There was a time when Christmas Eve was the biggest night of the year for me.
It began with the preparations. I would spend weeks making a wish list for Santa, deciding exactly what toys I wanted to ask for, finding the perfect balance between need and greed. I would write him long letters, asking how Mrs. Claus had been, wanting to know if elves really made all the toys, begging for the secret to how he made it around the entire world in one night. My sister and I would brainstorm ideas for all the perfect snacks to leave out for Santa. (We figured he probably got sick of milk and cookies, so we chose treats like Doritos and Diet Coke, both staples in our household.)
Christmas Eve would finally arrive, bringing along far-away family members and delicious food and more presents than a little girl like me could ever think to ask for. Everyone sat around, eating and talking and joking and laughing. There was an excitement in the air that even a child could recognize, and it wasn’t just about the gifts. Christmas Eve meant being surrounded by people who loved me. It meant that these people I cared about were all truly happy, at least for that one night.
The best part of Christmas Eve came at the end of the night. Everyone would start drifting off to bed, and my little sister and I were sent to our rooms with warnings about Santa not coming if we didn’t fall asleep right away. We would head down the hall and begin preparing the Christmas Eve fort.
Every Christmas Eve, my sister and I would construct a tent made from bedsheets in one of our rooms. We took great care to make it as big and comfy as possible. We made blanket pallets inside the tent, and crammed it full of pillows and stuffed animals. We snuck in snacks and drinks from the kitchen. We brought books to read and cards to play. I always brought my portable cassette player with my favorite tape (and the only tape I owned), Backstreet Boys. It was such a big process that we were usually exhausted by the time we finished our fort. My sister would fall asleep pretty soon thereafter, while I would lie as still as possible, trying to listen for reindeer hooves and sleigh bells.
In the morning, we would wake up and rush to the Christmas tree, screaming with delight over the things Santa brought. It never failed to send me into shock, the fact that he actually snuck past me and surprised us with everything we wanted. Santa always responded to our letters with one of his own, informing us that Mrs. Claus was doing fine and the reindeer sent their love. We felt extra proud when we saw the Dorito crumbs left behind on his plate, knowing that we were a little more clever than all the other children who left him such predictable snacks as milk and cookies.
When I was a kid, there was nothing better than Christmas.
Years later, I am laying in my bed, writing this and reminiscing. And it’s a little bit sad. My sister and I are much too big now to fit in a Christmas Eve fort. I no longer make a Christmas wish list because money is tight and, truly, I have everything I need. There are no Doritos sitting out, Santa came to our tree while I was in the shower, and my mom is already snoring in her bed, resting up for the visit with all the relatives tomorrow. I just finished wrapping gifts, and technically, it’s no longer even Christmas Eve. Things have changed, things are still changing, and it all feels so different now.
My sister already made me open one gift, a pair of silly socks with an inside joke attached, because she’s never, ever been good at keeping presents secret for long. My mom has been stressing all day about meal preparations and having a clean house, but it’s almost comforting, or at least expected, because she always gets like this when visitors are coming. And the aunts and uncles just got into town, and tomorrow, we will still sit down to the Christmas feast, eating and talking and joking and laughing.
Some things never change.
I look back at how things used to be, and there is a hint of sadness. But it's a sweet one. It reminds me to look for the innocent, pure joy that this season brings. It reminds me to savor every bit of what has been placed on my plate, because it all changes so quickly.
I am reminded of just how precious this life is.
Christmas Eve is different now, yes. I grew up. And almost everything in my life has changed in some way.
But that feeling? The excitement of being surrounded by everyone who loves me? The joy of seeing smiles on the faces of the people I care for the most? That feeling stays the same. No matter what changes, I will always recognize the love that comes with the Christmas season. And really, that’s what it’s all about.
Merry Christmas, yall. Much love. So much love.