As I turned the key to start my Expedition, I glanced at its digital dash message display. It was telling me that the exterior temperature was 96 degrees but I knew it was actually much higher. I don’t know how meteorologists factor heat index but in the 4.2 seconds it took me to walk through my laundry room door, around the back of my SUV, open the driver’s door, toss my purse on the front passenger seat, shut the car door and turn the key in the ignition I was already sticky with sweat. My legs burned on the car’s leather seat and touching the steering wheel was like taking a batch of brownies out of the oven without using oven mitts.
If there is one thing you understand deep down in your bone marrow when you grow up in Florida it is heat. I’ve been places when it’s been hot but the heat in Florida is so specific -so distinctive-that it is easy to tell the difference between an 85 degree day in ,say, Cleveland and an 85 degree day in Ft. Lauderdale. Florida’s heat is a soupy mixture of hotness and humidity. Breathing in the summer months of June, July and especially August is like breathing through a snorkel – you can actually feel the weight of the air with every breath. True Floridians can do heat – no problem. But when I reached my destination, Hobby Lobby, and walked through its sliding doors I immediately became chilled. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.
I needed yarn for a baby kimono I wanted to knit for a friend that just found out she was pregnant. I thought I’d try knitting matching cardigans for both mommy and baby too. I never get the chance to knit baby stuff so I was really excited. The mom-to-be favorite color is yellow and of course, even though I have drawers full of all kinds of yarn – wools, cottons, and nylons in just about every color you can think of I had no yellow. So my mind was on the softest, buttery yellow yarn I could find which is why when I walked in the doors of the Hobby Lobby and found myself staring at dozens of beautifully decorated Christmas trees I literally stopped in my tracks and forgot what I was there for in the first place. And was that Muzak really playing O Holy Night? I knew it was July, but Christmas had arrived in all its sparkling, glittery glory. I have spent my entire life in Florida and even though I never have had the Currier and Ives white Christmas experience there is one thing I was sure of. No matter where you live in the world and no matter what the temperature is outside Christmas is in December and not July.
A Hobby Lobby employee noticed my perplexed expression and asked if I needed any help. “Are these Christmas trees?” I muttered. She gave me a strange glance and said, “Yes” very slowly as if I would have trouble understanding the word. “We’re a little late getting everything done. If you are looking for Fall Décor it’s all 80% off.” She smiled at me but I could tell she really wanted to get back to the 9ft pre-lit pine decorated with glittered birds and garland that looked like bird nests strung together. I walked past the trees and the boxes of ornaments, what seemed like hundreds of decorated wreaths and garlands by the mile. Even though I have somewhat been aware that Christmas seems to show up earlier and earlier each year this was the first time I consciously noticed. Why? School hasn’t even started; there was still Halloween and Thanksgiving to get through. We were still in the middle of summer for Pete’s sake! Are other people so super organized and well prepared and I’m just a Winter Holiday slacker because I don’t even think about Christmas or decorate anything until after Thanksgiving?
Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. But I’d begun to feel each year more and more stressed out about December 25th. I think it started around the year of Tickle Me Elmo – 1996. That particular toy had been deemed as the must have gift. If your child didn’t have a Tickle Me Elmo to open on Christmas morning their lives would be ruined according to every news reporter, talk show host, magazine and newspaper article. People were standing in line for days just on the whisper of a rumor that their local Toys R Us might be getting a shipment of the elusive Elmo. Others turned to EBay and literally paid hundreds of dollars for a toy that retailed for $28.99. I began calling everyone I knew all over the country and put out the ‘Get My Kids A Tickle Me Elmo’ SOS. There was no Elmo to be found anywhere. And then my husband asked me a very simple question – “Do they even want one?” “Of course” I replied baffled at the thought. “It’s the must have toy, honey”. Needless to say, Elmo was not under our tree that year. But two months later in February when my then 2 year-old opened her Tickle Me Elmo that was now a bit dusty from sitting idle on the store shelf and was even on clearance, she barely gave it a glance.
All working moms feel the pressure of keeping every single Christmas tradition or else they believe their kids will grow up feeling like they missed out, once again according to the “experts”. We must have dozens of Christmas cookies, homemade of course. I would stay up late into the night baking ginger snaps and snicker doodles, snowballs and of course sugar cookies cut out into the required Christmas shapes such as stars and stockings, bells and trees. These my girls decorated with gobs of colored sugars and tinted frosting. “We’re making Christmas memories” I kept telling myself when my girls would whine – “How many more do we have to do?” Then while decorating the tree, the kids would hang a half dozen or so ornaments and then be done. “Hey” I’d tell them “this is fun!” And the gifts – well each gift had to not only be perfect but it must be perfectly wrapped. Once again, I’d remind myself that these Christmas memories would stay with my kids for the rest of their lives and if I’d have to stay up until 2 am to make sure their gifts were wrapped to Martha Stewarts standards, well it was worth it right?
As a full-time stay-at-home mom the pressure for the perfect Christmas is even worse. Now there was no excuse of why you didn’t make handmade gifts for all your neighbors, the mailman, and your kids’ teachers. Since I now had “so much more time” (ha ha ) because I no longer worked there was no reason why I couldn’t gather branches from the Christmas tree lot and wire them into wreaths for the front and side doors. And of course, one tree no longer cut it. You need a “theme” tree each year. Plus a “family tree” and a kitchen tree decorated with all your Christmas cookie cutters – after you’ve made all those beautifully decorated sour cream cut-out cookies with homemade royal icing delicately piped around the edges of course. Each year I began to look less forward to Christmas. It was becoming expensive and exhausting and quite frankly annoying! Then it happened. The Christmas of 2008. I got sick. Very, very sick.
As I was driving home from my husband’s office Christmas party I started to feel a slight tinge in my ear. I ignored it and continued on with my day, a Friday, and although the pain in my ear kept getting worse and I noticed that I felt a little feverish. I just did what all us moms do – just keep on going. I did turn in for the night earlier than normal hoping that a good night’s sleep and a couple of Tylenol would make for a brand new girl in the morning. Instead I awoke around 2am screaming at the top of my lungs. The pain and pressure in now both of my ears was unbearable. It felt as though my entire head was going to explode. My husband, who can usually sleep through anything, woke up and was ready to take me to the emergency room. And then I felt a pop. And another. White goo started gushing from both my ears, matting my hair to the sides of my head. The pain receded but my husband and I knew what had happed. Both of my ear drums had burst. I waited until the morning and went to an urgent care center. After looking in my ears and giving me prescriptions of antibiotics and pain killers the physician’s assistant told me to see my doctor first thing Monday morning. It was 11 days before Christmas. The family tree, the tree where my beautifully wrapped presents (none of which were wrapped as of yet) hadn’t been decorated yet. Only about 3 kinds of Christmas cookies had been baked and sorted into freezer bags. Heck, most of the gift shopping still needed to be done. Plus the menu for the Christmas dinner needed to be finalized and the groceries bought. But I really didn’t care about any of it. My ears were still oozing, I was in pain, I had a fever and felt terrible. I went to bed. And instead of getting better, I just got worse. My husband needed to do some traveling for work before the holidays so instead of making gingerbread houses and cutting out snowflakes and other Christmas-ish activities my girls spent the beginning of their Winter Break left to their own devices and choose to either stare at the television or a computer screen while texting their friends until the middle of the night. They ate whatever they could find in the kitchen and didn’t even mind that we had missed watching It’s A Wonderful Life – my favorite movie of all time. “Don’t worry, it will all get done” my husband would tell me each time he would call from wherever he was – D.C., New York, Texas or Miami. I had to put my trust in him that somehow that would happen, because just getting out of bed and shuffling to the bathroom took all my energy. The antibiotics weren’t helping, I still had a fever, my throat was now infected and I was literally sleeping all the time. So I put my trust in my husband and my bachelor brother (who didn’t even own any Christmas decorations) to finish our perfect Christmas. After all, we were making memories.
The tree did get decorated and no, it would not have made the cover of Martha Stewart’s Living. The gifts got bought and wrapped in a variety of Christmas papers and any gift bags that my husband and brother could find. We had a pre-cooked ham for dinner and my mother and mother-in-law took care of all the sides. The desserts were from the Publix bakery. My neighbors received nothing from the Carns family that year and all the Christmas cards delivered after my ears exploded never even got opened. And guess what – it was still Christmas! We still had fun opening our badly wrapped gifts with no ribbons, we drank hot chocolate from a mix, we stayed in our unmatched pj’s the entire day and just had fun being together. And even though I still felt horrible physically I have to say it was one of my favorite Christmas’s ever. Memories were made that year. And they had nothing to do with what was under the tree or what the tree even looked like. We were together, we were family, we were merry and bright and all the other things that we sing about in all those ageless carols.
With my Christmas lesson learned, I have become much more casual about Christmas. Not that I don’t think it is important, I just don’t think that if my tree doesn’t look like it took a professional decorator hours to get it just right, my families’ Christmas won’t be ruined. And even though I love to bake, if things are hectic, I just buy the pre-made cookie dough. And since ribbons just end up frustrating everyone, I no longer bother with them. We even skipped putting up lights on the house last year simply because my husband was traveling so much there just wasn’t time. And it was okay. I don’t pay attention to what the experts say are the must have gifts of the season, I don’t shop on Black Friday and I don’t look for bargains on Christmas Eve. I do love to walk through my neighborhood at night and look at all their beautiful decorations, drink hot chocolate while staring into a blazing fire, watch Charlie Brown’s Christmas with a bowl of popcorn that I now eat instead of trying to string into garland. My kids pick a different Christmas book to read before bed every night during the month of December and we put out cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve after attending Candlelight Service. Instead of worrying about making memories, I try and show my kids how to soak Christmas in, to feel it in their hearts and to keep it with them throughout the year.
So even though Toy R Us is running a big Christmas in July campaign, Sears has it’s Summer Snowstorm Sale and the big discount stores already have cleared away their patio and garden sections and have replaced them with decorated trees and all the trimmings, remember it’s July. It’s summer. Enjoy this season while it’s here. Even though it isn’t Christmas, you are still making family memories every day – holiday or not.