I'm not really a Scrooge—I love the lights and finding the perfect present and all the fa la la that goes with it—but December always takes me by surprise. Like I somehow landed at the starting line of a half-marathon that I have no memory of entering, let alone training for.
But the gun goes off on December 1, and I start loping along with everybody else who seems to have prepared way better than I have. I always feel resentful the first few miles. Why do our neighbors put their lights up so dang early? Why do my (already very fortunate) kids fixate on presents—gifts that will likely be gathering dust by mid-January, if not sooner? Why hasn't a cute sparkly skirt, perfect for holiday parties, magically appeared in my closet? Why do I keep clicking on emails for deals on stuff that I'll never buy?
And don't even get me started on holiday cards.
Then I make a batch of Peanut Butter Kiss cookies on a snowy day, and settle in. Still not willingly, mind you, but I resign myself to the fact that if I've got to run, I may as well try to find a rhythm. My husband strings up our lights, a display that feels weak, at best, compared to the penguins and snowmen and blinking bling hanging out on other roofs. But hey: the lights are up, and they make our house look festive, especially after a light snowfall. My daughter and I sing "Do They Know It's Christmas?" at the top of our lungs as I drive her to swim practice. I drop money in the Salvation Army kettle every time I hear the bell. I pretend to listen to every story the kids want to tell me about each tree ornament. ("I made this Frosty in Pre-K with Ms. Sadie...")
I still don't have a cute sparkly skirt though, and I don't have teacher gifts. I have to get some teacher gifts stat. Oh, and I can't forget the postman and milk guy and garbagemen and...I shovel about five Kiss cookies down the hatch as I melt thinking about all the things left to do.
By the time we host our annual cookie decorating party for kids—the only tradition I have continued from my childhood—I can, way off in the distance, kinda see the finish line. It's a comforting mirage, but I know I'm kidding myself if I think I'm going to get there anytime soon. Run the mile you're in.
I put aside the thought of the great germ transfer that's about to happen (I've seen kids lick the frosting knives and done or said nothing) and do my best to smile through the sugar-fueled energy that overtakes our house. When the final kid has been picked up, I crack a Milk Stout—hey, I gotta fuel, right?—and page through Sunset magazine to relax, shake out my arms, find my breath again.
Who am I kidding? There's no relaxing in this race. I promise myself I'm going to try one of Sunset's DIY wreaths, even if it's just the paper one.
I wear last year's skirt to the parties, and tell myself nobody will notice. Enough egg nog at the aid stations, and I won't notice either.
Passing the halfway mark, I have a serious case of performance anxiety. I fret that I haven't balanced out the presents between the two kids. That I've spent too much money. That I haven't spent enough. That my husband doesn't need another sweater, but what else do you get him? That the holiday experience our family has created doesn't measure up to the one I had as a kid.
I calm down by reminding myself I don't remember, save a few random sweaters and a Pappgallo purse I simply couldn't live without, any gifts from my youth. That the best part of Christmas is the excitement, the build-up, the time spent together getting ready for one big day. I drink another Milk Stout, and look for the elusive Zone in which I can simply just exist and run. I download the "Take a Break" meditation app, and give it a whirl, then make a note to myself: meditate before opening a beer.
The days and miles march on. I get sick of hearing Madonna sing Santa Baby, but I can't bring myself to change the channel. I've got a canker sore in my mouth, but there's just two decorated cookies left in this bin, so I may as well just eat them. I stop into a few cute shops on Pearl Street, just in case there's something else somebody just has to have.
I'm running without thinking: my preferred way.
I actually look forward to having the kids home for break. For about two hours. Then the bickering starts. I start assigning random chores just to separate them and vow we are going to have daily quiet time (one hour, minimum). Two weeks and two days of vacation? WTH?
Somehow, I make it to mile 12, and the end truly is in sight. After fighting with Ben about how he needs to wear pants, not the same shorts he's slept in for three days, to church on Christmas Eve, I put on last year's sparkly skirt again.
As the organ booms and congregation sings Joy to the World, I inevitably tear up. I look down at my family. I can't believe they all belong to me. I'm so grateful for this moment, so grateful to be alive. It's momentary, but it's enough. My legs don't remember the previous miles, the late-night wrapping and the sprinkle sweeping and the second guessing.
Joy to the Finish Line. Joy to the World.
The final .1 mile—Christmas morning—is a sprint. Despite my pleading to slow down, the kids go as fast as they can, emptying their tanks as they rip through presents. It's over. I wrap a blanket around myself, grab some snacks and beverages, breathe a sign of relief and look forward to my favorite part of any race: getting the stories from friends and family.
How do you approach the holidays? A race you happily enter? Reluctantly enter? You don't even remember you entered?