When I was a child, one of my favorite things about Christmas was my mother’s candy dish. On Christmas Eve, Mom would fill a white, plastic, divided Tupperware dish with different sweets and place it on the kitchen table. Christmas Day was the only time that her children could eat as much candy as we wanted without having to ask. I would help myself to an endless supply of miniature peanut butter cups, Turtles, peanut clusters, various chocolate cremes, and M&Ms throughout the entire day. As a child, I certainly indulged voraciously in one of my mother’s many Christmas traditions.
Mom loved Christmas. “Christmas is a time when all of your dreams should come true,” she would say. “Christmas is magical. Miracles always happen at Christmas.”
My mother always tried hard to make Christmas a special time for her children. She would scrimp and save all year, usually going without new clothes or shoes for herself, in order to have enough money for gifts and special treats. Mom was always concerned that she would not be able to get the presents her children wanted in time for Christmas morning. What if the stores were sold out? What if we had a snowstorm and couldn’t leave the house? What if the car broke down and we no longer had the money for presents? Mom always started Christmas shopping in August. The only problem was that every week one of her four children would suddenly change his or her mind about the gift he or she hoped to receive. Mom was continually returning and purchasing gifts for her children until Christmas Eve. So much for shopping early….
Our favorite presents, however, were always the little items Mom would place in our stockings. Mom had bought each of her children a large, fluffy, white-and-red stocking. Each year, she would fill up the stocking with small trinkets and knick-knacks that were always fun, entertaining, and enjoyable. Her children would always rummage through the stockings first before even looking at the rest of the gifts. Our Christmas stockings were always the most exciting and hilarious part of Christmas morning. Mom would fill the stockings with costume jewelry, small dolls, Hot Wheel cars, puzzles, travel size bottles of shampoo, postage stamps, batteries, candy, cosmetics, and lottery tickets. My mother would always be very clever and creative when filling our stockings. The miniature stocking gifts would change, of course, as her children matured, but there were two consistent items that Mom would place in my stocking every year. I would always receive a popcorn ball, which filled out the toe of the stocking, and a new, sealed tube of Chapstick. A popcorn ball and Chapstick were always in my stocking every Christmas morning.
Several years later, when I moved away from Kansas, I had no idea what happened to my Christmas stocking. I didn’t have any Christmas traditions of my own. I didn’t put up a tree. I didn’t string lights around my apartments. I didn’t buy special foods. I never decorated. Over the years, I spent Christmas alone in quiet meditation, just enjoying the peacefulness of the day. My childhood memories of Christmas sustained me.
Last August, after twenty-three years, I moved back to Kansas. I am currently staying with my brother, Tony, and sister-in-law, Mary, in the home where I had spent the last few years of my childhood. This holiday season is rather bittersweet. My mother had passed away almost six years ago. I was thinking of her and all of her Christmas traditions last weekend when Tony and Mary began decorating the house for the holiday season. Tony was carrying up the artificial tree from the basement and setting it up in the family room. “Wow!” I asked him. “How long have you had this tree?”
“Oh,” he answered, “it’s about sixteen years old.” As he continued to put the branches together, Tony and Mary told stories of past Christmas holidays. They talked about financial struggles, old and new traditions, family losses, happy moments and times of stress. They told stories of their first Christmas together and heartwarming anecdotes of when my fourteen-year-old nephew was a baby. When the tree was finally up and completely decorated, when nothing but the soft glow of the multicolored lights illuminated the space, Tony and Mary stood in the middle of the room with their arms around each other and gazed lovingly at their tree with tears in their eyes. That’s when I realized that this sixteen-year-old artificial tree was as real and as lovely as any tree in the deepest forest.
After a few minutes, Tony and Mary continued decorating their home with nativity scenes, Santa Claus figurines, and toy trains. Tony reached into one large box and pulled out some fluffy red and white objects. “Look, Jamie,” he called to me. “I still have all of our stockings from when we were kids.”
“You do?” I asked in surprise. “I haven’t seen mine in years. I didn’t know it still existed.”
“Yeah,” Tony answered. “I put all of them up on the mantel every year. It’s not Christmas until the stockings are hung up.” Tony proceeded then to hang the stockings carefully over the fireplace. After a few minutes, I smiled as I realized how the family had grown. Now, nine stockings hung over the fireplace. I stared at the one that had my name printed in red glitter at the top of the stocking. Suddenly, I noticed something.
“What’s in my stocking, Tony?” I asked him.
“What?” he answered and then laughed. “Nothing’s in it. It’s not Christmas yet.”
“No, Tony,” I said, “Look. There is something bulging out in the middle of my stocking. What is that? Did you put something in it?”
“No,” Tony stated. “I hang up your stocking every year. Since you usually aren’t here for Christmas, I don’t put anything in it. It’s always been empty.”
I got up from my seat on the couch and walked over to the fireplace. I reached my hand into my stocking and grabbed the object that was creating the small bulge in the middle of the fabric. I pulled my hand out, looked at the item…and laughed. “Oh, my God,” I said.
“What? What is it?” both Mary and Tony asked me.
I held my hand out and showed them that in my palm rested a sealed, unopened tube of Chapstick. “How did this get in there?” I asked.
“That is strange,” Tony responded. “After twenty years of hanging your stocking on the mantel, I never noticed it. I didn’t know that was in there. Are you sure you want it? It’s got to be at least twenty years old.”
But I didn’t think so. I smiled as I stared at the tube and then closed my fingers tightly around it. “Thank you, Momma,” I whispered. “I love you, too.” This was my first Christmas in Kansas with family in twenty-three years. I believe that my mother was welcoming me back home and wishing me a very happy Christmas. People think I’m strange when I tell them this story, but I don’t care. I believe my mother is still with me and she is watching out for me. The tube of Chapstick was her way of letting me know that she still loves me and is happy I am home.
After all, Christmas is magical. Miracles always happen at Christmas.