On a sunny December morning three years ago, my kids woke up to the sound of Christmas music and the aroma of our traditional egg casserole filling the house. The warm Texas sun beat through the windows, catching a glimmer of tinsel hanging gingerly off the tree. Carefully wrapped presents enveloped the tree’s skirt; a few too many, perhaps, for the tiny 2-year old who would gleefully tear into the picturesque scene moments later.
Appearing at the top of the stairs, she opened her eyes wide, and it was as if I could physically see the excitement hit her. Our little Adeline. Even at such a tender age, the magic was there. It enveloped her, creating palpable joy. When her little brother, barely five months old, appeared beside her in the arms of their grandmère, he appeared less than impressed.
Fair enough. He wasn’t, at least, screaming with reckless abandon, which had been his standard operating procedure up to that point in life. There was something magical in that, too.
It was warm. Cozy. Inviting. With family gathered in our living room, we opened gifts, laughed together, and shared stories. We reveled in the joy of watching a toddler open a stocking on her own for the first time. We snuggled her baby brother who, apparently sensing the importance of the day, remained calm and content. The whole thing was quintessentially Christmas.
Except it wasn’t.
The actual holiday was still three weeks away. Our entire house had been decorated overnight. Tree, nativity scene, presents: everything. A carefully written note had been rolled up, tied together with a red ribbon, and cradled inside the arms of our elf, Jovie, who had settled herself comfortably upon a tree branch. It read:
Ho, ho, ho! Good morning, Adeline!
You’ve been a good girl all year—exceptionally kind.
I’ve been prepping my reindeer and checking the “nice” list
But it seems there’s one tiny detail I missed.
Your friend, Jovie the Elf, came to me with a tear
And said your dad wouldn’t be home for Christmas this year.
She said he works hard to keep people safe
And soon he will go to a faraway place.
We thought you might miss him, come Christmas day
So I loaded up your presents and took off in my sleigh.
From the North Pole to Texas, I flew in a hurry,
To send tidings of good cheer, if just a bit early.
But keep in mind this morning, amidst all the fun
That the magic of Christmas lies in family and love.
So hold your daddy close and have not a fear
Because he’ll be home for Christmas next year.
Until then I’ll be watching with joy in my heart
Knowing no distance can keep a daddy and daughter apart.
Perhaps she didn’t fully understand at the time. It is, after all, a lot to take in. But I’m a firm believer in the idea that young children take in a lot more than we tend to give them credit for. They are sensitive. Perceptive. And I like to believe that she understood, at least to some degree, what was happening.
As a military family, our children are asked to deal with so much. Their entire lives can be upended on a whim. Best friends are torn apart by a PCS. New friends are made, but the specter of change is always on the horizon. Their lives can, at times, lack the consistency and structure that we often associate with producing well-adjusted young adults. But the answer is simple: show them love.
That’s all I was trying to do when playing Santa that year. That’s what untold numbers of military families are doing at any given moment. Your ordinary, ho-hum day may turn extraordinary for a military child because it has to. Because time doesn’t stop for deployments. Because the time we do have is unspeakably precious. So we fill it with love.
That was the first year our little Adeline felt the magic of Christmas. I saw it in her face. It was born in the pause at the top of the stairs, in the surprise of an early December Christmas. And while it is a treasured memory of mine, I am under no illusion that she remembers anything concrete about that day. But it was foundational. Of that, I am sure. The magic of Christmas is, after all, nothing more than pure unfiltered love. It is a love colored with family and memories and joy. And that cannot be confined to any single day on the calendar.
December 25th eventually came that year. The kids and I traveled across the country and spent several weeks in the company of dear friends and family. Although the absence of my husband was palpable, we forged ahead and created more joyful memories. It is a skill at which military spouses and children become especially adept: making the best of every situation.
Whatever your situation this season, keep military families in your thoughts. Remember the many soldiers fighting for our freedoms all over the world. Recognize the sacrifices of the brave. Cultivate peace. Shower the lonely with love. And if your Christmas happens to come early this year, throw on a Santa hat and create a little magic.