It's just three weeks until Christmas and everywhere we look there are beautiful festive scenes. The first winter storm left our suburban landscape buried in a foot of snow that sparkles on a blue-sky day. Even the city is transformed. Lincoln Park Zoo provided the dramatic backdrop for a late night Christmas craft fair when my in-laws were visiting last week. As we wove our way through the labyrinth of fairy-lit pathways, it was impossible not to get swept away with the Christmas spirit - the snow fell, Christmas music played, carolers um... caroled! We drank hot chocolate and browsed through stalls of homemade truffles, candles and cushions, all nestled inside the gorilla house where sleeping primates peacefully snored, unaware of their late-night audience.
Despite the fact that our diary is quickly filling up with Christmas parties and concerts, we're busy planning for our trip back to the UK and it's hard to focus on anything else. We even debated whether or not to decorate our American home because we'll be away- but then someone gave us a twelve foot high, pre-lit tree, so we felt obliged. To be fair, it looks incredible since we have a double height ceiling in the living room (I'm guessing we'll be gifting this to the homeowner when we come back to the low-ceilings of the UK in a few years!). Husband has spent hours fettling (Brit word for fiddling) away trying to track down the broken lights in among all that fake foliage, but the tree now stands tall and proud and adorned with hundreds of twinkling (and working) lights. Quite how we'll get the angel on top, I'm not sure.
This time last year I was in the final few weeks of my last teaching term before leaving for America. I was stressed and exhausted. What's more, I'd done no shopping, hadn't written a Christmas card and husband had just fallen through the ceiling whilst trying to sort out the loft! Chaos doesn't quite cover it. This year, I'm a bit more organised and certainly not exhausted. So tonight I'm off to a party (on a school night!) with some home-baked, sticky gingerbread (Yes! Home baked - I hardly recognise myself!). All afternoon, the kitchen has smelt amazing as ginger and cinnamon wafted from the oven. My British recipe has a glass of Guinness in it to add to its rich, treacly taste - hopefully my American friends will appreciate the extra iron!
I've even started the Christmas shopping! To be fair, I've had to get my act together because our Christmas starts a week early when we fly to London, so everything has to be packed and wrapped and ready to go. I hope my family realise they're receiving very lightweight, flat, suitcase-friendly gifts this year! I've had to get quite creative. Luckily, my recent rediscovery of knitting has come too late to produce anything homemade this year (much to my Mother's relief!). Similarly, we've been clear with family that we really don't need gifts, although my brother-in-law keeps threatening to buy us a kayak, just for the comedy value of seeing us try to fly it back!
But if there's one thing this last year has taught us, it's that the thing we value most, and the thing we really want for Christmas, is time with our loved ones - it's doing things, not having things. It's presence, not presents.