What makes holidays magical? It’s simple.

My Nana didn’t like chocolate.

But at Christmas, she would fill large glass jars with colorful M&Ms of all kinds, chocolate-covered peanuts, malt balls and other delights — perfect for little fingers who wanted a treat. Another jar was filled with cinnamon pecans that she bought every year from an old, back-alley bakery in San Antonio. The taste of candied pecans still remind me of the little white boxes she received them in.

We’d camp out on blow-up air mattresses and listen to the tick, tock, tick, tock of the Grandfather clock in her living room — a sound that always reminds me of nighttime at Nana’s.

These small details of Christmastime at my paternal grandparents are incredibly vivid in my mind, even if they lack perfect accuracy. Perhaps there wasn’t always that big of an assortment of M&Ms — or maybe she only ordered the candied pecans for a few years in a row — and was the box even white? — but in my childhood mind, it was all a storybook: where the smell of a plastic air mattress was magical and larger-than-life candy jars made my little eyes wide with wonder.

When we lived in Germany, we spent a couple Christmases away from extended family and on at least one occasion visited the small German town of Rothenburg around the holidays. The town looked like one of those miniature Christmas villages that collectors set up on their buffet tables — except the frosty, candlelit windows, cobblestone pathways and Town Square Christmas Market were life-size.

Adults drank hot mulled spiced wine and I drank hot chocolate and we wore fuzzy gloves and wandered through the Christmas Market and marveled at snow-capped rooftops and shops filled with shiny things. I don’t remember the things specifically — just that they were shiny.

During holidays at my Grandma’s house — my maternal grandparents — we assembled 500-piece jigsaw puzzles and played with dogs on the front porch and drank iced tea out of the same glasses we do today. I love those tea glasses and the farmland her house sits on and the pond where the sun sets behind murky water.

If we were lucky enough to get a freeze during the holidays, icicles stuck to the bottom of the white painted fence surrounding the cow pasture. One year, we could barely make it up (what used to seem like) a really big hill to my Grandma’s house because the car kept slipping down the icy street.

But we did make it. And the house was warm — and full of the familiar faces of the people I love who have always been — and will always be — magical to me.

And so it is with so many holiday memories: the ornaments my parents bought me every year, the Advent calendar I had as a child that told me how children around the world celebrate Christmas, my mom baking cookies in her apron, our family cats nestled under the tree in the living room.

I thought of this all tonight while looking at our small, grocery store-bought Christmas tree which sits on top of our kitchen table in our 2-bedroom apartment. Next year, we’ll be in the new house for Christmas with plenty of room to roam and decorate and buy a fresh Fir — but this year, I am quite enjoying the simplicity of the spirit of the season of Advent: of waiting.

Of waiting for Christmas. For our house to be built. For baby #4 to be born.

And I’m realizing that there is such joy in this season of life. There is such peace in being still. Life doesn’t have to be as stressful and busy as the K-Mart Layaway commercial I’ve been seeing since Halloween keeps telling me.

What I find most interesting in reminiscing on Christmases passed is that I don’t really remember any of the presents I received — but I do remember the moments of being present. The Scrabble games and the scrambled eggs. The candy jars and the winter storms. The candles in my Nana’s fireplace and the stockings on my Grandma’s hearth.

Even as a kid, without the pressures of adulthood, I remember very little about what was going on under the tree — and so much more about the people surrounding it. And the older I get, as I yearn to create special memories for my own children, I realize what I want most for them is the opportunity to have these simple pleasures. To have a moment to wait. To be still. To take it all in.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love gift-giving and feasting and celebrating it up big — but this year, I’m also striving to enjoy the beautiful balance of Advent and Christmas. The waiting and the celebrating. I’m being thoughtful about our commitments and committing to being more thoughtful about the reason for the season (one way is by starting a Jesse Tree tradition, this is the first year we’ve done it). In what can too easily become a stressful, hurried season that passes by without much thought, I want to provide a true sense of wonder in the wait — rather than just being sugar-shocked and candy-crashed by the time Christmas finally rolls around.

Tonight my husband and 4-year-old son were alone in his room for awhile while I bathed the girls. Once I had them in snuggly pajamas with hair brushed and skin sweetly lotioned, the boys beckoned us to come see what they were up to in my son’s room. They turned off all the lights, flipped another switch — and suddenly, a single strand of multicolored Christmas lights hung with masking tape lit up one of my son’s walls. The girls squealed. My boy beamed with pride. Soon there was a full-out, 10-minute dance party among this single strand of twinkly lights — so much excitement over what seems so simple.

Perhaps someday, in his childhood imagination, my son will remember that time Dad and him covered his whole room in lights and we danced for hours. He’ll remember the huge tree in our apartment and how pretty it was. And that in the simplest of times, we always had all we needed: each other.

And that is truly magical.

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