Remember when Christmas Eve was the longest day of the year? Not just long, but agonizingly, painfully slow…hours that eventually culminated in going to bed in a room with your cousins, all of us far too excited to consider actually sleeping. But longing for sleep nonetheless, because only sleep could bring Christmas morning and the glory of Santa's bounty.
As a parent, the day plays out in a far different fashion. It doesn't feel like endless hours so much as a series of tasks that must be accomplished on time. For me, playing Santa on my own demands a sort of military precision. I organize in advance and all of my construction duties are handled on December 23rd, when my son goes to see my ex and I can duke it out out with the Playmobil instructions fully sober and generally sane. I often recruit a friend to help, which makes the job both easier and more enjoyable. And when JT returns at 4 pm on the 24th, we have a series of traditions to fill the hours.
For starters, we check in with the Santa Tracker on NORAD. This year, JT's already got the website loaded up on his laptop. Next, we set out our paper bag luminaries (they are a tradition in our town), spread some reindeer food in the front yard, and then we eat supper. As the dark settles, we head south to join some friends at their Quaker Meetinghouse. There's a period of companionable quiet followed by singing of Christmas carols. Afterward, we eat cookies and the adults visit while the children run off their Christmas Eve energy.
By the time we return home, our town is beautifully lit with lights and luminaries. We usually take a walk to see the displays. When we come in from the cold, we check Santa's progress on NORAD and then set out his snack. That always includes a bottle of water, because JT is convinced that Santa will have grown tired of milk by the time he arrives in New Jersey. I make jokes about setting out some quality whiskey but my nonsense is dismissed. Santa is at work on this night and he wouldn't drink and fly.
JT's usual stalling tactics are abandoned at bedtime on Christmas Eve as sleep is the only sure path to Santa's surprises. We read "The Night Before Catmas" and then some Christmas stories by Alice Taylor and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I turn out the lights and then creep downstairs, ostensibly to watch "A Christmas Story" on TV, though JT is often nervous that I'll stay up too late and Santa will skip over our house.
I love the quiet sureness of these traditions. Being a parent on my own can sometimes be a lonely experience. But not on Christmas Eve, when I imagine myself in the company of parents all over, all of us deputized into a secret society devoted to the reward of our children's bright, shiny eyes on Christmas morning.
This night makes it all worthwhile. Always.