One of the nicest Christmas gifts I ever received was from my mother-in-law.
I didn’t even realize exactly what she had given to me until years later.
Apparently, the hidden gems of this gift are still revealing themselves to me today, even though the actual giving happened over 17 years ago.
My first Christmas away from home was the year my husband and I got married at the ripe old age of 23. I remember feeling really grown up to be celebrating the holidays with my husband’s family, and simultaneously like a weepy child, melancholy for the traditions I was accustomed to with my own family. When I think about this experience, now that I am not-so-far from the age my mother-in-law was that year, I realize that she must have known exactly what I was feeling.
She must have looked at me knowing how young I was, remembering what it was like to think that your childhood traditions are the best and possibly the only way things should be done; understanding that I was young enough to think I knew everything about being an adult and that I had no idea of all I still had to learn. I am sure I filled her ear with details about how we do things in MY family, but she was wise enough to know that this came from growing pains and naïveté rather than from judgment of her way of doing things, and so she graciously included me in the traditions of their family; traditions that had been beautifully evolving since she was a young bride.
When I arrived at their home, there was a beautifully embroidered stocking hanging on the fireplace with my name on it. I was touched by the gesture at the time, but it wasn’t until years later, after my mother-in-law passed away, that I learned the greater significance of this gift. After she died, her best friend told me that the stocking had actually belonged to my mother-in-law.
My husband’s mother had ripped the stitches of her own name out and sewn my name in. And she didn’t want me to know that she had done it. She just wanted me to feel like I was supposed to be there.
Looking back, it didn’t even occur to me that hers was the stocking that appeared a little different from everyone else’s that year. It was a lovely thing for her to do, and I always admired that she did it without seeking any credit for the gesture. She met me right where I was emotionally, and did an incredibly thoughtful thing in the name of pure love. This is how I like to think of Santa Claus—he gives amazing gifts without looking for any thanks or recognition, just because he can; just because he understands what the recipient needs at the time to feel loved and supported. My mother-in-law was Santa Claus that year.
Last week, we had to have the “Santa Claus Talk” with our son. He had been asking questions incessantly in front of his little sister, and so it was time for a sit-down discussion. What a bittersweet milestone. We explained to him that Santa is a wonderful way for children to learn about believing in things they can’t see—like Love. We explained that Santa Claus is bigger than just one person; that there was a historical figure at one time who gave gifts to children anonymously, and that his gestures touched so many people that the spirit of giving is still alive in all of us. We told him that being old enough to learn these things about Santa Claus means that now he gets to BE Santa Claus.
I was touched by his question of whether he could give a gift to his sister and sign it “From Santa.” He understood that giving without looking for credit is a beautiful thing.
He was also quite pleased to learn that he would be allowed to eat the cookies and help put presents under the tree after his sister falls asleep (this also motivated him to keep the “secret” alive for her as long as possible). There were tears on both sides as I watched my son struggle with the new knowledge that was changing how he saw the world. It reminded me of the many things that have changed my world view, like that gift from my mother-in-law that I received at a time when my life was changing more than I realized; that gift that continued to evolve with meaning for years beyond that particular Christmas. I know my son will be a good addition to Team Santa, and as the years go on, he will learn the beauty of this lesson on multiple levels.
This Christmas season, I have been thinking a lot about how life puts things in front of us that change the way we view the world. That our experiences shape us so uniquely, and that it is amazing how different experiences can often bring us to the same conclusions; or conversely, how similar or shared experiences can be interpreted so differently among different people. Spending that first Christmas with my husband’s family was one of many times life has presented me with the lesson that there is more than one means to the same end, and that my way is neither the only way nor necessarily the best way (life gives me that lesson a lot—I am not terribly quick on the uptake for that lesson). The Christmas our family celebrates now is an evolution of both of our traditions; it’s not my family’s Christmas or his family’s Christmas—it’s ours, and it will continue to change and evolve over the coming years as our family grows and changes.
I hope this year (and in years to come), I can get better at meeting people where they are, respecting their experiences, and allowing the wisdom from their unique paths to teach me something new. I will look for the opportunities to give for the sake of making my loved ones feel even more loved. I will be Santa Claus.
Ho ho ho…Merry Christmas!
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Assistant Editor: Jaim Coddington/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photos: courtesy of the author, Anthony Kelley/Flickr
*This article was originally published on Daily Presents.