When I was a child in Boston, there was a particular moment of stillness that I relished in the holiday frenzy. Once my father had wrestled the chosen tree into the stand, sweating and swearing through the “great disentanglement” of lights, I would find my place beneath its sweet piney branches. On my back gazing upward onto a heaven of fuzzy stars, I knew this was magic. As an adult, I often wonder how to recreate the untouchable glow of that childhood Christmas, but after six years of separation from my family and country of origin, what I wish for most is a holiday reunion.
Becoming a mother without my family beside me has not been easy. While I am no stranger to missing a holiday at home, having had a daughter makes our continued absence more poignant. It is her turn now to be swept up and enveloped in the magic, to feel the busy world break from its routine into something both mysterious and joyful. I would give anything to see my parents embrace their grandchild for the first time outside of a phone screen and to feel those arms wrap around me too. How can it be the holiday I want for my daughter without them?
Reliving the holiday enchantment of my youth isn’t possible, but the thought of making memories with and for my daughter is just as exciting. It feels like one of the chief responsibilities of parenthood is to orchestrate near-perfect celebrations for every occasion. At the very least, we are deciding what traditions we want to begin for our little family. I scour online sites for the most authentic-looking fake Christmas tree available and become somewhat queasy when I look at the price tags. What about a real pine tree I ask my partner? It’s his turn to look slightly nauseated at the thought of a thousand tiny pine needles blanketing our small apartment in the wake of one very exuberant elf. Real tree vetoed.
The more I plot out our Christmas, the more conscious I become of how deeply I miss my family. I have been trying desperately to tamp down and gloss over this longing since the borders were closed almost two years ago. Watching the reunion videos at Sydney airport, as loved ones run to each other across the terminal, leaves me on the verge of weeping the rest of the day. I realise that all the decorations and cinnamon bun scented candles cannot replace them or fill that little well of yearning. All the weight of being a very grown-up mother may rest on my shoulders, but I am still that little girl too, hope-filled and eager for a Christmas morning when we will all be together.
Perhaps that little girl is who I need now as I learn how to celebrate Christmas as an ex-pat with an emerging family scattered across the world. Perhaps she is inviting me to ditch my idea of providing my daughter with the perfect holiday, and focus instead on being wholly present with her. Maybe I will cry when I need to and squeal in delight, just like my daughter when she discovers her stocking stuffed to overflowing.
So, I will not look ahead or behind but inward, where my family are with me always. I will create traditions that make them visible to my daughter, hanging the ornaments they have sent, cooking the dishes they love, and telling the stories that weave throughout our lives and hold us close. We will embrace video calling the grandparents and aunts, despite its limitations, and do our very best to keep connected until our own ecstatic reunion. Connection is at the heart of this holiday, and it is a connection we can gift each other at any distance.
I imagine other mothers buckling under the pressure to become the stage managers of Christmas when what they might need more is to feel like a child again themselves. Being held instead of holding everything together. Receiving instead of re-arranging. Making a mess and staying in their pajamas for a few glorious days. It brings to mind a quote from Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote Little House on the Prairie. “Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime.”
In that spirit, I put up our plastic tree with relish. I string it with dazzling lights, lie underneath and look up. I will be home for Christmas in my heart.