by Jean Shimer, my mom; written after Christmas, 1970
Pictured: Roger Shimer, Nancy Shimer (holding me, Brian, @ 9 mos old), and John Shimer
In the frantic rush that usually accompanies the preparations, I often wondered if Christmas is worth celebrating. I remember one particularly pressured year, when I had been shopping and cooking and cleaning, the four children were getting anxious and excited, my parents were arriving the next day, and I went to the grocery store. There I encountered a friend, and as I started to tell her what was going on, I began to cry, right there in the produce aisle of the grocery store!
There are a lot of struggles that have accompanied my Christmases. One has been the fact I am the hostess for my family, which consisted many years of both my husband, his parents, my parents, and our four lively children, eager for the happy day.
Another real struggle was the fact my husband left the shopping up to me. He let me decide and purchase gifts for his family, his sister with her family, my brother with his family, wrap and mail them, and then shop for our parents and four children. No wonder I saw Christmas as a hurdle I would rather not try to attempt.
And then added to all these things to be done, we had two children with December birthdays! I tried to celebrate with each child when they were young. For me, the preparations for Christmas hardly began until the second birthday was over and then I had ten days to get ready.
Somewhere along the way, my energy would give out, and I would look around at the cluttered house, at the pile of wrapping paper on a table, at the dishes in the sink, and I would grit my teeth and say to myself, “I hate Christmas!”
I suppose these struggles are no worse and probably not as difficult as many people encounter, and work out!
And, I am sure there are mothers with much bigger families who do just fine.
But let me add in a couple of things I believe operate in our culture, and help defeat the overworked mother of the family at Christmas time.
One is the unreal expectation piled upon her by the endless delights, pictures in every magazine for several months in advance, the delicious, unusual food dishes that take time, energy and money to prepare; the beautifully arranged tables on which to serve this food, and the perfectly decorated homes. For some people, this may be possible and it may happen, but for many young women, struggling to make ends meet and energy last, to attempt such a perfect setting and such an arrangement of nearly gourmet food is out of the question. Why this endless feast of delights set out in the magazines?
Add to this cultural expectation of perfect food in a perfect setting, the idea of a beautiful Christmas tree, lovely decorations, brilliant packages arranged under the tree .. and mother is near collapse in the next room. Is it worth it?
Every year I wondered this and every year as we trudged off to the 11:00 pm church service, where we sang in the choir, glorying in the birth of Christ the Saviour, I would wonder how on earth one puts together the two meanings… one elusive, beautiful, spiritual, vital; the other real, practical, requiring hours of work. And as I would go home to put out packages until two in the morning, and tumbled into bed exhausted, I still did not know the answer.
A part of my dilemma is one that I see and hear from other people when Christmas rolls around again, and that is guilt. One wishes one could perform in the certain way for Christmas, or one wishes one could produce a certain type of celebration for the family, and if one cannot, as it is almost humanly impossible to have such a perfection, one feels guilty. And guilt robs one of energy, and certainly cuts down on creativity and the possibility of vitality.
Even as the star shone down on Bethlehem, a beacon of light shone into my life one Christmas, when all was changed, and I discovered what Christmas is all about, quite by accident.
Our oldest, Nancy, was in college, and decided to go ahead with knee surgery to correct an old injury during Christmas vacation. I dismissed all other plans and went with her to the university hospital she chose, to spend six days while she went through surgery. I called an old college roommate, that I had not seen for years, who happened to live in the same town. She invited me to stay with them, so I accepted.
The surgery, while painful, was routine, and went fine, and Nancy was soon on the mend. In between my several visits a day with Nancy, my friend, Mary, and I got into quite a personal discussion of our lives and growth. Instead of Christmas being a time of frantic preparation, the days became wonderful times of shared experience, of open discussion, of personal encounter and growth. I managed some shopping, but had decided whatever was possible, would be fine, and what did not get done, I was not going to think about.
The day came to take Nancy home, and we made the trip easily, though she was in some discomfort in a cast. Meanwhile, my mother and father had come to watch over three lively young boys and to be on hand for Christmas. So with my mother’s deft hand, the house had been set in order, and meals were ready.
We came home two days before Christmas, and quickly, Christmas Eve came and the celebration, which for us was both religious and a time of joyful, family fun. I sat looking at the Christmas tree, thinking about all that had happened and what the weeks had meant to me, and something crystalized inside of me, some insight, a new awareness of Christmas.
I did not have to make Christmas happen. Suddenly I realized to what an extent I felt that it was all up to me to create Christmas, out of my own energy, time, shopping, cooking, whatever. I was responsible for Christmas. And that actually wasn’t the way it happened at all. Because for believers, Christmas is the time to recall that God has come to MAN, that God has done something. And in our usual kinds of celebrations we carry out this spiritual ideal, for we make Christmas come to our children, we prepare and give them gifts, we let them experience the joy, excitement of receiving gifts, symbols of The Gift.
Out of that Christmas came a completely new way of looking at Christmas. I realized I did not have to try so hard, that no one expected me to, and that if it was all a lot of hard work I resented, then, I had lost the true spirit of Christmas anyway.