Was I freaked out? The day before this, possibly. Who cares? This is a beautiful memory… my daughters in the living room on Christmas. That’s all I can remember. The joy.

“A man began enumerating all the things that had bothered him about his family at their last Christmas reunion: His brother had been overly critical of his wife, his father had watched television during most of the family conversations, his mother’s cheerfulness had verged on hysteria, and his sister’s children had been out of control. He summed up his reaction to the holiday by saying, ‘I wouldn’t mind spending Christmas with my family—if only they’d behave.’ ” —Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, Unplug the Christmas Machine (Morrow, 1991).

I love this, because its general sense (not its particulars) reminds me of my own background. I come from a large, somewhat raucous, always loving but often arguing, family. When I grew up and left home and joined the new circle of my husband and kids, the reunions with parts of my family became more difficult to set up. It has been several years since all of us have been in one place at the same time, and I say that’s good. I really don’t have the energy to appreciate all of them at once. I spent years thinking about this before I understood it in myself.

This year a trusted friend suggested I make a short list of the elements of the holidays that matter to me, and to focus on them. It’s love, first of all. Without love none of this would mean anything. You don’t even have to be a Christian to know and live with that truth. Second, it’s music. I love the Christmas music at my Episcopal church, and I contribute to it with a light heart after years of asking myself if I should not devote this sort of time. Practicing music during a busy season requires time and a good attitude. I’ve realized that I’d rather do this than put up elaborate decorations, spend a lot of time shopping, or bake Christmas cookies. Finally, it’s writing. I don’t neglect my writing practice even if it’s the holiday season. If I feel energetic with writing ideas late at night, that’s fine. I stay up late and write. And I throw myself into my holiday letter that we send by the U.S. mail to 125 people. That letter is my present to my friends and family. I give some of them other presents, too. But it’s mainly that.

Here are some more ideas from Unplug the Christmas Machine: Greens and candles and a small tree—and music and good food—are all a household really needs for a little joy.

This story never disappoints me. I reread it every year:

“Shirley told us that years ago she used to grab every moment of spare time to sew, bake, decorate, and write Christmas cards. ‘I was too busy to even question why I was doing it.’ But then something happened to make her examine her values. … her 80-year-old mother had been living with her and was upset with herself because she didn’t feel useful anymore. Her eyes were failing and she couldn’t knit the kids sweaters for Christmas. She had very little money, so she couldn’t buy presents for the family. ‘I kept telling her that she didn’t have to do or buy anything,’ Shirley said, ‘that Christmas was a time to enjoy being with the family. But she wouldn’t listen to me.’ During that holiday season, Shirley had a revelation. ‘I sat down one night, absolutely exhausted from all I was doing, and took a long look at myself. There I was, trying to do all the things my mother used to do at Christmas and more. I was also busy at church. I had hardly a moment to be with my family. My own advice to my mother hit me like a sledgehammer. I suddenly realized that all that is required of us is to exist with God.’

“At that point, Christmas started to become a relaxed affair at Shirley’s house. … ‘Everyone laughs at me because I’m always running to a drawer on Christmas morning to get a present that I neglected to wrap. But they all have a much better time than they used to when I was a nervous wreck.’ ”

I love this too. I recognize more than a little of the way I used to be, although I started reading that book when my children were pretty young. I needed several years before I absorbed its lessons.

This year I’ve been having a few personal struggles, and an important family member of one of my close friends died a few days ago. I’ve looked inward and am again reminded that the gift of the season cannot be held in my hand.

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