Cindy Woodsmall is a New York Times bestselling author who has written eight novels and four novellas, the most recent being CHRISTMAS IN APPLE RIDGE. One of Cindy’s most memorable Christmases occurred when she was eight years old. That was the year she finally began to understand her dad, whose apparent grumpiness and lack of engagement during the holidays took on new meaning when she discovered what was really going on behind the scenes.
What do you think of when someone mentions Christmas?
Warm, glowing hearths. Familiar carols. Decorating a tree. The aromas of a feast mingling with the scent of pine in the air. Wrapped gifts. Making a loved one or several loved ones especially happy. Family gatherings.
As Thanksgiving approaches each year, my mind starts spinning with hopes and desires to cherish the holidays. I believe a family needs special times set aside every year to strengthen the bonds that unite us. One of those lovely traditions is Christmastime.
Children have the advantage --- they simply soak in the good times without being responsible to make the magic happen. That’s part of what makes Christmas so fun for them. For the adults, it’s a beautiful season that often begins by writing a physical or mental to-do list.
When I remember my childhood Christmases, I think of the year I began to understand my dad. I was the youngest of four siblings, so I never seemed to fully grasp what everyone else in my family did. But by the time I turned eight, I knew what the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day would be like.
Jolly and festive were some of the words that described what went on in our home. So were irritable and missing.
Starting around Thanksgiving each year, my dad became either short-tempered or invisible. He didn’t make it home for dinner. He didn’t help with homework. He wasn’t there to talk to me during commercials while we watched our favorite family shows, or to laugh at my childishness. When I did see him, he had short answers and was quick to complain about toys being out of place or an A-minus or B on a school paper.
Both his absence and his attitude hurt.
When I asked Mom why he was gone so much and was always so tired, she told me Dad’s workload increased each year from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve.
He looked at Mom, one of those knowing smiles crossing his face, but neither one answered.
On Christmas Eve, after he’d missed another family meal, Dad stepped into the house a different man. He smiled warmly and let me curl up in his lap while he read the Christmas story. When the news came on the television saying Santa was flying our way, Dad tucked me into bed with strict orders not to get up --- or I might scare Santa away.
The next morning, gifts wrapped in bright paper lay under and near the tree. We kids tore into our presents while Dad sat on the floor, soaking in our excitement. I received a Barbie doll and lots of clothes for her. When I opened the Barbie house, I forgot about any other presents that might have my name on them.
Dad helped me get Barbie out of the package and watched wide-eyed as I showed him that her knees could bend --- a new design for her. While my siblings continued opening their gifts, he talked to them while he and I played with Barbie and her house.
I felt valuable. In that moment, less-than-perfect school grades and out-of-place toys wasn’t all that defined my self-image.
Dad finally nudged me. “What about your other presents?”
Startled, I jumped up and hurried to the tree.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Mom pass Dad a cup of coffee. “Was it worth it?” she asked.
He smiled. “Holding down two jobs during the holidays will always be worth it if it ends like this.”
I finally understood his absence and his crankiness.
Today, with grown children of my own, I hope they understand too.
Love isn’t about being a perfect parent. It’s about being a loving one, and helping the next generation grasp that elusive sense of self-worth --- not through purchased toys, but through sacrifices that say, “I love you.”