Why I Believe Christmas Eve Is The Real Gift Of The Holiday Season

Why my grandmother loved the hope and promise of the day before.

Christmas tree is decorated with ornaments alongside stockings and hot cocoa
Photo:

SANNY VAN LOON

The first time I cried on Christmas morning was a couple of years after I got married. My newish husband and I were spending the holiday with his parents in Connecticut, and though I was a 30-year-old woman, I was not yet a mother, which meant I was still in that pre-parenthood phase of life and believed that Christmas morning was for me. My generous mother-in-law must have, on some level, understood this, which is why she bought me an expensive vacuum cleaner that year. I still have it, and I’d grab it in a fire before any family photo albums—but her primary audience was her grandchildren, my husband’s sisters’ kids. They did not arrive at my in-laws’ house until the afternoon of December 25, after opening presents in their own living rooms in New York City. So Christmas did not really start until around 3 or 4 p.m., depending on traffic. That morning in 2007, I left my sleeping husband in bed and walked downstairs to the living room. Instead of finding a percolating coffee pot and preheated ovens, I found my mother-in-law in the dark, standing next to a half-decorated tree. (She often put on the final ornaments and lights as everyone pulled into the driveway.) She mentioned that she was going to Starbucks and asked if I would like anything. A latte, maybe, or a bagel?

I walked back upstairs, shut myself in the bathroom, and sobbed. When my husband knocked on the door and asked what was happening, I shouted something about the Earth surely being off its axis and “Do you think Starbucks serves Bloody Marys?”

Now, 17 years into marriage, I know things. Starbucks does not offer Bloody Marys, for one. My mother-in-law values togetherness and gifts over decorations and homemade cinnamon rolls. And being flexible with traditions—or letting go completely—is actually very freeing. One Christmas Eve with my in-laws, we cheered for an onion volcano at a Japanese hibachi restaurant because it was the only place open after we exited evening Mass. I rolled with it. I’ve matured.

Elizabeth (front row holding bear) and family
Elizabeth (front row holding bear) and family.

But even as I’ve gotten older, had my own children, and done Christmas a dozen different ways in a dozen different locations, I cry on the big day more years than not. The reasons vary. Once, when my oldest child was still a toddler, I had spent more time researching a set of beautiful building blocks than I had on my high school term paper and then thought it would be cute to spell out her name with them on the living room floor. She not only didn’t notice her name, but she also hated the blocks. Again, 45-year-old me knows that kids will almost always gush more over the $1 glitter lip balm you picked up at the dollar store on the day before than the hand-painted clogs you ordered from Amsterdam. At the time, though, I cried in the powder room of my parents’ house, mostly for all the time I’d wasted.

Another year, my sister and I had conspired to buy my parents a new flat-screen television and managed to keep it hidden in the garage until they had gone to bed on Christmas Eve. I wrapped the enormous box in rolls of paper and then videotaped them opening it the next morning so I could show my sister, who was spending Christmas with her husband’s family, how surprised and ecstatic they were. And it wasn’t like they were ungrateful. They liked it! Wonderful! They did need a bigger TV! But watching the video back in my bedroom later, I cried. There was an emotional letdown I couldn’t put my finger on. Maybe the truth is that no upshot could compare to what I’d imagined in the days leading up to Christmas.

I think my grandmother might have felt the same way. Every December 24 of my childhood, one of the first things I heard after waking up was her singsong voice saying, “Christmas Eve gift!” In my memories, she was always the first one awake. She would be rolling out biscuits or sectioning oranges for ambrosia in her zip-up housecoat and greeting each family member who wandered in the same way: “Christmas Eve gift! Christmas Eve gift!” One by one. We’d say back, “Christmas Eve gift!” And then we’d eat breakfast and go about our day. The whole rigmarole made no sense. The greeting didn’t precede an actual gift, unfortunately. My grandmother didn’t pass out presents or even a cookie or a kiss on the head. But it was as consistently part of her Christmas Eve repertoire as having my grandfather jingle bells in the back pantry at bedtime and claiming she could hear Santa. My grandmother died in 1999 and took the origins of “Christmas Eve gift!” To her grave, as far as I can tell. If she ever explained the meaning behind our bizarre call-and-response, none of us remember. My aunts, uncles, and cousins are as baffled as I am. I have read through pages of odd Southern sayings, and this one is never among them. Rather, Google returned ideas about unwrapping matching pajamas to wear to bed that night. Yet my mom, sister, and I still text one another or call to say “Christmas Eve gift!” Every single December 24 like complete weirdos.

Three years ago, after another Christmas Day cry—this one was uniquely warranted, because my dad had just died—my grandmother’s words returned with fresh meaning. What if Christmas Eve was the real gift of the season? What if Christmas Day was the afterthought? What if I could let go of all the expectations and, instead, hold on to the quiet anticipation of the night before to carry me through? Christmas Eve is a gift. It’s better than Christmas Day. There, I said it. In my soul, it’s what I’ve always felt. I cry on the morning of December 25 because someone will be disappointed, because some dumb childhood hurt will resurface, because the stakes are too high, because I bought too much, because I bought too little, because it’s messy, because it’s over. On Christmas Eve, though, the magic is still in the air, whether that’s from tracking Santa or lighting candles as the church sanctuary goes dark. On the 24th, the presents are still wrapped and lovely to look at (unlike the electronics that will emerge like cicadas hours later). Even if the days leading up to it have been stressful with travel or shopping, Christmas Eve is when things finally slow down—and I say this as a mother who once bought everyone’s stocking stuffers at Walgreens at 10 p.m. Even the drugstore was peaceful that night. On Christmas Eve, my very harried life of the previous weeks settles, and that is a gift. It is hopeful. It’s the best time of the holidays, before the chaos and (for me, anyway) the tears. I assume my grandmother felt the same way and was singing it to me all along.

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