Christmas came like a blur, left like a blur, and before I very happily tuck the last of the nativity figurines into tissue paper and coil up the lights, I find that I must record one little story.
Here’s what you first should know: I grew up in a family that Did All The Things at Christmastime. You know what I’m saying? Small town parade? We were there. Caroling to the neighbors? You bet. Stringing popcorn while watching every single NBC and ABC and PBS Christmas cartoon special? Yes sirree, Grinch, and Charlie Brown, and Creepy Rudolf, we had all our eyes on you.
There’s even a bit of fame marked down in the annals of familial lore, wherein my brother was selected from a hat one magical year to light the City Hall Christmas tree. To this day, a reverent hush falls on the family as we pass the evergreen whilst on the main road through town.
Now my husband, on the other hand, hails from a family that decidedly did NOT Do All The Things. Not that they didn’t have their own traditions. Sure, they hung blue and silver garlands over the window, and baked sugar cookies that still retain the prized position in my husband’s heart. They had a Santa’s Workshop under the tree with elves and packages merrily opening and shutting, exiting and entering small elf-like doors. But as far as I can tell, the Christmas season passed a whole lot more quietly in my husband’s childhood home than it ever did in mine. “Wait a minute,” I said in shock our first Christmas together, “you mean your family never sang to the Christmas tree while in a circle holding hands, and blessing it, before bending in the snow to saw it down?” “No,” he said, eyeing me queerly, “they did not.”
So it goes without saying that we’ve had different expectations over the years about Christmas. 12 years into this marriage and I’m telling you, I’ve finally made peace. You won’t find me sniffling behind closed doors because my husband doesn’t want to stand on the sidewalk in the freezing rain to lift the kids to the Santa in the Fire Truck for a candy cane. No sirree. I’ve moved beyond that. We’ve learned to bow to each other’s idiosyncrasies, take ownership of our own quirks, and move on. (Or so I like to think.)
What this means is that one freezing night this past December I announced to my husband my every intention of taking all the children to the post-wide Christmas Tree lighting, on my own. I wanted to see the lighting, and he of course didn’t, so it was a happy plan for each. Joy and fun and preschoolers and toddlers and a bitter cold wind would be mine, cozy clothes and warm potato soup would be his. Graciously offering to keep the baby, my husband curled himself in front of a video screen, and relaxed for the night. I’m telling you, his loss.
Well, at the last minute the two oldest children abandoned ship for a game of after-dark football down the street, leaving me with my middles: a six year old, a four year old, and a 2 year old. Motherhood in the Military hardens your resilience, so despite the lack of big kid helpers, off we went.
Let me give you a description of a Military Post Christmas Tree Lighting. While the rest of the country has police officers mingling with crowds? We have soldiers in uniform. While regular ol’ civilians might gather by lighted fountains in town squares? We gather beside retired tanks and civil war cannons which are welded to the ground. While a small town’s carols might be made up of tinkling bells and the rat-a-tat-tat of a drummer boy’s drum? Our music is punctuated by artillery fire and a rocket’s red glare.
To the crowd’s delight came the fire and glare, this night. But to my two year old came only terror unprecedented. There we were, swaying to the music when the words caught my ear: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me…a shot for the field artillery…KABOOM!” A cannon mere yards from us contracted. Eddie screamed. Fast as lightening I untangled my arms from the sudden gripping latch of his older sisters, and pulled him out from between my legs. He, screaming with all his might; me, shaking from the surprise. I shoved his mouth into my shoulder in time for the second day of Christmas and its two mascots walking (enter a donkey and a human dressed in company colors) to give way to the first day’s shot for the field artillery…KABOOM! Eddie screamed again.
By this point the elderly veterans to our left were glancing irritably over their shoulders, and the officers with their wives were pressing against our backs pretending not to hear. The news camera, stationed just to our right, discretely began inching further away. I couldn’t get out. High ranking officers formed a wall between us and the dark of the field’s edges, so as the third day of Christmas wound down toward the inevitable KABOOM, I crouched low to the ground behind the legs of my shaking daughters (both just as disturbed by the shots overhead as their brother), and pressed Eddie into my chest. “It’s okay,” I began entreating, “shhh. Listen, they are going to shoot it one more time. It will be okay, it’s kind of neat, here it comes!”
Can you picture it? 12 Day of Christmas, right? So twelve different shots, each louder than the last. Twelve toddler screams, each more pathetic than the first. It didn’t take too long for Eddie to figure out that “Fiiiiiiive MREs” meant an acceleration toward the first day and its horrific KABOOM, so by each fifth day of Christmas, he’d begin screaming piteously, “NOOOO!” just to sob as the next stanza followed the shot.
The twelfth day of Christmas finally came, and with it several extra shots of field artillery, KABOOM, KABOOM, KA-KA-KA-BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. And then I felt it. A warmth seeping down my leg. Eddie, with his head buried into my chest and his legs straddling my thigh; Eddie, with his his pants wetter than mine.
We stayed. Santa came and wouldn’t you know, the tree could only be lit if Field Artillery would shoot us a couple of rounds. Eddie’s screams muffled into my stomach and our legs froze over in the cold but we saw the stubby cedar burst into color, I’ll tell you what. Because that’s what Christmas is, folks. Doing All The Things.
I drove home to find my husband happily lounging over his potato soup, the baby playing peacefully beneath a strand of Christmas lights, and O Holy Night caroling in the background. Everything about the scene radiated Hearth and Home, Peace and Goodwill, Kinkade and Dickens.
“How was the lighting?” he asked, as toward the bath I lugged Eddie in the awkward-one-armed straddle that all parents of peeing kids know. “Great!” I called over my shoulder. “Great! You should totally come next year!”
But I have my sneaky suspicions that he won’t.
Note One: Due to this stressful circumstance, two year old Eddie unfortunately connected Christmas Trees with loud KABOOMS. So when we told him we as a family were going to get a Christmas tree a few days later, well, you can just imagine how he took that…
Note Two: All kabooms aside, at the beginning of the post ceremony a U.S. Military Chaplain took the stage to offer an opening prayer. “Almighty God,” he intoned, “you have sent us Immanuel. You have sent us your son…” Now that’s the Christmas of my heart.