Waiting for Christmas, Waiting for Life

The key sits loosely in its lock: unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next as freely as wind-tossed leaves and women freely borrow milk or sugar from unattended kitchens, no one locks a closet.

In this neighborhood, closets hold no treasure: no jewels, no gold, no banded stacks of bills. They overflow with life’s necessities: shoes still tidy in original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Where two closets nestle side by side, hers is obvious with its jumble of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs, and report cards. His, more intentional, contains a purposeful array of hunting vests, stamp paraphernalia, drafting tools, and gun cases. It’s a perfect marriage of closets.

Dimly lit and cave-like, the closets are mysterious: compelling but forbidden. Few children dare enter them without permission, but in the weeks before Christmas, a child might forego caution after being tempted by the faintest whisper of possibility. There might be presents…

It’s a special kind of hide-and-seek, this business of children searching out what parents have tucked under the bed or on those out-of-the-way shelves behind the washer. Eventually, every child is tempted toward the best hiding-place of all: a parent’s bedroom closet.

When I decided to invade the closets, I found their locks less of an impediment than a certain bottom hinge. It had needed oiling for months, and protested with a rising, audible whine whenever the door eased open. Hesitation only increased its volume; pulled firmly and resolutely, it remained silent.

More dangerous was the oak floor board lying halfway between the room’s threshold and the closet. No matter how firm or light the step, it creaked beneath human weight: the sound sharper by far than the scrape of branches on winter-frosted windows. Counting from the threshold, I found the twenty-eighth board the culprit. Careless or inattentive, I sometimes failed to watch, count, and count again before crossing the floor. One step on the vocal board would be enough to raise a different voice from the living room below: “Get out of that closet!”

I lived for several years with that twenty-eighth board, plotting and planning my way across the bedroom floor like Meriwether Lewis confronting a cataract. Even today, faint beneath the sounds of raucous holiday traffic and insistent, obnoxious advertising, I sometimes hear that murmuring hinge and muffled creak. Their memories evoke more than amusing sorties; they come with the sting of regret; the slight, bitter taste of deception; and the chagrin of learning what life can hold for a child who refuses to wait for Christmas.

The year impatience overcame me, the tree already was strung with lights, ready for cranberry garlands and tinfoil bells. The first of the Christmas cookies had been baked and decorated, and the menu planned for Christmas dinner. Still, the house felt empty, bereft of the excitement and anticipation stirred by the sight of gifts.

No bits of wrapping paper decorated the trash; no extra Scotch tape or out-of-place scissors suggested seasonal activity. Most suspiciously, no tell-tale car doors slammed after I’d been sent to bed. I wasn’t precisely worried, but recent exposure to Santa rumors had left me cautious and slightly nervous about my best friend’s contention that kids who don’t believe in Santa don’t get gifts. Eventually, I thought, I’d need to check things out.

When our family was invited to a neighbor’s open house and my mother allowed me the choice of coming along or staying home, I sensed opportunity. Muttering vague justifications about needing to work on school projects, I stayed home. From an upstairs window, I watched my parents cross the yard, then disappear into our neighbor’s home.

With my parents safely occupied, I sprinted into their room, heedless of the squeaking board. As I opened the door to my dad’s closet, the thin, lambent sunlight of late afternoon barely lit its contents.  I pulled the chain hanging from the single overhead bulb, and the sudden explosion of light confirmed my worst fears. Nothing was out of place. Half-heartedly, I pushed back some shirts, and peered at the familiar shoe boxes. No packages huddled in the gloom, no paper or ribbon hinted at Christmas glory. Perplexed, I shut the door.

Despite my conviction that any gifts would have been secreted in my father’s closet, I glanced into my mother’s closet, then stepped inside the already-opened door. Even after turning on the light, I nearly missed the glint of candy cane striped foil. Lifting up what appeared to be a hastily tossed heap of mending, I gasped at the pile of waiting boxes, neatly wrapped and ready for bows. Each carried a tag, and of the few that I could see, most carried my name.

At the time, I’d not yet heard the phrase ‘crime of opportunity,’ but on that day I had opportunity, and I fell easily into crime.

Carefully, cautiously, neither moving the mending nor unstacking the boxes, I lifted the clear tape from the neat, vee’d fold of paper on one end of a box. The wrapping paper, heavy, smooth, and slick to the touch, remained intact. The tape peeled up perfectly, the sharp, crisp folds of paper popped open easily, and I discovered the contents by reading the end of the box.

Oddly, I no longer remember the box’s contents. I recall only my sudden sense of guilt, my dread of being discovered, and the disappointment I experienced when unwrapping the package on Christmas morning. Guilt, disappointment, and dread would have been punishment enough, but worse by far was my first, unhappy taste of dishonesty’s primary consequence: having to pretend all was right when, in fact, everything was wrong.

My unwillingness to wait, born of a child’s desire for immediate gratification and an inability to trust that gifts would be given, had left me unable to celebrate. I spent that terrible day wishing only for Christmas to end, and I never engaged in untimely unwrapping again.

Today, during these strange days of expectation and disappointment on every hand, the beginning of the season called Advent extends a gracious invitation: to delay gratification, and learn a deeper patience.

A season of silence and shadows, Advent whispers an uncomfortable truth: waiting is the condition of our lives. From birth to death, from our coming in until our going out of this amazing, implausible world, we live our lives in a state of perpetual waiting.

We wait for arguments to be resolved and peace to be restored; for bitterness to ebb and pain to flow away. Season after season, we await the budding of spring and the gathering of the harvest: the coming of the storm and the clearing of the sky. Sleepless after midnight, we wait for time to pass until the coming of the dawn. Exhausted by the day, we wait for the blessing of darkness, and the restorative powers of sleep. Always, we wait for laughter; for love; and for the simple, unexpected gifts of life.

Of course, in the process of waiting, there are choices to be made and consequences to be suffered. Like over-eager children before a pile of gifts, we can be tempted to rush our lives, demanding immediate satisfaction even though our willingness to slip away a ribbon, lift a bit of tape, and unfold a sheet of love-creased paper may destroy our joy.

But as patience is learned, waiting becomes a mysterious and compelling experience that arrives hand in hand with whispers of possibility. T.S. Eliot clearly understood that waiting can become the greatest gift of all: a gift that nurtures and deepens our humanity.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.


Comments always are welcome.
Advent is a wonderful season, and this Advent post is one of my favorites. In this frenetic time, it seemed worth reposting.


103 thoughts on “Waiting for Christmas, Waiting for Life

  1. After years of opening presents on Christmas morning, one year I was tempted to follow my cousin’s tradition of opening them on Christmas Eve. Never again, after waking up in the morning and knowing what everything was! Yes, waiting had been the greatest gift of all and I blew it!!

    1. My parents finally settled the Christmas Eve? or Christmas morning conundrum by splitting things up. Gifts from out of town aunts and uncles were for Christmas Eve, but family presents were opened Christmas morning, along with gifts left by Santa. In a way, it was a variation on the old ‘one cuts, the other chooses’ way of dealing with kids squabbling over the last piece of pie!

  2. Absolutely brilliant, Linda. Glorious, eloquent writing that evokes memories and, like the best of your writing, wraps around into a perfect circle of thought and wisdom. I remember when cousin David and I found the Lie Detector game under mom’s bed. We were so excited and yet a little scared. I always wondered if we were good enough actors at the age of nine to have convincingly faked surprise. Real surprise is so much better.

    1. What an irony that is: that you found a Lie Detector game under the bed, and then ‘dissembled’ about it. The real question, of course, is whether your parents were good enough actors to hide their knowledge of your actions from you!

      That aside, you’re so right that real surprise is better. That’s why I so enjoy roaming in nature. There’s always a surprise, and it’s always good: or at least interesting.

  3. Sabes.., si esta experiencia tuya es cierta.., se asemeja mucho a la que tuve en mi infancia al sustraer una galletita envuelta en celofán ámbar del mostrador del bar del barrio de mi casa.., sí, en ese momento en que regresó el jefe del establecimiento.., me tragué entera la galleta sin ninguna satisfacción y con el sentimiento exacerbado del arrepentimiento. Fue esa experiencia algo que ya no pude olvidar, nunca más cogí nada que no fuera de mi propiedad. Eso no tiene nada que ver con la Navidad.., pero me ha sugerido esa infantil experiencia. Muy hermoso relato.

    1. This little story of mine is very much real, and I’ve never forgotten it. Your story may not be a ‘Christmas’ story, but it is a very typical childhood story. I suspect most of us have done the same. Sometimes we avoid detection, but sometimes we are caught. When that happens — especially if it involves such minor ‘crimes’ as cookie theft, I suspect many adults have had to control their amusement at us!

  4. but recent exposure to Santa rumors had left me cautious and slightly nervous

    I am sure that every schoolyard has its intellectual bully, who indulges in the narcissistic thrill of informing everyone that “there is no Santa Claus”.

    Which makes one wonder, are we really richer for the truth?

    One does not feel better off knowing, rather one feels loss, not so much for the disappointment in Santa not coming, because we still somehow know that the presents will be there, but rather in the loss of a sense of magic, and all the hidden knowing of generosity, caring and community that comes with the myth. So why does the myth persist?

    For years we cannot understand this…until we have our own kids and are compelled by magic to tell them of this wonderful being whose sole purpose is to bring joy.

    1. Truth? What is this truth of which you speak? Surely you’re not suggesting…

      Once upon a time, I knew a grade-school age child who came home from his school Christmas party ready to share the experience with his mother’s bridge club. (‘School Christmas party’ and ‘bridge club’ should tell you this was a rather long time ago.) After showing the things in his decorated Christmas shoe box and describing the fancy cupcakes they’d shared, his mother asked, “Did everybody have fun?” “Well,” the boy said, “Roger upset some kids when he said Santa isn’t real.” Giving him a look, his mother said, “Did he upset you?” “Nope,” the young man said. “Roger’s stupid.”

  5. Having a long lead-in to Christmas is Adventageous to an essay writer like you. And in your other world, that of nature, adventive describes a non-native species locally or temporarily but not fully naturalized.

    This time you and T.S. Eliot called to mind Milton’s famous line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

    1. Adventageous, indeed. Perhaps this will be the year I finally post an entry or two that appeal to me, but that I haven’t had the time (or inspiration, perhaps) to work up as they deserve. We’ll see. If I were Orthodox, I’d have six weeks for standing, waiting, and working, rather than four!

  6. Lovely story that captures the impatience and anticipation of Christmas from a child’s point of view. I have a similar story but with a different ending. Might just write about it this December. For the past few years, I have been wanting to share my tale of Christmas impatience, and perhaps this will be the year that I do so.

    1. I have another Advent/Christmas post that’s been percolating for nearly five years, or maybe more. Sometimes it seems to me that certain stories just take time; they sort of form themselves first, and then we write them. Maybe this will be the year for your story!

    1. Thank you, Belle. You’ve certainly had your share of waiting recently, but I glimpsed that J’s home, and things are beginning to sort themselves out. Take a deep breath, and enjoy the season!

  7. Many of us have a similar story to tell, but you did such a great job of recreating the excitement of snooping for Christmas presents that I’m sure your essay brought smiles and good memories to all of us reading this. I, too, don’t remember what was in the wrapped box that I opened on the end to read what was inside.

    1. Isn’t it funny that we don’t remember the contents of our boxes? There might be a lesson there: that it wasn’t the “thing” that was so important, but the experience of seeking it out. In any event, memories like these are sweet reminders of those younger, and more innocent, days. For us, childhood was a country, and we were determined to explore it.

  8. Children’s impatience when they need to wait for Christmas morning is the same as for the children in Germany, where the presents are opened on Christmas Eve. I remember when we were finally allowed to enter the living room and view the Christmas tree for the first time. Wax candles were burning on the tree, and the gifts under it were ready to be opened. But wait, not so quick! First, we sang Christmas carols, then my aunt read the Christmas story. For us children, the greatest gift of all, the gift of love, had no meaning. We were yearning to get our hands on the toys and the sweet goodies into our mouths as soon as possible. Your inspirational post brought back some precious childhood memories. Blessed Advent season, Linda!

    1. I got to see my Swedish grandparents’ tree with real candles just once. I suppose my parents persuaded them to ‘go electric’ for my sake — and perhaps also for theirs. Despite differences in customs, the anticipation and excitement are the same for children everywhere — and that’s as it should be. Children don’t need definitions of love, or sermons on love, when they’re surrounded by love. Only later do we look back and say, “Ah. Love. That’s what made those celebrations so perfect and so memorable.”

      A blessed Advent to you and Biene, Peter!

    1. Thanks, John. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but there are times when ‘instant gratification,’ however instant, isn’t particularly gratifying. That’s one reason people talk about ‘buyer’s remorse!’

  9. You’re absolutely right, Linda — it is worth repeating! I thought I’d read this one before, but its message is still timely. Poor Little Linda learned herself a valuable lesson that day, a lesson no parent could’ve taught her. Tis better to wait until the gifts are wrapped and under the tree than to sneak a peek and have to pretend you’re surprised. Sadly, most people seem to find Advent frustrating — the stillness and the waiting don’t gee-haw with our hectic lifestyle and demand for instant satisfaction. The churches try to convey the importance of waiting, but sometimes it seems like they’re preaching only to the choir.

    1. Sometimes, even the churches lose Advent in their eagerness to keep up with society. I live in the land of congregations dedicated to ‘Christmas programs’ involving live camels, angels on wires flying above the stage, and so on and so forth. There are well-funded theater companies that would love to have that kind of budget. What’s interesting is that, by the time Christmas comes, there’s nothing left to celebrate. To each his or her own, I suppose, but Advent traditions have their own beauty — as you so well know.

  10. I found your story especially compelling, because I had a somewhat similar experience. I was still young enough to believe in Santa, but my two older brothers knew that it was my parents who bought the presents. They went searching, and found them, not yet wrapped, in my parents’ closet. Then they dragged me and my younger brothers in to see it all. I can’t remember how my parents found out, but I do remember how deeply, deeply disappointed they were in my two older brothers, and I felt as thought I’d been dragged into something absolutely horrible. My parents threatened to take all the presents we discovered back to the store, and I wept from the core of my young, little being. God, I still remember all of that so vividly. I couldn’t’ve been more than four or five.

    1. I nearly wept myself, reading your story. Your brothers’ behavior seems cruel, but one thing I’ve learned about children is that their cruelty often arises from insensitivity. That’s also true of adults, of course, but when we’re kids we haven’t yet learned how to control our impulses, or how to deal with others who lack good judgment. Whether those gifts went back to the store is beside the point; the damage to the celebration was done. I hope your Christmases have improved since then!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. The line you quoted brought back your own writing about the simple, unexpected gifts you found on Cape Cod, especially those sunsets from the beach.

  11. Wonderful musing! Our economy (and my equally poor acting!) was such that I couldn’t have stood my mom’s disappointment in my being caught out as a peeker come Christmas morning. I did peek as an adult now and then, only to see if I could gift a loved one(/more) with some little gift to me from my work or as volunteer. I’m a wait-er, having read this essay, in many ways; I’m glad for it.

    1. It’s interesting to see how people vary along the patience/impatience spectrum. We tend to think of children as the especially impatient ones, but you seem to have been one of the more patient ones: partly by nature, perhaps, but also because of some external considerations, like not wanting to disappoint your mother. Thinking about it, I realized that I often was as excited and impatient when it came to giving gifts. Once I had what I was certain what the very best present in the history of humanity for my mother or father, I couldn’t wait for them to open it. They had to tell me to stop dropping hints — they were ‘wait-ers,’ for sure.

        1. That line is a favorite of mine, too, although I hardly can resist the temptation to revise it whenever I quote it. If I could meet Eliot, I’d suggest that a better choice would be, “So shall the darkness be light, and the stillness the dancing.” If nothing else, it might lead to some interesting conversation.

  12. A little gem of writing, Linda. A message for all of us in a hurry to receive. Permission to savor the fleeting moment, granted. Watching, listening, tasting, touching in a deliberate way.

    1. Thanks, Cheri. Learning how to wait with patience and a certain amount of grace isn’t easy, but when it becomes part of our nature, life in general becomes more bearable: even enjoyable.

  13. Very well written, Linda. The guilt that we feel as children is awful, but it shows that we were taught right and wrong, so there’s hope for us. But on the other hand, having a lot of curiosity is a healthy thing too.
    Nice story. I’m sure many of us can relate to it.

    1. One of the basic dynamics of life is the tension between longing and limits. Learning to accept limits to the longings of childhood is part of what we call ‘growing up’ — it’s not always easy, but it’s necessary. Eventually, it may even provide a deeper satisfaction. As with so much in life, it’s the balance that’s important.

    1. When it came to presents under the tree, one of the best admonitions always was, “Don’t shake that!” It was a sign that something special awaited. I always tried to guess, but my parents never gave a sign that I was right, even when I was. If I opened a box containing something I’d figured out, they’d point out how clever I’d been to guess rightly. I wish they still were around, so I could thank them for that.

  14. I could feel the anticipation of an opportunity! Guilt is a terrible feeling too. I have to say I don’t remember trying to find gifts like that before the big day.

    1. Looking back, it intrigues me that I remember every detail of the search, but nothing at all about what I found: apart from the feelings that came as a result of the discovery. Something else that occurs to me now: I never was tempted to search until I was old enough to be left alone. Greater freedom allowed for the possibility of choice, and in that first instance, I made the wrong choice!

  15. I’ve liked T.S. Eliot from my first reading of J. Alfred Prufrock so his line “But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting” rings true with me. I wish I’d been as sneaky as you, but it never dawned on good girl me to take advantage of a crime of opportunity to see what Santa would bring.

    1. Eliot’s a favorite of mine. I’ve often thought that if I were limited to only one piece of literature on a desert island, the “Four Quartets” would do. There’s still a good bit of those poems I don’t understand, so they probably could keep me busy for a while.

      I tended toward the sugar and spice side of life, but when you stir in a bit of early freedom, and the possibility of choice, out-of-character behavior sometimes ensues. See: freshman year in college, away from home for the first time. The good news is that little lessons like this one help to shape better behavior in the future, especially when the consequences are almost immediate.

  16. My parents had a difficult time hiding presents for our large family of 9 children. I never did discover their secret hiding place. One year, I was outside later on Christmas day and found a new toy tractor partially covered with snow very near the outhouse toilet. We didn’t use it in the winter. Maybe that was the secret place for some of their stash.

    1. I wonder if your parents actually forgot that tractor: rather like the Jello-and-fruit salad that always was found in Grandma’s refrigerator after Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. My mom had a great habit of hiding some gifts so well that she didn’t find them until after Christmas. If she’d neglected to put a tag on the box, we’d play a different game called “Guess who this one’s for.”

  17. Such a great story. In our family gifts came on the 5th of Dec. St Nicholas. The saint from Spain with his helper black Pete! I am not sure if black Pete is still allowed in today’s correct Netherlands. Anyway, we loved that day and had to be careful in remaining ‘good’ and behave at our best. As those that were naughty might miss out on the gifts from the good Spanish Saint. In our family my parents made good use of that rule. We made our beds and laid the table as well as trying not to fight with each other.
    Christmas on the other hand was for sweets and sugary things, not gifts. It was the snow and solemness of Christmas that I loved. The muffled sound of snow absorbing noise whispered around the Christmas tree. It was a real spruce and not a pine, laden with real
    ornaments and things and real candles clipped on. I can still smell the tree. The real candles hidden amongst the branches when lit was a risk many families took.
    One year the tree caught fire and dad quick as a flash opened the window and hurled it outside from our third floor down into the chickencoop at ground level. The chickens were very startled.
    Such lovely memories.

    1. I had to pause for a few minutes to contemplate the sight of those chickens, watching a flaming meteor rush toward them from space. What a story.

      Did you have wooden shoes, and put them out for small gifts like chocolate coins and such?Because we lived so close to a Dutch town, I had a pair of wooden shoes; because our high school band marched in their Tulip Time parade, once a year we marched in those shoes. It was fun in a quirky sort of way, but only if the foam padding across the tops of our feet did its job.

      It seems as though every culture has sweets associated with Christmas. I still make traditional Swedish cookies and breads from my grandmother’s recipes. Savory foods had their place, too. When I begin craving pickled herring, I know that the Christmas season’s arrived.

      As for snow and silence, the height of perfection always was coming out of the Christmas Eve candlelight service and discovering that snow had begun. The last hymn of the service, “Silent Night,” still brings it all back.

    2. One of my grandmothers, from the German region of Pennsylvania, would tell us stories of being chased around the house by the Belsnickel, a version of Black Peter I think, St. Nick’s sooty helper and enforcer. She knew it was just a friend of her parents, dressed in rags with coal rubbed on his face, but the birch branches were real and he’d swat her if she didn’t move fast.
      I would’ve loved seeing the chickens confronted with a flaming Xmas tree comet! They probably have developed their own religious narrative about this crazy event!

      1. This is so interesting. I’ve not heard of these characters, but now I’m wondering if the stories we were told about getting coal in our stockings if we were bad might be related to your sooty-faced enforcer, or Gerard’s Black Pete. I rather like the balance they bring; Christmas celebrations surely weren’t so sacchaine with the Belsnickel tearing around!

  18. My curiosity never extended further than a peek under my parents’ bed one year, revealing nothing. In looking back, I think the anticipation that came with the waiting was one of the things I liked most about those childhood Christmases.

    1. I suspect plenty of people tried the peek-under-the-bed approach. It was so easy: probably because our parents were smart enough to know how easy it was. For us, there was a progression of events that heightened anticipation: the cookie baking, candle-making, tree-decorating, and caroling all took place at their appointed time, so that when The Big Day arrived, we’d be free to celebrate wearing our traditions like a cozy blanket.

  19. That was wonderful to read. I don’t remember being guilty at finding a present or guessing what it was, but I vividly remember the breathless anticipation for Christmas morning. Waiting is something to be savored.

    1. I’m not sure I felt guilt as much as chagrin. Knowing that I was the cause of my own disappointment was punishment enough.

      That aside, there was nothing like the anticipation of Christmas Eve. We always put out special cookies and milk for Santa, and he always took time to eat them. One year, my dad suggested that Santa might prefer a nice bourbon to milk; I don’t think Santa ever was offered bourbon, but I’m sure my dad might have indulged. It’s hard putting those toys together!

  20. That’s another thing I miss. Wood floors that talk to you. Out here in the flatlands, they build on concrete slabs for the most part, with solid concrete under the carpet. But I loved the old wood houses my mom’s people lived in that chirped and popped and sang little glissandos of wood whine.

    When we took those epic family vacations back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the “curio shops” always had “mystery gifts” — surplus merchandise that had been wrapped and was sold for some paltry price like $2 or $3. My dad would get one and keep it forever. It used to drive us nuts. But I’ve come to realize the Schroedinger-ness of it. Until the box is opened, it could be anything. Often, the wonder was better than the present.

    1. It’s true that those old houses would ‘talk,’ especially at night as they were cooling. When we moved from our first house, built maybe in the 1920s or 1930s, to our new house built in 1958 or so, one of the biggest differences was how quiet the new house was. It took getting used to.

      Your mention of those mystery gifts reminded me of the ‘grab bags’ that used to be included in so many parties, especially at Christmas. There was a dollar limit on the gifts’ value; everyone contributed one, and then everyone drew out of the ‘pot.’ It was great fun.

      Your father’s approach makes sense to me; it’s a different kind of fun. Still, I don’t think I’d be able to contain myself.

    1. Poor deferred gratification needs an advocate or two these days, especially with the commercial and societal forces arrayed against it. Combined with a generally slower pace of life, it can bring unexpected pleasure.

    1. I’m not sure about masterpiece, but I do like the thought of this post as a kind of seasonal tradition. Not only that, a re-post allows for editing, and that generally makes writing better. I’m really glad you enjoyed it, even the second (or third) time around.

  21. Good read. Every year my sister would open the wraps of her presents in the middle of the night, carefully. It became a family tradition. Today, we all laugh at it, but back then, how to keep her from doing it was a problem to be solved.

    1. That’s quite an amusing tale, Alessandra. It’s also a way of sneaking a peek that I’ve not heard of before. Your sister was bold; bolder than I would have been. The thought of having a look with people in the house never occurred to me. Did the problem ever get solved, or did it just turn into one of “those family things”?

  22. This is one of the nicest pieces of writing on Advent I’ve ever come across! Thank you! I think many of us have had a similar experience of being “successful” when searching for our Christmas gifts, only to discover that our success robbed Christmas morning of much of its joy. I remember finding the stash of my gifts, and actually deciding not to try to open them. I felt bad enough just finding them!

    1. I love Advent, Ann, and I truly believe the season has lessons for everyone: even those outside the church. It’s meant to be a time of stillness and slowing, and despite society’s best attempt to commercialize it out of existence, it’s still there: waiting.

      It made me smile, that you searched out your gifts and then decided to forgo taking a closer look. At least it only took one peek for me to realize that I didn’t want to go any further. I’m not sure I really wanted to know what was in the boxes; it may only have been that the suspense was getting to me.

    1. Eliot is a wonder; his work illuminates each of the liturgical seasons, as well as a good bit more. Advent may be my favorite time of year, partly because the marinas are nearly deserted now. While parties and preparations consume many peoples’ time, there’s a lovely stillness there that makes work a pure delight.

  23. A wonderful essay. And I’d waited to read it until I could sit down and enjoy it, so the lesson about patience and delayed gratification was right on the mark – – if I’d just skimmed it while looking at my phone while making coffee, I’d have missed have the enjoyment. Really enjoyed reading this.

    1. That makes me exceedingly happy, Rob. Stories are best enjoyed with cup in hand and feet up: or whatever variation of that pleases a person. Telling ‘about’ an experience is one thing, but re-creating an experience so that others can enter into it is of a different order entirely. I’m not as good at it as I hope to be some day, but there are times when I’m truly satisfied with a piece, and this is one of those times. I’m really glad you enjoyed it.

  24. This is a lovely essay with all that magic of childhood anticipation and the stealth of rooting out the hiding places, wrapped back around to Advent, waiting, and expectation. Nice. And more, edifying. I think the Four Quartets would do me as well, if I had to choose.

    1. Never mind Eliot. Now I’m thinking Dickens: you’ve appeared like the Ghost of Christmas Past! How nice to see you. I’d been wondering where you’d gotten off to post-retirement, but wherever it was, it’s good to see you back. I suspect there will be some answers soon; I saw a notice that you’ve posted in my inbox.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the memories of my ‘Christmas sneak.’ The best memories, and the best stories, always are worth another telling.

      1. It was nice to get back to people’s blogs for a visit! I just dropped off the scene–three people did reach out to ask if I was okay and then I felt bad, but basically, my schedule exploded. Now I feel as though I’ve settled a bit and I do miss everyone (your birds after the rain!! Aaaiiieee! so gorgeous) and want to reading and posting again. Thanks for the welcome back!

  25. Wow – that TS Eliot poem – whew! I am a TERRIBLE waiter. I always have to be doing something while I wait because I don’t want to sit in stillness. I should probably unpack why that is.

    With regard to Christmas snooping, I may have shared this story the last time you posted this essay, but I don’t remember so here you go. One year my brother & I snooped in my parents’ closet & found a Barbie camper and a Big Jim Camper. We were SO EXCITED! I was happy to know that my mother was Santa because she was the best gift giver. AND she let us play with them as long as daddy wasn’t around. But I’m pretty sure that we never snooped again because having to pretend to be excited about something I was already tired of playing with was not fun.

    1. That Eliot excerpt is from The Four Quartets: specifically, from the poem titled “East Coker.” I didn’t include the lines immediate before the ones I quoted here, but they’re interesting:

      “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
      Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
      The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
      With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
      And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
      And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
      Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
      And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
      And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
      Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about…”

      That man did have a way with words. If you’ve not read The Four Quartets, I highly recommend it. Some of it’s just too opaque for me, but there are real gems scattered through all four of the poems.

      I don’t remember that story; it’s a great one. There are jokes and eye-rolling galore when parents talk about their kids getting tired of gifts by a week or so after Christmas, but being tired of a gift before Christmas? That’s taking it to the next level. No wonder you gave up snooping!

  26. This was a delightful story on so many levels – the rising curiosity of children growing up, the learning of guile, the development of patience, the delaying of self-gratification. Plus your language and descriptions are picture-perfect!

    1. One of my favorite writers is Flannery O’Connor. In her book Mystery and Manners she says, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” The older I get, the more I suspect she was right. Thanks for the kind words; I’m glad you enjoyed my little reminiscence!

  27. Ah yes, I would submit that every child did exactly what you did. Searched for those gifts because we just could. not. wait. And then the guilt set in and the dissatisfaction that we had ruined a lovely surprise. Perhaps some of us learned how wonderful patience truly is after that experience. I loved how you brought your story to the T.S. Eliot poem. And as a side note: when our children were young, we found the best hiding spot one year – inside the locked on-roof car luggage carrier in the garage. They never found those gifts!

    1. Once I was well grown up, Mom confessed that one year they began stashing my Christmas gifts at the home of the very neighbors I mentioned here. At the time I didn’t ask if that was a result of suspicions about my snooping, but it very well could have been.

      One of the best things about Advent and the Twelve Days of Christmas is that they remove all the focus from that one day. Extending the season makes the need for patience less pressing. There are celebrations all along the way — not to mention the excitement of seeing what the next day will bring vis-a-vis the Advent calendar.

  28. I really loved reading this. I thought of two of my sisters, one of which who could never seem to wait and prompted the other (sweeter) sister to join her in peeking to see what gifts they were getting. I was never tempted to look. I’m still that way – I want to be surprised. What I loved about your realization as a young girl, was the gift of discovering that peeking and knowing wasn’t at all as exciting as you thought it might be.

    Your descriptive words also made me think of the squeaky doors and creaky floors of the old farmhouse I first knew as a child. So much of how I grew up is still detailed in my mind. Thank you for sparking those old memories!

    1. Old buildings really do speak to us. It’s not just the sounds, either. There’s an old hotel in a town a couple of hours away that I go to now and then for their Sunday dinner. If I take the time to sit in the hallway for a minute, the smell of my grandmother’s house is there: a combination of furniture polish, old linoleum, and that indefinable ‘something’ that’s never, ever present in a new house.

      Sometimes it takes a while to learn an important life lesson, but at other times the lesson is so obvious it takes no time at all. I can’t remember ever being told not to snoop, but as soon as I did, I knew it was wrong. More importantly, I somehow knew that part of what made it wrong was the fact that it would deprive my parents the pleasure of surprising me. I couldn’t have expressed it in those words then, but in time, I came to understand.

  29. Deterrence.
    At age 10 I did not know the meaning of the word. I did experience its full effect.

    I somehow avoided the temptation to search for hidden Christmas gifts. Whether that was a youthful hope that Santa was real (which, happily, I have discovered to be true as I age ever so non-gracefully) or whether it was simply due to my childhood training, I am not certain.

    Around my tenth year, my evil elder sister revealed Santa stored our presents in Mom and Dad’s bedroom closet the week before Christmas. All we had to do was take a quick peek. We snuck into the room. As we approached the closet, I froze in my tracks. Draped across the door knob was Dad’s thin leather belt. The back of my legs suddenly ached.

    Waiting for Christmas morning was never again an issue.

    Our technological advances have brought us so many wonderful enhancements for our daily lives. A side-effect to all that convenience is the erosion of our ability to be patient. We want what we want and we want it now!
    Teaching our children (and helping them teach their children) the wisdom of waiting is a challenge. If we are successful, the rewards are life-saving.

    Mr. Eliot’s eloquent line is so apt: “But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.”

    1. Your father had his belt; my mother had her cheese box lid. Once upon a time, Velveeta came in a balsa wood box with a sliding wooden lid. Since balsa is so light and springy, that lid could hit a little behind with a quite satisfying ‘sproing!’ It only took once, or perhaps twice. After that, it took nothing more than a question: “Should I get the lid?”
      The answer always was, “No!”

      As someone who practices a nineteenth century craft for twenty-first century people, I often have to deal with serious impatience. Computers, phones, grocery deliveries, and Amazon parcels may become faster or arrive more quickly each year, but varnish dries when it will. The natural world sets its own schedule; it’s our challenge to adapt.

    1. So much of our anticipation in those days wasn’t just for the presents, although as typical kids we certainly focused on those. But everything leading up to the day — the candle making, cookie baking, and house decorating, all were a way of anticipating the big day. I sometimes wonder how many people today have had the exquisite pleasure of whipping wax to make ‘snow’ for the outside of candles!

      1. For us there was a Christmas party in our primary school hall that felt like it included the whole of our little country community. The preparations for that, which sometimes included a ‘nativity’ scene were fun. And I remember making yards of paper chains in all sorts of colours.

  30. Lovely personal story so like my own regret for having snooped out my Christmas surprises. Big time lesson like that given to me by trying to help chicks get out of their shells.

    1. That brought a smile. ‘Helping’ nature can seem like such a good idea to a child, but ‘Oh, whoops!’ experiences can lie around the corner. Still, all of those childhood experiences, whether of snooping or helping, are important for molding wise adults.

  31. Such an enjoyable read and, for me, a glimpse into a life experience that never was mine. Oh we did the present thing for the eight days of Chanukah but all the presents were out to be seen in their wrappings. Each day we would pick one and enjoy some gelt(chocolate coins) as we unwrapped our gift. Any tampering would have been obvious and meant a day missed in the receiving.
    Many years later I did experience the Christmas surfeit with my in-laws. Times were tight when Mary Beth and her sisters were young. Later in life when times were better in their retirement years Frank and Marge especially tried to make up for the lack of youthful gifts by showering us(me too!) with pretty much everything on our wish list. Stocking stuffers on the eve and bigger things on the day. It was fun if a little embarrassing and did give me a sense of what a child’s Christmas Day must have been like.

    1. I’ve always wondered how gelt made its way into my Christmas stockings. I always loved those chocolate coins, but I was well into adulthood before I learned the word ‘gelt,’ or how it played into other traditions. The stockings were fun; they always had things like colored pencils, little hand-held games, and bubble bath capsules as well as an orange, an apple, and some nuts.

      Both of my parents grew up poor: especially my mother. They had the same impulse to give me everything they’d not had, but I was lucky that they never really went overboard. Each year there would be one ‘big’ present, like a sled or a child-sized table and chairs, but for the most part they kept it under control. It’s interesting to me now that my three all-time favorite gifts were the sort that encouraged activity: a paint-by-numbers set, a set of plastic bricks, and a baking set that came with tiny muffin, cake, and pie tins, and tiny boxes of cake and pastry mix to fill them. Of course, the record-player in a suitcase was pretty cool, too — especially the yellow and red records that came with it!

        1. I almost re-posted my Cat Carols this year, but decided against it. One of the last songs to be added to the post during an edit was “O, Christmas Bush.”

          “Oh, Christmas Bush, Oh, Christmas Bush —
          I sat upon you with my tush.
          I did not see you lying there —
          I’m glad you weren’t a prickly pear!
          Oh, Christmas Bush, Oh, Christmas Bush —
          I do believe you’re flattened.”

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