Denise Day Spencer

January 2, 2011

The year the magic died

Filed under: Home Front,Personal reflections — denisedayspencer @ 11:05 am

It’s time for reflection on Christmas 2010–my first Christmas without Michael.

Christmas is such a time for memories, and 31 years of marriage left me with memories galore. Like our very first Christmas, when we bought a real tree and Michael had to trim off the lowest twigs to make it fit in the stand and he chopped his thumb to the bone with the carving knife. We never forgot my taking him to the ER for those seasonal stitches. And like that same year when Michael wanted to do stockings but he bought everything except the stocking so he crammed the stuff into a brown paper bag he labeled “Christmas Bag” with a ballpoint pen. I saved that precious little bag for years, and would give anything to have it now.

Michael was the one who made Christmas what it was in our home. He loved the holiday, and his love dictated all sorts of Spencer family holiday season rules. Thou shalt not play Christmas music before Thanksgiving. After Thanksgiving thou shalt play all the Christmas music thou wishes. The Advent wreath must be set up and ready to go with new candles by the first Sunday in Advent. The candles are lit as part of a family worship time at Sunday dinner each of the four Advent weeks. There must always be plenty of eggnog in the refrigerator, and it is to be consumed full-strength — not cut with milk by the faint of heart. No gifts are to be opened before Christmas morning. Then it’s gifts first, stockings last. Oh, and until his mother came to live with us, Christmas morning began with Michael calling his parents to say, “Christmas gift!” (That tradition never had much of an explanation; it was simply fun, I guess.)

I expected the first Christmas of my widowhood to be difficult and it was, though it certainly could have been worse. Throughout the whole season my grief was more raw than it otherwise had been of late, my emotions less predictable. I didn’t feel much like decorating. I wanted to delay putting up the Christmas things anyway so I could focus more than usual on Advent, but I knew that decision was partly an excuse. My heart just wasn’t in it. I set out my four-foot Chrismon tree and my little fiberoptic evergreen and could have called it finished. But bless Noel’s heart. She said, “Mom. I can’t stand the thought of you sitting there in that house without a Christmas tree. I’m going to help you.” So together we assembled branches B through K, strung the lights and hung the homespun ornaments. We agreed that Dad would have wanted more lights, but we thought we had plenty. (We remembered him exclaiming, “Lights! Is that all we’ve got? We need more lights! I’m just going to have to drive to town right now to get more lights!”)

I did feel better once the tree was up. Michael would have wanted me to have the tree, that’s for sure. I dutifully wrapped gifts and listened to Christmas music. I planned the menu for our Christmas family dinner and bought the groceries. I even did some baking, which further boosted my holiday mood. And yet I both dreaded and looked forward to Christmas Eve.

I don’t know how Christmas took on such importance in Michael’s life, but he never lost its sense of magic or his own sense of wonder. Even after our children had long stopped waiting for Santa, he still loved to use NORAD to track the jolly old elf through the sky. When the kids were small he made sure they not only left cookies and milk for St. Nick, but also an apple for Rudolph. Sure enough, the next morning they would find the apple core lying in the front yard right where Rudolph had spit it out. (Clay still remembers standing on the porch gazing at that apple core, utterly amazed.) Michael’s love for the holiday wasn’t just the secular side, however. His deepest awe was reserved not for flying reindeer, but for the very Son of God tucked gently into a feeding trough by a carpenter’s rough hands.

Between Santa and the Savior, Christmas Eve with Michael was a very special time, indeed. After an early dinner of turkey and all the trimmings we would go to church, then come home and light every candle in the living room. With all the lights off except the candles and the tree, he and I would sit on the couch, listen to glorious music and sip eggnog before filling the stockings and retiring to bed.

Just the thought of Christmas 2010 seemed very bleak. How could it even be Christmas without my Michael? At least I had plenty to do on Christmas Eve. Clay and Taylor would be driving in from Lexington that night, and I wanted to do some advance cooking for the next day’s dinner. I did my best to keep the music going, even as I remembered that keeping the music going was always Michael’s job. Instead of cooking us a special Christmas Eve breakfast served on Mom Dorothy’s antique white dishes I ate…Hmmm. I don’t recall what I ate. Lunch was me standing at the kitchen sink munching cheese and crackers. Instead of turkey and dressing for dinner, I almost forgot to eat at all. At last I sat down at the table with a little bowl of clam chowder. Noel and Ryan had gone to their church over an hour away. Clay and Taylor had not yet arrived. The music had stopped playing. I was alone for the first time ever on Christmas Eve, and I cried into my clams.

But before too long Taylor and Clay arrived with luggage and gifts and hugs and kisses and all was right with the world, except…they were tired and went on to bed, so I drove to Midnight Mass by myself. I returned to a quiet house. Nobody tracking Santa. No shimmering candlelight or background music. No snuggling on the couch with glasses of chilled nog. Just the quiet I’m becoming accustomed to, but a sad silence all the same.

The next day Noel and Ryan came over mid-morning and spent the whole day and evening with us. We played Christmas music all day. We opened gifts that morning. Yes, presents first, stockings last. Then the young folks played games while I cooked a fine turkey dinner. We shared a few remembrances of Dad during the meal, then carried on with laughter and lively conversation. The eggnog flowed freely. Michael would have been pleased.

Yet no one placed a call that morning to exclaim, “Christmas gift!” And the worst thing of all? We forgot to light the Advent candles. We didn’t read from the beloved Book of Family Worship. I didn’t even have the Advent wreath on the table, for crying out loud. What was I thinking? That’s it; I wasn’t thinking. Michael would have been very, very disappointed.

So I get mixed reviews for my first Christmas on my own. I did some things right; I did some things wrong. OK, bad wrong. I survived, though, and that’s the main thing, isn’t it?

The worst thing about the first Christmas without Michael is the simple fact that it won’t be the last. There will be next Christmas without him, and the next, and the next, and– I feel as if I’m suffocating when I think of the future. Oh, I’ll keep surviving. Hopefully I’ll get even better at this. But I will always, always miss the magic.



  1. Oh, Denise. My heart goes out to you. This is my first Christmas without both my mom and dad, and that is hard enough. May God’s peace rest on you, and comfort you as you go through your days missing Michael.

    Comment by Susan — January 2, 2011 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

  2. Denise, I have thought of you often throughout this Christmas season. It’s so hard to have only the memories, but certainly no one can take those from you. You didn’t do anything wrong, and Michael would not have been disappointed in you. On the contrary, he would have been very proud of you for surviving.

    Comment by Cynthia Jones — January 2, 2011 @ 8:11 pm | Reply

  3. What Cynthia said. We love you Denise, even those who have never met you in person and are praying for you.

    You did well. Very well.

    Comment by Ragamuffin — January 3, 2011 @ 10:01 am | Reply

  4. Oh, Denise. I want to be with you right now, even though we have never met. I feel so much of the same way. My Michael was a force of nature, too. It is a challenge to establish a new paradigm in which to live and enjoy life without him.

    Our Michaels are together right now, I’m sure. I think they might be praying for us.



    Comment by Amy Welborn — January 4, 2011 @ 12:14 am | Reply

  5. Denise, I felt a manly tear forming when I read the part about Michael and the apple core in the front yard.

    Thank you for sharing this. We all miss Michael.

    Comment by Daniel — January 4, 2011 @ 12:46 am | Reply

  6. Thank you for sharing your story. I cry, but am glad you were given him for the time you wre.

    Comment by julana — January 4, 2011 @ 7:03 am | Reply

  7. What a wealth of memories and traditions you have to draw on now and in the years to come. What a wonderful gift. I think perhaps Michael would approve of your establishing some small new traditions of your own as you face the anniversaries of the old ones.

    Comment by Kat — January 4, 2011 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

  8. I remember something like a little rant on the BHT one year around Christmas–something about colored vs. white lights on the tree. Which he was for and which against I don’t recall. But, I could tell it was–um–an emotionally charged issue!

    Also, I would like for you to know that he continues to influence us here in Georgia through the book. My sr. pastor, Brian Clark, launched a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount after he began reading Mere Churchianity some weeks ago. It has been a powerful experience.

    Blessings as we remember our Lord’s Baptisms this Sunday,

    Comment by Sharon Waters — January 4, 2011 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

    • Sharon, thanks for sharing that story. I didn’t remember that. Michael liked the little white lights, and that’s the kind we’ve always had. And I’m so glad to know about your pastor’s sermon series. Thanks again.

      Comment by Denise Spencer — January 4, 2011 @ 8:03 pm | Reply

  9. Many thanks to all of you. In the coming years we will, I’m sure, learn to blend Michael’s traditions with some new ones of our own. Just one more tiny facet of the arduous healing process…

    Comment by Denise Spencer — January 4, 2011 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

  10. You know, I will never forgive myself for not keeping in closer contact with you guys. You were both so pivotal in my journey. Michael gave me acceptance and embraced me at a time when I was such a castaway. Beyond that time, he was constantly on my mind. There was never anyone I trusted more. He introduced me to practical – real life – service oriented faith and service to Christ. He helped me to see beyond the institutions of man to the institutes of Christ..

    Just so you know, I used to drive him crazy with Christmas music, it is my tradition (rule) that the Christmas music begins November 1st. there is just no way to listen to it all if you don’t start then!

    I loved Michael and I love you, Noel and Clay. That’s coming from a big ole ex-football player.

    Rom 8:16 God’s Spirit makes us sure that we are his children.
    Rom 8:17 His Spirit lets us know that together with Christ we will be given what God has promised. We will also share in the glory of Christ, because we have suffered with him.
    Rom 8:18 I am sure that what we are suffering now cannot compare with the glory that will be shown to us.
    Rom 8:19 In fact, all creation is eagerly waiting for God to show who his children are.
    Rom 8:20 Meanwhile, creation is confused, but not because it wants to be confused. God made it this way in the hope
    Rom 8:21 that creation would be set free from decay and would share in the glorious freedom of his children.
    Rom 8:22 We know that all creation is still groaning and is in pain, like a woman about to give birth.
    Rom 8:23 The Spirit makes us sure about what we will be in the future. But now we groan silently, while we wait for God to show that we are his children. This means that our bodies will also be set free.
    Rom 8:24 And this hope is what saves us. But if we already have what we hope for, there is no need to keep on hoping.
    Rom 8:25 However, we hope for something we have not yet seen, and we patiently wait for it.
    Rom 8:26 In certain ways we are weak, but the Spirit is here to help us. For example, when we don’t know what to pray for, the Spirit prays for us in ways that cannot be put into words.
    Rom 8:27 All of our thoughts are known to God. He can understand what is in the mind of the Spirit, as the Spirit prays for God’s people.
    Rom 8:28 We know that God is always at work for the good of everyone who loves him. They are the ones God has chosen for his purpose,

    Comment by Angus — January 4, 2011 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

    • Thanks so much, “Angus.” You’ve been a wonderful support to us through this, and I appreciate that so much.

      Comment by Denise Spencer — January 10, 2011 @ 4:15 pm | Reply

  11. Jesus will turn your mourning into dancing, your sorrow into praise. may he who is the light of the World be your light during these times

    Comment by Ian — January 7, 2011 @ 9:51 am | Reply

  12. Denise, I continue to keep you in my prayers.

    Comment by paigemom — January 13, 2011 @ 10:08 am | Reply

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