Today I was watching a movie with the kids. It was a Christmas movie about how Santa had a daughter and she became the new Santa when he passed on. One of her lines really touched my heart. She was explaining to her friend that “traditions change.” This was like a light bulb moment for me, and I was transported back to those snowmen that I used to decorate with. The ones that got all molded when a snow globe cracked and they spent the next few months in water. I think her ideas of “Traditions change” felt that much more poignant, considering how the holiday season looks and feels so different these days.
My first Christmas without Pete was horrible. Even that word doesn't do the heartache justice. The second Christmas wasn't much better. But I came to understand that I couldn't go back to the original traditions. For me, in order to save my sanity, I was going to have to find some new traditions. First off, I couldn't stand to look at those Christmas stockings. The ones that all matched each other, and I really couldn't stand looking at Pete's Christmas stocking knowing he would never need it again. I decided the kids needed new Christmas stockings. Ones that they picked out themselves. So off to Hobby Lobby we went. I even decided to get a new one as well. But me, being the indecisive Crazy lady that I am, couldn't decide which one I liked the best, so I bought three. I also decided that since Santa was magical, we needed to add more glitter around the tree, across the packages, and on the plate where the cookies were. Giving the impression that since Santa was from a magical place, when he touched something, or sat down to eat the cookies, glitter or "Magic" would be left behind. With each passing Christmas as the kids grew, they would reach into the box and decide what stocking they wanted to use. With time, I was able to bring out the original stockings, we had from when Pete was alive. I found that most years one, if not all of them, would revert back to those original stockings. One would think that after 11 years of this it wouldn't still be hard to see Pete's stocking. But it is. I would like to say that after multiple times of opening and closing the box over the years that I eventually got it out. But I didn't. Sometimes I left it in the box, and some years I let the kids pick his stocking to use as their own. Mostly though I would still get hung up on these ideas and thoughts of "it’s not supposed to be this way, or "I should do it like we used to." Insert mom guilt here.
Its not just the stockings that changed, I have many ornaments that I haven't ever put back on the tree, since his passing. Like the ones I made for Pete when we first started dating. I didn't make much money, when I first started working as a Nail tech at the salon. So, I got some paint and painted ornaments with his name and some with both our names. Like those stockings, I get them out, look at them, cock my head to one side and try to decide if this is the year for them. There are still a few of them that I don't even get out of the box. I just pass right over them. Leaving them in their resting place. It's too hard to even look at them. Occasionally, one of the kids would pick them up out of the ornaments box, and ask about them. I would just say that they were from a long time ago and maybe we would put them on after, we put on our “Favorites.” But we never do. I just wrap them back up in their tissue paper and leave them in their box for next year. My main reason for not wanting to is my fear that the kids will feel sad when looking at the Christmas tree. It’s "supposed" to be joyful, not depressing.
I have spent a lot of time trying to shove these feelings under the rug so that the kids only remember the joy. However, these feelings always seem to rear their head with the first sign of Christmas. it always comes back to my worry as a mom, that as they grow into adults, I wouldn't want them to look back at their childhood Christmases with sad hearts. Especially since all I heard right after his passing was “Children are so resilient.” They are yes, but kids remember the things you don't want them to. At least in my case, with my own childhood, there are quite a few things I wish I could forget. I don't want them to remember that first Christmas with mommy sitting on the floor with silent tears as they opened their Christmas presents. I don't want them to think back on their childhood years and have their hearts fill with angst. Maybe they were too little to remember, but then again, maybe they weren’t. It’s one of the main reasons that I waited so long to tell them that Pete's birthday was on Christmas eve. I didn't want them to lose the wonder that is Christmas. After all, we are only children once. In my heart, I felt bad enough that they knew the intimate heartbreak of losing their daddy at such young ages, but then to also know that his birthday was the 24th of December? For me, it felt more than I could bear and I wasn't even a child.
Remember when we were kids and we looked forward to Christmas all year long? The sights, the sounds, the smells. The Christmas lights, the treats, the presents. As we grew up, we learned the truth about Santa. Plus, as adults often get bogged down with the stress of the holiday season. We forget the wonder. We forget the sheer excitement that we felt as kids, when thinking about Santa and his sleigh. I still remember how I felt when I realized that Santa wasn’t real and that terrible feeling of disappointment. For someone as whimsical as myself, I couldn't imagine how there couldn't be a jolly man with reindeer. Reindeer that fly, no less! After I had Aryanna, I decided that I would keep the wonder and “tradition” of Santa and his magic alive for as long as I could. Then after Pete passed it felt like it was that much more important to keep the magic going. I remember thinking to myself, that Christmas always seemed so much more magical and vibrant when Pete was alive. He helped make it joyful for me. Yet after he passed, the magic was gone. I was empty of warmth and joy. Like blowing out a candle on a birthday cake. There wasn’t even a spark. Luckily my family stepped in to help fill that void. They helped bring the magic for our children. They helped create that “tradition”, one that I just couldn’t even muster. I remember my fear every time we would see a Santa at the mall. I was so afraid they would want to sit on Santa's lap and ask for their daddy back. I know that's what I wished for. I remember staring absently out the window as my extended family hung lights all the way around my house, even in the backyard. I remember how cool I thought that was. Who has lights in their back yard? As the years went on, I tried to continue with those first “traditions” but there was only so much a single mama or in my case an “only” mama could conquer. I had to let go of those old traditions in order to make new ones. I had to learn, that it was ok to make new ones, even though they didn’t fit the mold of what was expected. Of what was considered, the tried and true of holiday traditions. In many ways it broke my heart. I was constantly filled with mom guilt. Yet, in other ways it was freeing as well. I didn't have to fell trapped by those old traditions from my old life. For every old one brought the reality of his death that much more of a reality. A stark reality that I wished for the kids’ sake, wouldn’t ruin the magic of the holiday season.
This year my youngest will be 11 in January. I haven't sat down with him to have the talk about Santa. I know it’s time. But I struggle with it. I don’t want him to feel like the magic is gone simply because there aren’t reindeer that fly, or elves who live at the North Pole. My hope is to help him understand, that in his own special way, he is a Santa. That he, is magical, and the spirit of Christmas lives in him. By being a Santa for someone else he can help add to the joy and the wonder that the holiday can bring. Like when my family hung the Christmas light in the backyard. In their way they were Santa’s to us. The helped create the sparkle that made our holiday season joyful in such a bleak time. I’m sure in his mind knowing the truth, will look different than what he originally thought. I think that can be said for a lot of things, lately. I know that I had lots of "Santa's" around me those first couple years without Pete. My little family were on people's prayer lists. People I didn't know were praying for peace for my children and I. There was even a doctor's office that adopted my family and they bought a bunch of the kids Christmas presents. That first year it was like a Christmas we had never experienced. It was a toy extravaganza! I was beyond grateful and a bit overwhelmed, for everyone's kindness. It did make sitting in the middle of the floor with them a little bit easier knowing they were filled with joy. I remember in the wee hours of Christmas eve, when the house was quiet, and I was finishing up their stockings. How I wished with all my heart for a little extra Christmas magic, that would be waiting for me under the tree. I wished he could have been there. Even for a moment. He wasn't. It just wasn't possible then.
I came across some pictures I were taken of Aryanna and Peter when they were three and two. It was their Christmas pictures for 2009. I used to hide these photos in particular. These were the last professional photos taken of them from when Pete was alive. They still had that sparkle in their eyes. That look of innocence. After he died that sparkle went away. The loss of innocence in an instant. I remember I had two 8x10's. One of just Aryanna and one of just Petey. I hung them up in Pete's ICU room. Right above his bed so that when he woke up from his coma, he would see their smiling faces first thing. It has taken many many years to really look at these pictures. I am transported back in time to those smiles. The smiles that I thought I would never see again. The ones that died with Pete. The smiles that I had blamed myself for taking away. I was sure they blamed me for daddy going away as well, especially since in their eyes I was the last one to see him alive. However, when I look at those pictures from so long ago, I see now that they may have been missing from photos, but they weren't gone forever. Just hiding. Like the magic that comes from the wonder in children with Santa, it's not gone forever. It just gets lost in those old traditions. The ideas and thoughts that this is the way it's "supposed" to go. Or that the idea that since we are adults now, the magic, is only for children.
I am sure many of us have felt like this since covid hit. That we just aren't whole since everything has slowed down. All the regular things that we have held as daily life for decades is no longer. New rules, new regulations, new ways to gather, or not gather. It seems unfair. Some people are grateful for the flexibility. While others feel trapped. I am one of those people that feels trapped. Especially since in many ways, I have already done this once. H1N1 was after all an unknown virus that made people really sick or even die. No one knew why. While these traditions and expectations of what we think are "supposed" to be or "supposed" to look like, is not what defines the tradition. Just because this year we have to do half as many people doesn't mean we can't still see those people. It means you can create a new one. Make Christmas last longer than just the one day. Who says we have to have a big giant dinner just on Christmas day? Why not Make three smaller meals, and invite a couple family members at a time? Make a big meal and then box it up and leave it on your neighbors’ doorstep, or some unsuspecting person who could really use some comfort food? Have two Christmas mornings? or Christmas evenings? There is really a lot of out of the box thinking here, that could take place. But why don’t’ we? Because it’s not “tradition.” It’s not how it’s “supposed” to go. It’s not how we have done things in the past. A 37-year-old man wasn’t “supposed” to die from the flu. A loving husband, father, best friend, wasn’t “supposed” to die one month before Christmas. Not to me. Not in my world. I wanted it to be like it was. I wanted to curl up next to him in bed, I wanted him to put his hand on my big belly and watch him laugh, as Chase Leo kicked his hand. I wanted to sing Happy Birthday to baby Jesus as we put him in the cradle in the nativity. Just like we had done every year before. Because that’s how it had always been, because that’s how it was “supposed” to be.
I didn't want to wrap presents alone. I didn't want to walk around the lowes in the cold with three small children in a cart while I waited for some big burly guy to carry it out to the car for me. I didn't want to hang Christmas lights on the tree, I didn't even want to decorate the damn tree. I didn't want to hang stockings, make breakfast, or watch the parade without him. But I did it anyway. Somehow, we did it anyway. Somehow, we found that what was “supposed” to be, was no longer valid. For it was in those crazy stressful moments, that I used to remind myself, “it wouldn't always be this way.” Especially when, the rage would boil up inside me, that I was an “only parent.” When I felt I was so heartbroken and unlovable that I couldn't even breathe. I knew that something better had to come out of this. Something better, had to be worth this earth shattering heartbreak. Something had to ease this pain. And that it wasn’t for, forever. It was just different. Like me with the new stockings for everyone. The glitter that covers my living room on Christmas Eve. Even the cupcakes that we now make for Daddy's birthday and then leave one for Santa. It's a new tradition. Covid may be kicking out all of our regular “traditions” but maybe it’s a way to find some new ones. Traditions that we have held onto for a little too long, and no longer serve their purpose. Things that we have been holding in our minds that this is the way its “supposed” to be. Is it?
So, this year looks different? Does that mean the magic stops? Maybe it’s time to remember the Santa in all of us. Maybe, it’s time to be a Santa, for someone else. Maybe it’s time, to see that by creating a new tradition, we create the wonder in each other. We bring the sparkle! And by doing so, we honor those loved ones that aren’t physically here to celebrate with us. It’s the love that creates the magic. All those years ago when I wanted so badly for some extra magic under my Christmas tree… I eventually got it. But not in the way that I thought it was “supposed” to be. For what I saw underneath that Christmas tree wrapped in green tinsel, love, a giant green bow, and a smile, changed my life. Changed my little family's life. Changed my perspective and the loneliness that I thought I was destined to have, was no longer. I changed. My sparkle changed, my kids changed, I was learning to live. Together we created our own wonder and magic for the holidays. Traditions have changed. Grief, loss, and healing have changed. My whole life and the world that my kids and I knew, changed. But, I have learned, that I am ok. I am scarred, and I am whole. I am grieving yet happy. I walk in two worlds. I hold hands with an Angel, and a human. I am better because of it. I may mourn the old snowmen, the old traditions, the old way of life. But it’s in these new traditions that I sing with joy in my heart. After all, I wouldn’t be The Crazy Red Haired Lady, without them.