It was my first Christmas as a single mom. The entire state had been shut down by a rare Christmas Eve blizzard. My kids had been with their dad for several days—longer than I had ever been away from them. The reality of our divorce was setting in as I stared straight into the face of loneliness and loss.
I was supposed to have my children by 11 am Christmas morning, but the snow caused the state to come to a grinding halt and my hopes were fading. Finally, I received word that the turnpike was open. With the determination that can only come from a mother missing her children, I made my way through four-foot snowdrifts to my sister’s house.
We jumped in her 4WD truck, and made our way to my children. Nothing was going to keep me away from my babies on Christmas day! When we arrived at their grandparents’ house, they came bounding out the door to meet me. My heart was finally full! It was mid-afternoon when we finally made it home to enjoy what was supposed to be the most exciting day of the year for kids.
Finances were extremely tight, but I had managed to scrape together enough to buy some Christmas gifts for my kids. There was a sting as I realized that there was nothing under the tree for me. But, nothing could steal the joy in my heart now that my babies were home—or so I thought. I watched with excitement as they opened the gifts I had managed to purchase.
“Why didn’t we get anything fun?” my five-year-old asked innocently.
I fought the tears stinging my eyes as I tried to explain that we just didn’t have the money. Besides, Christmas is about Jesus. Gifts should not be our focus. As an adult, it was a perfectly understandable explanation; but to a five-year-old who had just returned from a Christmas where she had received an abundance of gifts, it was less than acceptable.
Fortunately, my kids’ focus was on playing in the snow; it turned out to be a gift from God! They had never seen such a massive amount of fluffy white heaven! They quickly found the warmest clothes they could find and rushed outside. Snow angels and snowball fights ensued. We grabbed the sleds and took turns pulling each other around the neighborhood. When the sun began to set, we went inside and had a non-traditional Christmas wiener roast in the fireplace. We finished the evening by making and decorating Christmas cookies and gingerbread houses. I was thankful that the snow had provided a distraction from the less than stellar Christmas gifts. I was glad that we had enjoyed the gift of togetherness.
By God’s grace, recent Christmases have been a much more pleasant experience than that first Christmas as a single mom. I have chosen to busy myself by working the holidays my children are with their dad. Our finances have improved drastically even though there is certainly not enough to indulge their every whim. They have grown and matured and realized that there are things far more important than the gifts they receive.
But the holidays still bring a certain amount of pain as I am reminded that I am celebrating Christmas as a single again. How do you find joy when you walk into that Christmas Eve service alone—or as a non-traditional family? How do you find joy when finances are so tight you don’t know how you can provide for gifts? How do you find joy when your kids will not be with you on Christmas?
As a parent, my primary goal for Christmas is to focus my children on God. For the last few years, I have purchased a Christmas ornament for each child. In the days leading up to Christmas, I tape a scripture reference to each ornament and hide them throughout the house. Each day, my kids are tasked with finding their ornaments and reading the verse to me. They are then rewarded with a small gift.
Then, on Christmas day, I try to find a fun way of hiding their gifts. Two years ago, I sent them on a scavenger hunt throughout the neighborhood. Eventually, they found a gift and unwrapped it with excitement—only to find a puzzle of Mickey Mouse. As they began to put the puzzle together, they discovered a message: “We are going to Disney World!” It was a real sacrifice to make that trip happen, but it was a celebration of how far we had come in the previous years.
Last year, my kids woke up to find yarn wound throughout the house, over and under furniture, around doors, in and out of rooms. As they dropped to their knees to crawl into my room and find me early in the morning, the look of confusion on their face was priceless. I took them to their stockings and told each child to find the piece of yarn attached to their name. As they followed the yarn throughout the house, wrapping it back up to the best of their ability while untangling from their siblings’ strings, they laughed and giggled wondering what was at the end of the yarn. Eventually, they found a ticket to an Oklahoma City Thunder game! When we went to the game and enjoyed our time together, they continued to laugh about the adventure they had discovering their gift.
My biggest problem now is figuring out how to top the last few Christmases. It’s no longer about the gift; it’s about the creativity and fun of finding the gift!
Perhaps one of the most important lessons I have learned is to treat myself at the holidays. As a mom—and especially as a single mom struggling to make ends meet—it is easy to neglect myself. If we are honest, it hurts to look at the tree and realize there is nothing under it for me. I’ve come to realize that I have to care for myself if I am going to be able to care for anyone else. I have learned to treat myself by buying a few things for myself. I actually wrap those items and place them under the tree so I have something to look forward to as well.
Maybe you aren’t a single mom (or dad), but you know a single parent struggling to make Christmas special for her kids. Ask if you can watch her kids while she goes Christmas shopping. Then, take the kids shopping for their mom. The delight they have in picking out gifts for Mom will fill your heart—and you will bless that mom beyond what you can imagine!
Enjoy each other!
But, more important than the gifts under the tree, we work to enjoy one another and make memories. Whether it’s the trip downtown to go snow-tubing or drives through the Christmas light displays, we plan special times to enjoy Christmas in Oklahoma. We have started a tradition of making and decorating Christmas cookies every year. We look forward to the little things that allow us to focus on one another.
Downtown Oklahoma City offers a number of cheap and free activities in December. One year, I planned to take advantage of free boat rides through the Christmas lights. I carefully checked the times of the boat rides, and planned out our evening. We loaded up and grabbed a quick bite to eat. We made our way to the check-in—only to discover that while I checked the times, I didn’t check the days! The boats only ran on weekends! We didn’t get our boat ride, but it remains a memory that still brings huge laughs!
I have discovered that the most important thing I can do for my kids is to create memories that will live on forever. My kids are learning that the gifts under the tree are not the most important part of Christmas; the most important part of Christmas is the gift that God gave us—His son who came to earth as an infant and gave. He gave us the gift of life. He gave us the gift of family. He gave us the gift of togetherness. Those gifts far outweigh the value of any gift we might find under the tree.
Dena Johnson is a busy single mom of three kids who loves God passionately. She delights in taking the everyday events of life, finding God in them, and impressing them on her children as they sit at home or walk along the way (Deuteronomy 6:7). Her greatest desire is to be a channel of God’s comfort and encouragement. You can read more of Dena’s experiences with her Great I AM on her blog Dena's Devos.
Publication date: December 16, 2013