Hey there, exhausted parents.
It’s me, the Ghost of Christmas Future.
And I’m here to save you from the preposterous ideas that the insufferable Christmas Present and that myopic twit Christmas Past are trying to peddle.
Because they had me, just a few days ago.
I was underwater. Behind on ribbon, wrapping paper, rum cakes — 17 baked and I still managed to miss the music teacher, our sweetest neighbor and the favorite aunt. We missed all the tree lightings, didn’t get tickets to “The Nutcracker” or “A Christmas Carol,” haven’t baked a single cookie and possibly haven’t even heard “The Little Drummer Boy” yet.
It’s Christmas Eve morning, and we somehow don’t even have a tree.
I did it. I killed Christmas.
After years of sheer exhaustion, trying to make an entire month of magical memories for my children, I was about to devastate them with the grayest, starkest, most depressing holiday ever.
To make matters worse, we were the ones hosting Christmas this year. Most of the family members were flying across the country to be with us, and rather than the Pinterest, apple-spice holiday scene I had imagined, the place looked like the decaying house of humbug.
“OK, guys. We’ve got just a few days left, so let’s make the most of it,” I told the boys, now a teen and a tween, in between hockey rinks last week. “What are the Christmas things we do that you really love the most? What can we do to make it really feel like Christmas?”
“The breakfast,” my younger son said.
I smiled, knowingly.
“Oh yes. The baked French toast with homemade white chocolate sauce? The red flannel hash? The maple cinnamon pecan pull-apart bread?” I ticked off my greatest hits.
“No. The sugary cereal,” he said, citing the one tradition my husband started, allowing them to choose whatever horrendous, appallingly colored cold cereal I’ve banned from their lives the rest of the year.
“OK, then. How about the dinner?” I asked, waiting for the home run, because who could forget the beef tenderloin en croute I made every year, topped with little holly leaves and berries fashioned from pastry?
“I can’t remember that part. I like the dinner because we’re all together,” he said. “And no one’s answering emails for work.”
And, boom. I began to get it. I’ve been trying to make it about more than the presents, but in doing so, I created a whole other horror show of indulgent vapidity.
“And I love Christmas morning, when no one’s going anywhere and we’re all just hanging out,” the other child said.
I know, I know. Whoville taught us this lesson years ago. Christmas isn’t about the presents, the decoration, the roast beast. But culturally, we embraced the Grinch and sort of ignored what the Whovillians were trying to say.
“I also want to do that thing we did with Uncle Mike,” my younger one said. And I began to leaf through memories they had with my brother Mike. Was it ice-skating to Christmas carols? Touring the lights in Baltimore? The train display at the Botanic Garden?
“The one at Union Station, Mom. Remember? How we gave him the socks and the cookies and stuff. I want to do that again,” he said.
Years ago, we had an especially indulgent Christmas, but no family came to see us and we were looking for some way to interact with others. I decided the kids should do a little more giving. So we put together little care packages for some of the folks living in tents near Union Station, the tents we walk past nearly every day.
Popularly known as “Blessing Bags,” these kinds of packages make housing advocates a little uneasy. It’s a feel-good device that doesn’t really solve the bigger problem of homelessness, like the panhandling quandary.
But we went ahead and did it, filled 20 big zip-top bags with thick new socks, granola bars, hand warmers, cookies, chocolates and a $5 bill. Some folks took the bags quietly; some thanked the boys enthusiastically; one looked in the bag, took the $5 and returned the package to them.
But the guy who told them to call him “Uncle Mike” bear-hugged them, told jokes and then talked sports with them for 30 minutes. There it was, Christmas 101. All the feels. We didn’t solve Mike’s housing problem, but we had a moment of fellowship and humanity. And I had no idea my kids still remembered him.
So as the Ghost of your Christmas Future, I am here to try to save you from some of the picayune details I’ve sweated for more than a decade.
Years into this, my kids were hardly moved by the cinnamon-scented, glittery, handcrafted adornments I frenzied over, the holiday events I raced to, thinking I was building a catalogue of memories.
Pfft. It’s not what they remember.
We will go look for a Christmas tree — it should be cheaper now. But not before we get the socks and the granola bars and the plastic bags. And the box of Sugar-Coated, Rainbow Puffy Bits.
Petula Dvorak writes for The Washington Post.