Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. It is my single favorite night of the year because it’s magical. And I’m not even talking about the flying reindeer. Growing up, Christmas Day was festive and chaotic and fun. It was a day of energy and presents and laughter. Christmas Day was for sledding and snowball fights and playing with new toys. It felt bright, somehow – crisp and clear.
Christmas Eve felt cozy and close. It was family and food and love, basking in the light of the Christmas tree. And music – always music. Christmas Eve is “Silent Night” by candlelight or songs around the family piano. My favorite carol is “The Friendly Beasts” and my cousins and I always vied for the best parts.
My family exchanged gifts of ornaments on Christmas Eve, with aunts and cousins circling the room, doling our small wrapped packages from large carrying baskets. For much of my childhood, I produced handmade ornaments each year. Snowflakes made from popsicle sticks, counted cross-stitch musical instruments, painted salt dough. My mom scoured the earth for perfect ornaments, collecting them while traveling or ordering from fair trade catalogs, matching each gift to the likes and personalities of the recipient.
I can remember waiting up for Santa on Christmas Eve with an older cousin, the two of us wrapped in blankets and peering at the clock on the thermostat. How much longer? Christmas Eve was full of promise and potential.
December 24, 2006 actually holds my favorite Christmas Eve memory, even though it didn’t include family carols or bevvies of cousins patrolling the Christmas tree. My husband and I were living in an urban Pittsburgh neighborhood and we walked from our apartment to an episcopal church for an eleven o’clock service. It was the church we’d been married in, just four months before – a soaring stone edifice with stained glass windows, lush interior, and great acoustics. I can’t remember the details of the service, beyond vague impressions of beautiful music and flickering candlelight, but I do remember clearly that it was snowing when we left. The walks and trees were covered and big fat flakes just kept tumbling from the sky. The city was quiet at midnight and we stepped into Christmas morning together, happy and holy and glowing with love. Pure magic.
These days, Christmas Eve has shifted, again. My boisterous extended family no longer attempts to gather at Christmastime – too much geography to cover and too many other families’ traditions to balance. My kids spend the evening with their dad so they can participate in special services at his church. After dinner with family or friends, I find myself alone on Christmas Eve – and it turns out, I love it.
I try to avoid last-minute preparations. The wrapping is done. The stockings are filled. The next day’s cooking can wait. The siren song of social media and texting is muted. I light the fire and turn off all the lights except for the Christmas tree and I breathe in the stillness. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I fully appreciated how holy silence can be. Twinkling lights, flickering fire, fuzzy blanket. Christmas Eve is different as an adult, but it still feels cozy and close. It still feels like love. And it will always be magical.