As is the case for many people, the holidays are less about Santa’s bag of toys than about a mixed bag of emotions for me. 

When I was a kid, I loved Christmas, and not just the fact I got presents. That in itself was no small thing, for Christmas and birthdays were the only times my brother and I got gifts, but there was more to it. 

My mother really loved Christmas and made it a spectacular event. She started shopping in early fall with money she’d scrounged throughout the year. Decorating began after Thanksgiving was over and cooking two weeks before Christmas Day. She polished silver, ironed the white tablecloth and made at least six kinds of cookies and homemade candy. Her vivid imagination helped fill the season with anticipation before Elf on a Shelf existed.

The holidays were reserved for rare treats we couldn’t afford the rest of the year:  a red wax-wrapped Gouda cheese, for instance, and half and half for dad’s coffee instead of plain Purity milk.

As I’ve aged, I wonder how she knew what to do. She was orphaned at the age of 7 and passed around her extended family from uncle to aunt to another uncle for years. I think she worked to give us the magical holidays she never had. 

Thanks to COVID-19, many of us will not spend the holidays with family or friends. Look for gifts that come with a non-traditional celebration.

So Christmas 2013 was bittersweet, to say the least. A few months earlier, she became sick with a neurological disorder that turned out to be a rare brain cancer. By mid-December, her doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center told me: “Take her home. Enjoy Christmas because it will be her last.” 

The sweetness was in being able to give her the kind of Christmas she had given me for years. Steroids restored enough function in her that we could sit at my kitchen table and make cookies together. I cooked the big traditional dinner we always had, even though it was only for her, my brother and me, with no tablecloth or shined silver. 

I got several big gifts that year, and I still think about them — not only during the holiday season but throughout each year.

The first came in November. A friend, offering support, listened to me cry about what a mess my house was — I was juggling work and time at the hospital — and the fact my vacuum cleaner had broken. She brought her vacuum over to me so I could clean. That may sound like a small thing, but believe me, it’s the standard by which I have since judged support during trying times. She heard my need and responded in kind.

The second came a month later, when another friend arrived from New Orleans. Although she and I had only been in sporadic touch for years, she learned of mom’s illness and heard I was struggling. Soon, she arrived in Nashville with sacks of groceries and for the next 10 days, she cooked, stayed with Mom so I could run errands and provided emotional support. That remains one of the greatest acts of love I’ve ever received. 

The final gift, of course, was that I was able to care for my mother the way she cared for me when I was a child. There is as much tenderness as there is pain in feeding and bathing the person who gave you life. Life is a bell-shaped curve and we had arrived at the far end. Christmas 2013 was, as her doctor predicted, her last. 

I bitterly miss her, and my other family members who passed ahead of her, each year, but I’ve remade my holidays. My New Orleans friend now lives in Atlanta but still comes to visit each Christmas, loaded down with treats I get once a year. My brother and I have become closer than we were previously, since we are all we have left. 

This year, I’ll see neither my brother nor my good friend, as COVID-19 is keeping us all in our respective cities. We will visit via Zoom on Christmas Day, drinking our coffee together virtually. Brother and I have swapped our favorite cookie recipes of our mother’s and texted photos of the finished product. 

And so I find myself recreating my holiday traditions once again, as you may also be doing. Whether with family or without, bitter, sweet, or in between, may you create the kind of holiday you will hold in your memories for years to come. 

Happy holidays.