This year has been difficult for so many people in the aviation world and, indeed, far beyond. Our own community has been racked with illness, downgrade, frame/pay change, furlough, and even shut down. Stress is high, spirits are low, and financials are precarious.
Enter the holidays.
I know that many families are facing the holidays with deflated hearts and dwindling pocketbooks, and frankly it sucks. Big time. In so many ways culture tells us that the more ‘things’ we stuff into our holidays the better they (and subsequently we) are. It has long been instilled in our lives through retailers, media, social forums, advertising, peer pressure, film, etc., that happiness is directly equivalent to expenditure.
Plus, let’s face it – there is something innate in all of us that wants to give the very best to our families! We love them fiercely, and seeing them happy is fuel for our weary souls. Especially in a world that has felt anything but happy this past year. So we dejectedly find ourselves staring the prospects of a bleak and broke holiday right in its miserable mug.
Today I want to share a highly personal Christmas story with you. The year was 2011, and it had been a doozy. I don’t want to go into every single detail that marched us up to the door of that particular December because it would take a novel, a 777 full of courage, and more than a few tears on my part to do it, but trust me, it was hard. I understand where some of you stand because, friend, I have stood there too.
Our personal journey through aviation has been anything but conventional – an extreme roller coaster ride riddled with breathtaking highs and gut-wrenching lows, and this was one of the lowest of lows. The map through the first half of that particular year had been a twisting, turning, zig-zagging path through every pothole and mud pit you can imagine – and back again. This included but was not limited to the continued fallout from an unexpected furlough, nearly six months apart (living in completely different states), a core-shaking family tragedy, a stint of virtual homelessness for all of us, and basically financial demise. To say we were broken would be a massive understatement. We were shattered. I won’t lie; I spent a lot of times on my knees alternating between praying and shaking my fist and screaming out, “WHY??” to God above. I know some of you get that right now.
In late May after many miserable months apart for reasons out of our immediate control, we were finally able to procure housing together once again in the tiny town where my husband had been sent off without us to work. On Memorial Day, the children and I rolled into the driveway of our new rental home emotionally drained, soul sore, and with only the clothes on our backs and as many sundries as we could fit in the back of our minivan. I will never forget watching the sun rise that morning over the wheat fields that constituted our new front yard because it felt like the sun was also rising in the pitch black regions of my broken heart after a season of utter darkness. There’s never been a sunrise quite as stunning since. Well, not yet, anyway!
By the time we stared Christmas in the face several months later, things were slightly better mentally, but we were still living on a financial prayer. Barely. Financial disaster is simply not something that is remedied overnight. Living the Dream, my friends. Living the Dream. Whenever outside people try to tell me how stable and romantic aviation life must be, I always smile…and laugh to myself. Because it’s mostly anything but! THIS is real, raw, unfiltered aviation. My husband was killing himself holding down two extra jobs on top of his overnight freight flying gig just to make ends come within a mile of meeting, I was working a redeye transcription job while homeschooling during the day, and we still had far too much bill left at the end of the cash. We slept on an air mattress, wore lots of layers so we could keep the heat as low as possible to save money, and skipped meals to make sure the kids didn’t. “This Christmas,” we thought, “is going to be the worst one ever.”
Except it wasn’t.
Here’s how it all went down that Christmas… I managed to pick up a few more lines at work – enough to scrape up about 30 extra buckaroos. It doesn’t sound like much now, I know, but it was a week’s worth of groceries then! It was a precious expenditure. I took the kids to the Dollar Store with tears in my eyes and bought everything I could afford – a scraggly $15 tree, two $1 stockings, and a package each of lights, foamboard, construction paper, and plastic ribbon. Then I gave it all to my kids and told them to have at it. We decorated the stockings with the foamboard, cut out hand-drawn ornaments from construction paper, and put ribbon on anything we could get our hands on to hang on the tree as ‘decoration’.
We also laughed like maniacs at stupid jokes, drank $1 cocoa made with microwaved water (because who could afford milk?!) and those fake crunchy marshmallows, and we got pretty holiday crazy. I’m not kidding when I tell you that ugly, scrawny, little plastic tree was hung with anything and everything they could find. There were heads of wheat plucked from the field (there are not a lot of leaves in Kansas!) and embedded in the branches, free Happy Meal toys on strings, random beads, and the likeness of cocoa cups cut from the cocoa box (waste not, want not!) hanging proudly from those branches. And of course it was adorned with a giant, lopsided, construction paper star courtesy of my oldest. Y’all…
It was without a doubt the ugliest most beautiful tree I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It’s also the year we realized that expenditure has absolutely zero equivalency to happiness. And my kids? I thought I had failed them when in reality they had the time of their lives because there were no rules whatsoever, nothing delicate to break, no fussing about their ornament choices, and literally anything went!
We got 10 inches of snow that year and daddy dug them an igloo hideout (which they promptly declared was too cold), we made our first ‘real’ snow man, we snuggled together under piles of old blankets and read free library books (no cable or tech for us that year), we sang crazy variations of Jingle Bells a million times (okay, so my daughter still hates that song!), we gleefully watched the neighbor’s horses munch on the peppermints that we got free from the Walmart greeter…and we praised Jesus for every single precious breath in our lungs, every beautiful moment together, and every new day He gave us to live life to its fullest.
And we also baked Jesus the world’s ugliest birthday cake that year from a 75 cent box mix (which I’m convinced was His favorite cake ever because that’s how dads roll!).
On Christmas Day, daddy was working (shocker, I know!) so the kids and I volunteered feeding the homeless and elderly at a local organization, where our problems were instantly swept far, far away. Something I’ve learned over the years… There’s nothing quite like pouring yourself out for those less fortunate to make you vastly aware of your massive blessings. Look, we were POOR, but we were immensely rich because we still had each other. And that’s more than a whole lot of people in this world have.
When my hardworking pilot husband finally came home, we cheerfully opened cheapest presents including secondhand games and Dollar Store toys wrapped in free airline charts and newspaper comics. And we followed it all with a classy meal of macaroni and cheese, Stovetop stuffing, tropical punch Kool-Aid, and this dirt cheap ‘turkey’ breast that I’m pretty sure wasn’t.
It was without a doubt, by world’s standards, the absolute worst Christmas ever.
And to this day none of us can forget it because… It wasn’t. All of us, and especially my children, fondly remember it as the absolute best Christmas ever. Read that again. And again. And again. Because it matters.
We had nothing; yet we had everything. Over the recent years we have been much better off financially. We have certainly had ‘better’ food, a bigger (and warmer) home, more expensive (and less previously used) gifts, and nicer clothes adorning our backs. But to this day that worst Christmas – the one of very little – still lingers in our hearts as the best one.
This year they hung those foamboard and felt stockings up with love and care as they have every year since. Though Mary has lost an eye and the sheep may only have 2 legs now, they have a place of great honor in our living room and in our hearts. You simply can’t put a price on memories like that. Upon our fancy, spinning, pre-lit tree hangs a Hello Kitty happy meal toy and several paper and popsicle stick ornaments that they created and saved from that pathetically beautiful excuse for a tree. Each time they unwrap them, they don’t talk about how little we had, how cheap the tree was, how few gifts they had, or how ugly the cake was… They reminisce about how awesome it was to make ornaments together as a family, how much fun we had laughing and singing silly songs at the top of our lungs, how sweet it was to cuddle and read books together in bed, and how it was their favorite Christmas of ALL time.
And I am reminded once again how we don’t need to have an abundance of stuff to have joy – we just need an abundance of God and one another. Laughter, love, and joy are free.
Friends, I’m sharing this story with you because I know many of you find yourselves this year where we were on that year. You are scraping the barrel and thinking for all intents and purposes that it’s going to be the worst Christmas ever, that you have somehow failed your family, and that your kids will suffer for it. But it’s not, you haven’t, and they won’t! Believe me!! I know. Instead, you have the unique and beautiful opportunity to give them the true gift of Christmas – the ability to find contentment right where you are, the opportunity to prioritize what matters most in life, and the chance to give them what they need most in the world – more of your presence instead of more of your presents. That’s real Christmas, and it’s still yours to freely embrace no matter what you have (or don’t) folded in your wallet.
Money does not buy joy – family, God, and community do. I know many people with everything who have nothing…and many people with nothing who have everything. Life is more than the circumstances we find ourselves facing today; it’s how we choose to dance to the music despite them!
Sometimes we can get so tied up in the commercial viewpoints of what a ‘good’ Christmas (or life) is that we lose sight of the underlying truth. When we are forced to strip away the pomp, expectation, commercialism, expensive gifts, and fancy paper and bows that we have tried to wrap our happiness in, we find a buried treasure that when polished up a little shines like the great beacon of joy and hope that it is – the light of Christ and the love of family is all we really need to focus on to be immensely and eternally joyful.
And so what we might initially think of as the ‘worst’…truly might end up being the best.
I love you family. I am praying for your hearts to be overcome with inconceivable joy, warm hugs, the fierce unconditional love of family, raucous laughter over cups of cheap cocoa and crunchy marshmallows, and beautifully priceless paper ornaments.
And may you have the BEST worst little Christmas you never imagined.
Angelia (a friend that’s been there and understands)
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