The girls and I took our fourth annual "jammie Christmas light drive," where we don our Christmas jammies and drive around to look at lights.
This was a tradition born of high expectations. Three years ago, when Claire was about six weeks old, I was home with both girls one evening while Matt was at the weekly pastoral care class he was taking. Bedtime was hard in those days, as Kate wouldn't leave Claire and I alone to nurse, wouldn't stay in her room, etc. I was tired, and knew that both girls tended to fall asleep easily in the car, so I brilliantly suggested we put on our jammies and take a drive. "Wouldn't that be CRAZY?" I told little almost-three year old Kate, trying to get her excited.
So I put the girls in their coordinating Christmas jammies, got them strapped into car seats, put the Christmas music on and drove. And drove. And drove and drove and drove. More than an hour, I weaved through neighborhood after neighborhood. And those girls never fell asleep! I finally returned home having to do the bedtime struggle I'd been trying to avoid.
The tradition was born, however, and in subsequent years lost the utilitarian expectations and was elevated to "special holiday family tradition." Those are the best, and also the worst. Fun things that don't cost anything are what make the cultural Christmas season so special, but they also—in the vein of one of our other yearly traditions, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation"—tend to elevate stress by setting up unrealistic expectations.
The second year, when Claire was barely one and Kate almost four, I threatened not to go on the drive the particular night we had planned, because Kate was being uncooperative. I was still learning one of the cardinal rules of parenting—don't make threats you don't want to make good on, threats that hurt you worse that it hurts them. She continued to disobey, so we said there would be no drive. Then I was so bummed out, I took it back and we went anyway, though angst was high and it was far from a relaxed and joyful ride.
The third year, last year, I only remember that I was much more into it than anyone else in the car. "Why doesn't anyone else care about this super-special family holiday tradition?!?!"
This year, tonight, when the kids were picking at their dinner, I made no idle threats about not going if they didn't clean their plates. Afterwards, we took baths and put on jammies (non-matching ones!!), and while Matt stayed home to tweak the sermon and put BGC to bed, the big girls and I excitedly loaded up the rental sleigh (car's in the shop) and set out with high hopes.
We were still in our neighborhood when I made the mistake of commenting on the stars in the sky, dim compared to the lights on the houses, but still visible and beautiful.
"I can't see the stars!"
"Why isn't the Christmas star out?"
"Open my window so I can see the stars!"
We weren't too much further away when Kate started loudly singing "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay..." over top of "What Child is This?" on the radio. To her credit, she knew the whole song and how the game is played. I continued to sing with the radio, but didn't shush her. She later concluded that every house without Christmas lights belonged to a family that celebrates Hanukkah.
As we approached the first of the more ostentatious displays, where people were pulling over to get out and look, I put the child lock on the windows, because Claire's lowering of the window made the air and music do that annoying whoopita-whoopita thing. Claire began to throw a fit about wanting her window down, and was approaching full-blown tantrum status as Kate and I got out to look closer and take a picture.
All was calm by the time we got to the second super-ostentatious house, owned by some super holiday-loving people, and we all got out of the car to see Santa (the homeowner) in the driveway and get candy canes from his wife. The house next door has a lighted sign reading "DITTO" and a limo and two party busses drove by. We went to another house where a sign said "tune to 96.9 FM," so we did and found that the blinking lights were synchronized to the music. Amazing!
Then Claire fell asleep. And Kate and I drove through another neighborhood, talking about our favorite displays and what we should try on our house next year. (My vote: lighted greenery bunting across the front porch and more white lights on the bushes. Kate's: blinking colored lights all over her climbing tree that fills our front yard.) We returned home happy and content, declaring that hour-long, twenty-mile journey the best jammie Christmas light drive ever.
I keep saying, if the holidays are stressing you out, you're doing it wrong. Lowering expectations and letting the craziness become part of the tradition lets us enjoy the holidays for what they are.
On a related note, I enjoyed an unexpected special time with Kate yesterday that brought full circle a day of screwed up expectations from years before. Kate got sick on the bus yesterday morning, so I picked her up from school and she had to miss her class party on the half-day before Christmas break began. I had noticed that a cute movie Kate would like was available through Amazon Prime, so we cuddled up on the couch to watch "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl." We've read most of the American Girl books together, so Kate was familiar with the character. I love American Girl, had two of them growing up, and Kate is looking forward to getting her own someday.
The Kit movie is actually quite significant to me because six and a half years ago, I'd planned to go see it with my mom on my birthday. This was the year I was pregnant with Kate, and decided to take the Intelligender test (an at home, pee-based gender predictor claiming 90% accuracy—checking their site now, they have a lot more disclaimers!) on my birthday, just past the ten-week mark. I'd hoped and expected to be having a girl. The test told me I was having a boy, and I was so bummed about this, I didn't want to go see the American Girl movie that would just make me sadder about not having a little girl to share things like that with. I totally ruined my own birthday and gave Matt much fodder for mocking me for years to come.
I'll chalk my melodramatic reaction of July 2008 up to pregnancy hormones, but nonetheless, it was so special for me to cuddle up yesterday with my firstborn girl and watch that fun movie. She liked it too, and of course was shocked to hear how some test long ago said she would be a BOY!
Getting set on one's expectations is a fast route to disappointment, but enjoying life's twists and turns gives laughs, memories, and more special moments, twenty miles or six years down the road.