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No Wrapping Required: The Most Important Holiday Gift I'm Giving My Kids

I'm not sure exactly what it will look like yet. I don't know exactly what our traditions will be. But I do know I'll be working on figuring it out until I am able to give my children memories that they will cherish one day as well. I think I know how to start: by surrounding my family with the people we hold dearest.
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Young mother and her daughters by a fireplace on Christmas
Young mother and her daughters by a fireplace on Christmas

Something about the holidays always makes me a little bit blue. I wasn't quite sure what it was until I was discussing Christmas with my husband the other day. We came up with a handful of fun ideas for this year, but nothing felt right to celebrate the holiday. I didn't really know what I wanted or why nothing sounded terribly enjoyable, but then I closed my eyes and my thoughts went immediately to my childhood Christmases.

In my memory, I found myself sitting in my grandparents' little living room in that old house in Mississippi--beside a Christmas tree dancing with twinkling lights and almost overtaken by sparkly-papered presents. It's early in the morning, the sun's first rays shining through the window, and my grandfather is sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee steaming in his hand. The smells of breakfast waft in from the kitchen--biscuits and bacon--along with the sounds of eggs cracking against the frying pan. The door opens, and my aunt comes in with an armful of brightly wrapped packages, followed by my uncle, another aunt, six cousins, another uncle, more packages, more people. Everyone has rosy cheeks and big smiles and joyous exclamations; everyone hugs and kisses and calls "Merry Christmas!" My grandmother comes out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel, smiling and throwing her arms wide as if to embrace the whole room.

What follows as the morning wears on is the biggest chaotic mess of tearing wrapping paper, laughter, and a medley of "thank you!" and "it's beautiful!" and "I love it!", coffee followed by breakfast and just one more biscuit, laughter, talking, and holiday music. My grandfather stands up and tries out his new golf clubs, my grandmother is telling everyone to eat something, the other adults all have their cameras out and are throwing jokes back and forth the way the children are throwing paper. We kids have lost everything we opened in the pile of boxes and toys that now litters the floor of the small room.

The whole day is full of food, playing with cousins and new toys, trying on new clothes and shoes, putting on talent shows for our parents, playing outside in the snow flurries (the most we could hope for in a Mississippi December), watching Christmas movies, sneaking sips from the box of Franzia in the fridge, and listening to the clink of shuffling dominoes and laughter coming from the dining room table.

That's what my childhood Christmases all looked like. As we cousins grew up, our gifts went from toys to clothes and music. My aunts and uncles and parents filmed us all with cameras that had better and better technology. But the spirit remained--the joy, the laughter, the chaos. We cousins have all grown up now; most of us have families and traditions of our own. My grandfather died almost three years ago, and my grandmother is in very advanced stages of dementia which renders her unable to speak or remember any of us. I haven't seen my aunts and uncles in several years. As an adult, I now realize that my grandparents were the heart and soul, the very nucleus of our chaotic and eclectic little family, the glue that held us all together, and with them both gone (for all intents and purposes), those traditions I took for granted as a child--and even as a teenager--have melted away like that Mississippi snow.

My heart felt so heavy while talking with my husband about what to do for Christmas. Everything we discussed sounded so boring, so drab. I don't want a calm, quiet, adult Christmas. I want what I had when I was a kid--that chaos, that noise, that full and cheerful home. Those memories are so precious to me. I realized what I want is impossible. I can't relive those beautiful days or recreate them for my own children. My kids don't have cousins their age, nor aunts and uncles like my aunts and uncles, and Lance's and my parents are not my grandparents. Whatever we do for my children won't be what I had as a child. Since realizing it the other day, it has been something I'm mourning. I'm also missing my own extended family so very much now that I realize why the holidays make me a bit blue now as an adult.

I'm allowing myself room to grieve that. My husband asked me the other day what it was that made my Christmases so special. "Surely it's not too many people trying to fit into one house with one bathroom or the total chaos," he reasoned. "What was it really that made your childhood Christmases something you wish you could give to our kids?" I feel like I remember so clearly what I loved, what I cherished as a child, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Maybe it was the warmth that permeated the very room--and the laughter. Maybe it was being surrounded by our loved ones for the holiday. Maybe it was the pumpkin pie! Whatever it was, my grandparents made Christmas what it was for me--and for my parents too. If I think about it from their perspective, I know it must have been work--and not always so joyous for them. After all, as a child, I didn't have financial stress or familial strife. I didn't have to take off work or plan or cook or shop or stay up late wrapping gifts. That's what the grown-ups do. Christmas is a magical time, but now I know the reason is that someone makes it that way. For my kids, that someone has to be me.

I'm not sure exactly what it will look like yet. I don't know exactly what our traditions will be. But I do know I'll be working on figuring it out until I am able to give my children memories that they will cherish one day as well. I think I know how to start: by surrounding my family with the people we hold dearest.

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This post originally posted on the Nashville Moms Blog.

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.