspires people to give -- and not just material gifts, but time, and service, and genuine human connection.
But last year at this time, something out of the ordinary did happen, and I have found myself thinking about it over the last week or so, amidst all the twinkling and sparking and jingling. I was in Plattsburgh visiting my family a few days before Christmas, and while my parents were at work and my brother was busy, I sat at Panera enjoying a hot coffee, an internet connection (much faster than my parents' dial-up), and a two-hour block of time to write. The restaurant was packed, but I had been fortunate enough to find a corner table by an electrical outlet - my own little pre-Christmas miracle. And since I was trapped in a writer's nightmare - time to write and nothing to write about - I was happy to watch groups of people parade by with their packages and their soup/salad combos and their animated conversations. Something would give birth to an idea if I just sat. And sipped. And observed. Patiently.
At about 2pm, a frazzled mother walked by with two very young, very tired children. While the little boy screamed and cried, the little girl pulled on her mother and threw herself into chairs and tables to relieve the indescribable stress of childhood. Suddenly, without a word, the children switched roles - the little boy began slapping himself and falling into walls and garbage cans while the little girl started screaming and pleading for toys and cookies and princess shoes. And then there was mom - loaded down with bags and soup bowls and sippy cups and a very large, ergonomically destructive purse. She threatened to topple as she lumbered past me, and she almost seemed to prefer lying face down on a Panera floor to dealing with her very normal-for-their-age-and-situation kids.
As a childless woman of 37, I sympathized with the mom on some level, even as I wondered what would possess anyone to trek around town on the Friday before Christmas with two little ones who should have eaten lunch (and probably taken a nap) hours ago. But I get it - daycare isn't always an option. And isn't this, at least theoretically, supposed to be part of the seasonal joy? Shopping and lunching with one's children, surrounded by the splendid wonder of Christmas tidings and lightly falling snow?
I'll save you some time on this one: The answer is No.
But I didn't realize it before that moment. Not really. Let me be clear here - I am generally not a "grass is greener" kind of person - only because I have found that, from afar, weeds tend to be greener than grass. It isn't til you are up close and personal with the lovely shade of "greener" that you realize it's non-grass, often covered in fertilizer, or waiting to be plucked and discarded from someone's carefully manicured lawn. That being said, I do have a habit of romanticizing parenthood. I've often wondered whether I made a mistake by choosing not to have children. And then, something like this plays out in front of me and reminds me of the reality: Children are wonderful, beautiful miracles - a good thing since they are exhausting, and expensive, and an unending litany of needs and demands and anxiety-provoking behaviors. They are, after all, human beings.
Of course, none of this logic hit me at that moment. I was too caught up in the scene unfolding, the mother's eyes beginning to water, the children exploding in a cacophony of wails, the eyerolls and speedy exits of the other diners whose "tsk tsk" nods further condemned the already defeated mother as she plopped first the boy, then the girl into red, plastic booster seats and shoved them as close to the table as possible. I didn't think things could possibly get worse, until I watched the little girl pick up her mother's bowl of soup and turn it over on top of the table.
Time stopped. Noodles and chicken hit the floor, landing in puddles of their own broth. The green ceramic bowl sat, inverted, in front of the victorious little girl whose Grinch-like grin curled her mouth upward and forced her eyebrows into a sinister arch. I couldn't move. I didn't know whether to help or look away or leave. And shamefully, I admit, I was most curious to see how mom intended to handle a maneuver that would have paralyzed me.
And that was when it happened. Mom yanked her little girl's arm, looked directly into the child's face, and screamed through the tears leaping two at a time out of her eyes: "SANTA ISN'T COMING THIS YEAR!"
All I could do was join in the collective gasp as everyone in the restaurant (who hadn't already retreated to the quiet parking lot) recoiled and immediately slapped a "Worst Mother of the Year" label on this woman's soul. How could a mother say such a thing? How would these children ever enjoy Christmas now? What about a simple "Time Out" or going to bed without dessert? Or what about feeding these children lunch at a decent hour and navigating the crowds with two children in tow a little more strategically?
But as I sat in judgment, another thought arrived, replacing the all-too-familiar critical voice of a non-parent: This woman, this tired, overwhelmed, vilified woman, was Santa. And she didn't get to go away to a toy shop and hang out with elves and show up once a year to be adored and idolized. She was Santa every day. Unless she was busy playing the role of Tooth Fairy. Or Easter Bunny. Or Nurse/Taxi/Chef/Coach/Teacher/Housekeeper/All-knowing, Never-sleeping, Rarely-eating ... Mom.
For a moment, I met her eyes and tried to tell her, with the nonverbal glance of a non-mom who would never speak her language, that I understood. Not her situation, of course. But her defeat. And her desire to give up. She glared at me as if to scream "What the hell do you know about my life?!" and she was, of course, very right. I knew enough to know that I knew nothing. Not about her life, anyway.
At that moment, a Panera employee showed up with a broom and a pile of napkins - he could have been a knight on a white horse for all the fuss this mother made. She wept and thanked him and apologized over and over while she helped him clean her messy life off the table and floors. Her children simply watched in silence.
It took me a year to write about this - probably becase I felt some sense of voyeuristic shame as I watched it happen, refusing to look away, unable to walk away. But as the holiday season continues to envelop us day by day, I am reminded that the spirit of Christmas is really what we make it. Some of us play Santa. Some of us play Scrooge. Some of us bake and shop and wrap. Some of us sing and party and travel. But no matter what our roles and regardless of our beliefs, we all want Santa to show up with gifts. And it is my hope that whether you are a four year old child in need of a nap, or a forty year old mother in need of a break, or even a kid from 1 to 92, that your Santa Claus knows where to find you. My guess is, your gifts have already arrived, you just haven't gone looking for them yet.
May your holidays and your new year ahead be filled with happiness and peace ... and perhaps a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup.