It may not be conventional, but my holiday decorating includes a treasured picture of home plate over my fireplace. Perhaps you don't think of baseball after the World Series, and certainly not at Christmas, but for me it's a year-round source of inspiration.
The large black and white photograph is a reminder of what's important during the holidays. For me, it symbolizes a beautiful revelation that came at a pivotal time in my marriage. It's a time I refer to as the Crash and Burn Christmas.
Pick Your Team
My husband, Gary, and I had only one child then. Our now oldest son, Sam, was just four years old. We were a young couple, each wanting to please our families, and each with parents who wanted us as guests for the holiday.
What made the demand tricky was not just that they lived in different states. It was compounded because my husband had recently lost a job, we were relocating to a new city, we were living in temporary housing, we were trying to sell a house in a bad market, and to be honest, we were losing site of the dreams we had for our future. It was a time filled with so much stress that I passed over anything joyful.
Our nerves were raw, the budget was tight, and our families seemed oblivious to our worries. The issues that start family wars were in play: Who would get us for Christmas Eve? Where were we going to spend Christmas Day? And should we eat ham or turkey for Christmas dinner?
The thought of packing up our son again, stuffing the car with gifts of obligation, driving hundreds of miles, and feigning holiday cheer in homes full of tipsy people was making me sad. I just wanted to go to bed, pull the covers over my head, and wait for the season to pass.
But my maternal instinct always reminded me to be brave for Sam. I didn't want him to feel the pressures that were building steam in our home. But of course, I knew he did.
I recall sitting at the kitchen table with him one cold day that December and playing cards, his scared eyes glancing up at me through his mop of hair. He was just hoping to catch me smiling.
Upstairs, however, we could hear Gary. He was walking around with tension in his step, yelling to himself.
That's when rock bottom sounded: the phone rang.
My husband sat quietly on the stairs and looked stunned. His brother was on the other end of the phone questioning why we weren't in Baltimore with the rest of the family. "Mom is really upset that you aren't here," Jim warned. But my husband wasn't responding. He was numb.
I could see tears in his eyes. I knew they were tears of frustration as he tried to figure out his role in life. Was he a son? Was he a husband? Was he a father? Could he be all three at the same time?
The Crash and Burn Christmas was silently blazing.
Protect Home Plate
After putting Sam to bed that night, Gary and I started turning life around by fantasizing about our ideal holiday.
"I just wish we didn't have to travel," I recall pouting out loud. "I want Santa to come down our chimney. I want Sam to remember being home for Christmas—our home."
A change came across Gary's face.
"Do you remember the sermon Father John gave at our wedding?" He asked. (Yes, we were actually listening during our wedding.)
"Yes," I said slowly, wondering where this was going.
"He compared our marriage to baseball. He said, 'Always remember that the ultimate goal of a baseball game is to get home, to protect home plate.'"
Then I understood what my husband was saying. Somehow, in our fear of disappointing our parents, we forgot that we are on a new team now. And we have a new home plate.
We reminded each other that while we love our parents, we need to protect our son and our home—especially at that unstable point in our lives.
It wasn't easy, but we called our parents to let them know our plans. We explained that we could visit before or after Christmas but not on Christmas Day. Santa was coming down our chimney, we said, and he'd be visiting us every Christmas while we had a child at home.
At first, it wasn't easy for some to hear. A few digs and snide comments were passed around the family. But as the years progressed, everyone learned to accept our decision. New cousins were born into our families and, notably, Santa was visiting each child in his and her own home. Grandparents started making the pilgrimage to their grandchildren. And there was respect for the new team that we created, especially from us.
That was 14 years ago. Sam is now 18 and his brother, Joey, is 7. The abysmal outlook of life back then is a distant memory. It's touching to think of how peaceful life became once we had our priorities in place.
Our traditions now include Christmas Eve Mass, and staying in our pajamas all day on Christmas. We play our favorite holiday music CDs, we light a fire in the fireplace, and we laugh together over grilled steak served on our best china. The day is filled with silliness. We run through the house and explore all the surprises that Santa hides, we chuckle at the felt reindeer antlers we put on our Beagle, and we call all the relatives and pass the phone through the house.
The Home Team
Sam is a freshman in college now, laying the groundwork for a new home team. But when we visited him in September, he put his arm around me and whispered that he can't wait to be home for Christmas. He nodded at his little brother, smiled, and added, "It's going to be so special for him." The little squeeze he gave me and the look on his face was all I needed to know that his memories of our Christmases together will always be with him, no matter where his life leads.
Perhaps it's a coincidence that Joey loves baseball. He never asks about the photo over the fireplace. To him, it should be over everyone's fireplace. And honestly, I feel the same way.
So this holiday season you can expect to see me string the lights and hang the mistletoe. And I'll also be proudly dusting my favorite ornament: a photo of home plate.
Mary Jo Kurtz is a freelance writer living in the western suburbs of Boston. She and her husband, Gary, are parents of two boys: 7-year-old Joey and 18-year-old Sam.