When Mom Forgets the Meaning of Christmas

We studied store maps like Indiana Jones planning a crusade for the Holy Grail and figured out where the Barbie Jeeps were hidden. On Thanksgiving night, I tucked my little turkeys in the bed and pushed my husband out the door, into the cold, cruel world that is Wal-Mart on Black Friday.
11/30/2012 11:37 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

The Christmas tree was up, its lights glowing softly through my window into the cold street beyond. The stockings were hung by the chimney with something resembling care, and the Ornament Fatality Rate of 2011 was rising. It was Christmas at the O'Bryant household and the decorations were paying the price.

I'm normally a last-minute shopper, waiting until December 1st to even get started, but last year I couldn't help getting sucked in as my husband's mother and three sisters planned their Black Friday attack.

They were huddled together over a laptop talking about the deals they were going to get when I heard Tina say, "really cheap Barbie Jeeps."

"My girls would LOVE one of those!" I exclaimed. "How much are they?"

"Marked down from $230 to $88," Tina said.

I was gobsmacked. This is what I had been missing out on all those years I'd been sleeping off my turkey?! I sat down to learn from professionals.

They all began talking at once. There were so many things to learn I needed to take notes: Don't get a buggy because I would get stuck in traffic and never reach my items in time; prioritize the things I really wanted and head to those items first; work as a team, never go anywhere alone; once I got my hands on an item, never set it down or walk away from it.

I was overwhelmed but determined, if I could get most of my Christmas shopping done at a bargain price I was going to do it. The fact that my children had never asked for a Barbie Jeep was totally beside the point. It was big, it was pink and they could drive it. I was virtually a shoo-in for Mother of the Year.

But we couldn't buy just one, I have three daughters -- naturally we needed two Jeeps so that everyone could ride at the same time. There was just one tiny problem: my kids. If I was going to be team shopping at the crack of dawn for toys bigger than myself, I either needed: a) a partner to shop with, or b) a babysitter who wanted to come to my house at dark-thirty.

I discussed my problem at length with my husband, Zeb. I feel sure the only reason he agreed to go to the store for me was to put an end to my shopping monologue, but regardless of his reasoning, he volunteered to go shopping on Black Friday for me. (Whenever I doubt his love for me I come back to this moment.)

We studied store maps like Indiana Jones planning a crusade for the Holy Grail and figured out where the Barbie Jeeps were hidden. We read the fine print and discovered the sale started and 12:01 a.m. as opposed to 5 a.m. as we had originally thought. On Thanksgiving night I tucked my little turkeys in the bed, took a shower and pushed my husband out the door, into the cold, cruel world that is Wal-Mart on Black Friday and wished him well.

I'd like to tell you it was like a scene from The Last Crusade: The beautiful heroine wishes Indy well, saying good-bye with a passionate kiss, never knowing if she will see him again. But it was more like a scene out of Modern Family -- I slapped him on the butt when he bent over to tie his shoes and said, "Go get 'em tiger. Don't make eye contact with anybody and don't come home without 'em!"

I crawled into bed to read, not knowing the drama that was playing out in front of my husband's very eyes only a few miles away. He narrowly made it through the automatic doors as he ran and threw himself on top of two Barbie jeeps. He held his position for almost 45 minutes as he waited for the official sale time to roll around. He was making his way to the check-out line, dodging dangerous and rogue shoppers when a fight broke out in the linens. He quickly snapped a picture and texted me, "Fight breaks out in towels. These people are serious!"

If someone would throw a punch over a $1.33 Egyptian cotton bath towel, what would they do for big-ticket items? Would he make it to the checkout unscathed? Only time would tell.

He climbed into bed later that evening and said, "I don't think those Jeeps are right. They are really small. I don't even think Aubrey and Emma will fit in one by themselves."

But my Christmas frenzy continued. Since I had blown my budget on Barbie Jeeps, the girls had no little things to open -- or any things that they had actually asked for, and Zeb was right the Jeeps were a lot smaller than the ad had made them seem. The Jeeps sat in our garage for several weeks, haunting me.

Every year as the holiday season approaches, people start asking my kids, "Is Santa coming to your house this year?" Aubrey and Emma glance at me before nodding and smiling politely because here's the thing: My kids know Santa is pretend.

I grew up believing in Santa but Zeb didn't. When our first child was born we couldn't figure out a good reason to promote The Fat Man. It's not that we wanted to suck the fun out of the holiday by telling our kids that Santa was only a marketing ploy developed by the Coca-Cola Company in 1922 to convince the public that Coke wasn't just a hot weather beverage. Or that Santa is a pawn used by manufacturers all over the world to fan the flames of consumerism in children. But we also didn't want to be Those Parents -- you know, the parents who tell their kids Santa isn't real and ruin it for everyone else. As Christians, Zeb and I didn't want to dilute the importance of Jesus' birth, but we didn't think it was necessary to squash the playfulness of the season that goes hand in hand with the story of Santa.

For the first few years of Aubrey's life, we never talked about it. We watched Christmas specials on television, decorated our tree, opened presents and baked armies of gingerbread men. Aubrey was 4-years-old before she ever asked, "Momma is Santa real?"

I paused and took a deep breath before fully committing to my answer, "Yes, he was."

She crawled into my lap and I told her the true story of St. Nicholas. I told her how he embodied the Christmas spirit by giving selflessly and because of this became Father Christmas. Kids understand make-believe -- pretending is what they do best. My daughters understand Mickey Mouse isn't real, but it didn't dampen their enthusiasm a bit when we went to Disney World. Sadie, my 3-year-old, also knows that she isn't a puppy, but that doesn't keep her from crawling around on all fours and barking occasionally. My girls know it's really their parents putting presents under the tree, but that doesn't stop us from hanging our stockings and rushing to bed so "Santa" can come or making cookies to leave out for him.

But last year, in spite of my best intentions, I found myself with a garage full of Barbie Jeeps and a bunch of useless crap from the Dollar Store so that my kids wouldn't be disappointed. I had a creeping sense of yuck when I thought about Christmas, but I ignored it. There wasn't anything wrong with giving my kids a bigger Christmas than we normally had in the past. I pushed my doubts aside.

We took our two older girls, Aubrey and Emma, to see "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" at our local theater, and as soon as the first lines of the familiar play were spoken, we sat transfixed.

"The Herdman's were the worst kids in the whole history of the world. They lied, stole and smoked cigars... even the girls."

I've seen the play a million times and the familiar words took me back to Christmases past -- times when I wasn't worried about what Santa would bring for Christmas -- back when I had perfect faith that the Big Guy would pull through.

The Herdman's were a bad bunch of kids, six of them to be exact, who had never even heard the Christmas story. They begin going to church because they hear tall tales of "all-you-can-eat" desserts and ended up starring in the church's Christmas Pageant. The congregation is in an uproar over a bunch of hoodlums playing Mary, Joseph and every other meaningful role, but through their experience, the Herdman's learn the story of Christmas.

I couldn't stop smiling as my 4-year-old and 6-year-old laughed in all the right spots and gasped in unison when Imogene Herdman got caught smoking a cigar in the ladies room of the church.

After spending a week in and out of the pediatrician's office with two sick kids, paying copays, buying expensive prescription medicines and wrestling with my inner shopaholic, it was exactly what I needed to remember what I wanted to teach my children about Christmas. I made the decision in the theater to return the comically small Barbie Jeeps that were overpriced no matter how "On Sale" they were. I took back the little things I had gotten to fill the empty spaces around the tree and the sag in the girls' stockings and I went back to my original Christmas plan. I got the girls a few items they really wanted and a few items they really needed -- new tennis shoes, new toothbrushes and pajamas.

I realized sitting in the theater that the best part of being an adult is being able to decide when to act like a kid. Christmas is the perfect time of year to unleash your inner child, so long as you can keep from blowing all your money on tiny, pink plastic cars.

I had to smother my motherly instincts when the cast of the play began singing "Silent Night." Audience participation wasn't really on the agenda, but Aubrey, my oldest, was moved to sing and from the fourth row, she out-sang some of the cast members. The mother in me wanted to shush her, but the kid in me wanted to join in -- I compromised and kept my mouth shut.

I made a decision to be more childlike: to relax and enjoy the season, whether that meant singing inappropriately loud when no one else was, letting my kids eat Christmas cookies for dinner (on occasion), and worrying a little less about how, what and where Santa did his Christmas shopping.

I decided to embrace the part of Christmas that matters. The part that makes your heart swell up so much with pure delight and happiness at all of your own blessings, no matter how small, that you are moved to bless others.

Tears rolled down my cheeks when the Herdman's, in lieu of frankincense, gave the ham out of their welfare basket as a gift to Baby Jesus. "That," I thought to myself, "is the Christmas I want my children to know and I think I'm finally willing to do what it takes to give it to them -- even if I have to give up my Barbie Jeeps to get there."