I grew up knowing that there was no home on earth that celebrated Christmas better than mine. Our Christmas Eves were so rich in tradition that I think I anticipated that night more than Christmas morning itself. By the time Christmas Eve had rolled around our large assortment of eclectic Christmas decorations were each secured in their traditional spots, our thirteen uniquely handmade stockings knit from my Grandmother hung from the fireplace, and each of us would eagerly gather in the family room for sibling gifts and a chance to open a new pair of pajamas.
Christmas Eve was simply magical. It was the time we delivered our brightly frosted and overly embellished sugar cookies to our neighbors and anticipated the annual neighborhood caroling where all the neighbors gathered around a bonfire centered at the fork in the road of our street. We bundled up with coats and scarves sometimes leaving just our mouths exposed for singing and sipping hot chocolate. We sang songs about Rudolph, sleigh bells and the baby Jesus as the lightly falling snow would perfectly dust our narrow streets. Everything about Christmas Eve was absolutely perfect. It was everything I wanted and everything I thought Christmas was all about.
Christmas Eve on 1984 forever changed the way I think of Christmas. It was only an hour or so before the neighbors would gather together for caroling that an ambulance quietly pulled up to our driveway to take my Dad back to the hospital. My family had so anticipated having him home for Christmas. His hospital stays had been too frequent and this year, all my family really wanted was to be together for Christmas. His health had rapidly declined in the few days he was home and left him weak and unable to speak. I think we all felt defeated as we wondered if the cancer he had successfully battled three years previously had returned.
I jumped in the car with my oldest brother, Chris, and we followed the ambulance to the hospital. Being the middle child in a large family seldom gave room for time alone with my Dad. Through his sickness my Mom and my older siblings spent many days caring for him at home and in the hospital. The previous few years when he was hospitalized for surgery and cancer treatment my brothers often took turns sleeping on the couch in his room so they could care for him. My contribution usually came at home babysitting my younger brothers and sisters. Something that night, however, felt different. I knew I needed to go to the hospital to be where he was.
Back at home, my Mom was in an impossible situation. For three years she tried to balance being the caretaker and support to my Dad, while also being a mother to me and my ten siblings. Just days before she had brought my dad home so we could all celebrate Christmas together. My baby brother had just turned three and my little sisters were not much older and she wondered how in the world she could leave them alone again, especially on Christmas Eve.
As if her thoughts were instinctively known, the phone rang. It was our next door neighbor who had seen the ambulance lights. She told my Mom that Christmas had come early and gifts for the children would be arriving on the doorstep. Within moments, Santa bells rang from the front porch and on the doorstep sat three of the newest and most coveted toy of the season, Cabbage Patch Dolls, one boy and two girls. Surely they had been dolls meant for her son and two daughters who were the same age as my younger siblings. My little brother and sister were thrilled and consumed with their new gifts which gave my mom a chance to exit quickly to the hospital, knowing she was leaving happy children at home.
I’m not sure whether it was because it was Christmas Eve, or just the circumstance of our arrival, but everything in the hospital felt cold and dreary when we arrived. It certainly didn’t feel anything like Christmas. I walked with my brother down the hall and found my Dad. His appearance had changed the last few years. Cancer had taken a toll on his once strong body and his dark, thick hair taken by the treatments, was now coming in sparse and gray (although he would contend it was more like a shade of blonde). My Dad had the best sense of humor and I knew he would be joking around, trying to lighten the situation for others if he were able, but tonight he was not.
I stared out the window into the black sky. We were a night’s sleep from our traditional Christmas morning line up. In anticipation and only by the glow of the blinking Christmas lights we would line up youngest to oldest on the stairs and wait as my Dad went to check to “see if Santa came” that year. The smell of the breakfast casserole cooking in the oven couldn’t tempt us to eat until after our gifts were open. In the family room we all had our designated place where our gifts were gathered, even the one that was left unwrapped from Santa.
With eleven children taking turns opening presents seemed to make the morning last forever. My Dad would walk around with a big black garbage bag picking up all of the wrapping and making jokes about the bomb that seemed to have gone off in the room. Some of us would spend the day in our pajamas while others tried on their new clothes. We would play games together, eat turkey and ham sandwiches and open the gifts hidden in our knitted stockings that hung from the mantel. These were the days that met every childhood expectation.
When I turned to look at my Dad, I suddenly realized we were alone. Approaching his bedside, the tears started flowing. My Dad loved his children with everything that he was. He was: funny, smart, courageous and faithful to the end. He was dedicated to our family in every way, including his determination to “lick” the cancer that threatened to take him from us. He couldn’t speak, but looked at me intently. “I love you Dad. You have been the greatest father and more than I could have ever asked for.” With all the strength he could muster he turned his cheek so I could kiss him over and over. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” I told him again and again.
By the time my mom and my older siblings arrived, my Dad was rapidly fading as each breath he took was greatly labored. Each person there including my Dad’s mother, all had a chance to express their love to him. Then, just as my mind was coming to the realization that he might not make it, he quietly slipped away. Silence in the room was only broken with tears and quiet sobbing. As difficult as it was to comprehend his passing, it has been even more difficult to explain the peace that filled his hospital room that night, which lingered with our family for weeks. My Dad was gone, but it felt as if he were still there with his arms wrapped around our family in love.
The snow was lightly falling as we arrived in our dark, quiet home early Christmas morning. My mom knew she would soon have the task of telling all of my younger brothers and sisters that our Dad wouldn’t be coming home. When everyone awoke she gathered us around on my parent’s king sized bed and said, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is your Dad is out of pain. The bad news is he won’t be coming home; he has gone to live with our Heavenly Father. Today is a day we think about baby Jesus and everything he has given to us. He has given us the greatest gift of all. Do you think you could possibly give Jesus a gift today by letting your Dad go back to be with him?”
From that day on, Christmas changed for our family. Our seasonal traditions stayed the same. In fact, last year a few of us made it back to our old neighborhood for caroling with the neighbors, but since that Christmas many years ago, we have a greater focus on the real blessings and meaning of Christmas. Many Christmas Eve’s that followed were sure to bring a kind act of service from a neighbor. Instead of Cabbage Patch Dolls, hams were left on our front steps, or envelopes with anonymous donations were tucked away in our mailbox. One year we even received a five course meal from a lady up our street with ten children of her own.
The love and generosity that comes at Christmas time has always astounded me. Since that year, I have reflected often that sometimes in life we are asked to give gifts that come at great personal sacrifice, while other times our gift is to receive the offering of another. The giving and receiving of these gifts is symbolic of the gift we were given years ago sung about at neighborhood bonfires and churches around the world. When the Savior’s love permeates our souls it can heal our pain and mend our hearts. It prompts us to push selfishness aside and act instinctively on behalf of another. At fifteen years old, I realized it is the gift of the baby Jesus that brings goodwill to our relationships, hope to our future, and magic to our Christmas.
“How silently, how silently, The wondrous Gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.”
-By Becky Foster
-Art by Margaret Tarrant