I am my family's orchestrator-in-chief for the holidays and I am not ready. There's always a last minute rush for me, but this year business trips and other obligations mean there's no card yet, the tree got decorated yesterday and only a handful of gifts have been purchased. As I finally kick my efforts into gear, I can't help but remember a recent December when things were very different.
The alarm went off at 5:15 a.m. on Christmas morning. I shook my husband awake. We tiptoed to the room where our three boys were sleeping, placed a small gift at the foot of each bed, and left a note ostensibly from Santa Claus.
And we were done.
For the first time, we were in a hotel for the holidays instead of a family home. Five months earlier, we had moved from New York to Hong Kong. It felt too soon to go back for a visit, and we wanted to explore this side of the globe. So we had planned a trip.
This was way out of my holiday comfort zone. My approach had always been as traditional as the turkey my mother and I prepared for the big feast. That routine could be stressful and was certainly time-consuming, but it was also lovely -- full of excited children, extended family (more festive than fractious for me), tree trimming, gift buying and wrapping (I do love curling ribbon), and lots of cooking. There were inside jokes and bits of kitsch like the two-foot high light-up plastic snowman my husband found at a stoop sale to keep things personal and not overly precious.
In Hong Kong, we were all a little homesick and a lot nostalgic. The small tree in our apartment was cute, but a far cry from the 10-footers we usually had. The decorations consisted of two boxes of silver ornaments from the local IKEA instead of our eclectic collection of family treasures. Our early "Christmas" dinner featured pork roast instead of a turkey because that was all that would fit in my tiny oven. My mother and her partner flew over so we weren't without family, but my brother's family and my aunts and uncles were in America. We gave gifts ahead of time and got on a plane.
The 25th found us in a secluded little resort in New Zealand.
"Should we go back to bed?" I asked my husband, Mark, after we'd left our small presents. It was 5:25. The sky outside was brightening.
"Let's sit," he suggested. He made tea for me, and coffee for himself, and we sat in the two Adirondack chairs on our room's small deck with the quilt from our bed spread across our knees.
The deck faced west over a bay hemmed in by hills. As the sun rose behind us, the view was suffused with soft bands of gray, then blue, then pink. The light first touched the tops of the mountain at the far end of the bay, then washed down to meet the water and back across the hills to the left and right as if someone had cracked open a lid in the sky. A multitude of shades of green were revealed among the Douglas firs and palm trees covering the hillsides. A bellbird sang. Water lapped the shore.
For two hours, Mark and I sat and took in the quiet beauty, sometimes talking, sometimes just looking out at the water.
The day would bring no grand present opening and no homemade feast to enjoy, but there was also, in those early hours, no stuffing to start, no breakfast for 12 or 15 to organize, no leftover scraps of paper and ribbon strewn across my bedroom floor. There would be no toys to put together and no bags of trash to wrestle to the cans outside.
Instead, the day brought more little pockets of found time. Even the vacation-induced sense that you ought to be out seeing and doing was absent: everything was closed; there was no car or boat available to take us anywhere. When the boys woke, we took them for a hike in the hills. Along the way, I walked a little bit with each of them and talked. We sang childish songs they'd normally insist they'd outgrown.
Then we joined my mother and her partner for lunch at the hotel. It wasn't the meal I would have cooked, but it was fine. We four adults finished the afternoon on the porch with a bottle of wine while the boys played on the beach and someone else did the dishes.
I did miss the rest of my family, the splendor of our usual tree and the delicious anticipation of that moment before anything is opened. I did miss the turkey and the apple pie. I knew even then that I would take special pleasure in the familiar when next I celebrated at home, and I did.
But that Christmas was a lovely unhurried day in a beautiful place we felt lucky to see. Whole hours were completely free of the pressure -- external or internal -- to do or go or make or fix or care-take or otherwise be productive. By day's end, I had cherished my husband, laughed and sung with my children, had a deep conversation with my mother. I had gotten some exercise, written in my journal and even had a nap.
After the stress of a global move and its accompanying culture shock, it was as if a thoughtful friend had carefully considered what gift would be most useful and most appreciated and she had chosen time. It's just what I wanted, I thought, How did you know?
This year, I'm happy to be home, but my gift to myself is to cross just a few things off my to-do list -- undone -- in favor of finding and savoring some moments of peace.