Our Christmas tree looked frail as it lay in the street, waiting for the trash men to haul it away. A trail of needles led through the living room and across our lawn, marking the end of another holiday.
I thought of all that had gone wrong with the holiday season.
A car thief injured my 71-year-old mother while stealing her Toyota. Then there was the freak toenail-clipping accident that hurt my father’s back. We canceled our visit to my wife’s parents’ house because of a snowstorm. On Christmas Day, we managed to host a couple of guests, but our car battery died as we set out to drive them to the=2 0train station. I developed bursitis in my knee. At least that was a bit festive, since my kneecap looked like a Clementine.
There was the afternoon my wife, Beth, and I took our son, Nicholas, to the mall for his first meeting with Santa Claus. With a line so long that we faced at least an hour’s wait, we thought, this isn’t going to happen.
It could have been the first holiday letdown. But it wasn’t.
We perched our son on a seat high enough for him to see Santa from a distance. Santa spotted Nicholas and gave him a wave. Nicholas grinned and waved back. No need to place him kicking and screaming on a knee for a forced holiday memory.
It was a small, special moment. As I reflected on the holiday season, moments like these added up. All I had to do was remember them, along with the mishaps.
We celebrated St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6, a family tradition. I told my son how Santa’s forerunner inspired through small acts of giving, although Beth and I were realistic enough to know that Nicholas didn’t yet grasp the full meaning of the story. My son left a boot in front of his bedroom door the night before, and “St. Nicholas” stuffed the boot with gifts, which Nicholas unwrapped in the morning. (Full disclosure: We didn’t name our son after the saint, but it helped that he’s the patron saint of children.)
Nicholas, who would turn two and a half on Christmas Day, for the first time helped decorate the tree. In a normally dormant hearth, we lit a fire almost every evening. We sat in front, playing with Nicholas’s toys and listening to Christmas music. I built a toy garage as a present, and Nicholas in turn gave me a gift by calling it “beautiful.”
In fact, Nicholas presented us a gift each time he spoke. Only six months earlier, concerned that his speech was delayed, we took him each week for speech therapy, and worked hard with him on exercises at home. This lasted several months. Gradually, then suddenly, the words came like an avalanche, seemingly stopping only while he thought of the next thing to say. When we read “The Night Before Christmas,” he finished the rhymes. Sentences streamed out of him full of words like “Santa Claus” and “Merry Christmas.”
After we discarded our tree, I realized I had told the story of St. Nicholas as much for my own sake as for my son’s. It was a reminder that small acts can offer the largest rewards. I learned to temper my expectations. I softened them, like holiday chocolates, by finding great joy in things as small as my son’s words. I hardened them, like a metal ornament, by making them resistant to hopes that loom like a lawn overcrowded with decorations.
Soon after Christmas, my mother was on the mend, the stolen car had been replaced, and she and my father were headed to our house. Nicholas chattered about the upcoming visit, when his grandparents would drive past that tree in the street and down our driveway, and he would be able to play in their car. He gift-wrapped my days with his words, but like his dad had learned to do, he didn’t dress up his expectations with a bow: “We could sit in Omi and Opa’s car … or maybe not.”
Image by: mokra, SXC
Christopher Harder is a stay-at-home dad who left his job as an editor at The Wall Street Journal web site two-and-a-half years ago to care for his son. He’s been a journalist for 19 years and his essays on parenting have appeared in a variety of publications.