Christmas Is About Presence, Not Presents

The presence of Emmanuel, “God With Us,” is the ultimate gift each and every Christmas.

(photo: Mary-Rose Verret)

“This Christmas is just so different... This is the first Christmas I won’t be going home... This is the first Christmas the kids won’t see their grandparents... I don’t know what it’s going to look like this Christmas. I think it’ll be a scaled back Christmas… We will have assigned seating in the gymnasium due to social distancing and limited seating in the church ... The kids will not have their normal Christmas play...”

I’ve heard some version of each of these statements from almost everyone I know. It is true that most families are celebrating a simpler Christmas this year. It is so easy to be sad, angry, frustrated or feel let down. “After a year like 2020 I deserve the best Christmas ever!” 

In the early quiet of this morning I slowly walked down memory lane, starting with the earliest Christmas I could remember all the way to today. Surprisingly, it was the simpler Christmases that I cherished the most.

Christmas was the highlight of the year when I was a child. Not because we received a lot of gifts but because of the beautiful, simple rituals and traditions that my mother led year after year. I grew up on a farm in the Highland mountains of western Virginia known as “Little Switzerland.”

Our tradition was to cut our tree down on Christmas Eve. There were long walks in the snow with a sled, a saw and a piece of rope. Once the perfect tree was found (usually close to dark) we would head home with hearts burning with joy (and our feet burning with cold) and drink hot homemade eggnog and eat cookies while the tree dried and our feet thawed.

We would listen to the Westminster Boys’ Choir’s Festival of Lessons and Carols while we dressed the sweet-smelling tree with popcorn and cranberries threaded on string and paper chain links and little glass balls and metal birds. The last touches were my mother’s Christmas ornaments. Hollow eggs with tiny Christmas scenes inside of them decorated with gold, felt mice skiing, glass balls filled with flowers, and straw ornaments. Then it was the eighties so yes, tinsel went on too!

The highlight every year was returning after the Christmas Vigil and discovering St. Nicholas had placed baby Jesus in his manger. The realization that I can’t remember a single one of the presents I received as a child but I do remember the rituals, the excitement and the joy. As the mother of five this brings me to ponder which our children will remember more — our Christmas traditions or their presents? This is a great reminder to spend more time being present to them than giving them presents. Forty years from now they will remember how present my husband Ryan and I were, but they may not remember a single one of the presents that we bought. That puts things in perspective. Always remember presence over presents!

Years later, when I was a teenager, Christmas came at the end of a particularly hard year for our family. I remember coming home a few days before Christmas and seeing gift packages on the porch. Our church community brought us a ham and presents for all the children. I don’t remember the gifts that were given, but I remember the generosity and feeling loved by our church community.

As a young single third-grade teacher, I decided it was finally the year to spend my first Christmas away from home. It wasn’t for the sake of being away from home but because I wanted to experience Christmas Midnight Mass in Rome. I flew to Rome on Christmas Eve and my luggage was lost so I went straight to St. Peter’s Basilica and stood in line in the cold Rome rain until they finally opened the doors. That Mass was one I’ll remember for the rest of my life. My luggage was lost the whole week and all the shops were closed for the holidays. Hanging my wet socks to dry on the radiator at my hotel in Rome in the early hours of Christmas morning was both lonely and joyful. I realized that Mary and Joseph may have wanted to be at home for their first Christmas too!

The first Christmas after Ryan and I were married was also our first Christmas as a new family. After an emergency C-section and premature delivery in the wee hours of Dec. 23, I did not see our first child until Christmas Eve in the NICU. Finally holding our firstborn child was one of the happiest moments of my life. Christmas day being on a Friday in a Louisiana hospital meant fish on the menu. I’m not a fish person and again I remember crying that I was getting fish on Christmas Day, with no Christmas Mass, and that our tree was home alone and we were in the hospital with no friends or family.

In the end it was so much better than I thought it would be. A priest brought us Jesus in Holy Communion and while the baby and I both had to stay in the hospital for almost a week it was like a mini retreat. We read the readings from the Magnificat, we listened to Mass on the radio, and we delighted in our firstborn. Ryan had to sleep on the sofa at the hospital and while our first Christmas as a family wasn’t the Christmas we expected, it still is the best Christmas we ever had. Because in the end we had Jesus, we had each other and it was our first Christmas as a family. Our first Christmas was about presence over presents.

The Christmases that were stripped bare of normal festivities gave way to a deeper anticipation of savoring Christ’s birth and the joy, gratitude and excitement that come with celebrating was almost unbearable. It was the Christmases where Christ was the deepest longing and greatest gift received — where the one point, the one Person, on which the whole universe turns and exists, then comes to our rough hearts and makes a home. It is the innocent Christ Child who comes to us this Christmas, to restore our corrupted innocence and give us the joy that only he can bring! His presence is the ultimate gift each and every Christmas.

Emmanuel is “God With Us” even, and most especially, in our most difficult years. Share that joyful message and may yours be a very merry Christmas full of Christ and full of his Joy.