What Makes us Merry

Today we finally celebrated our first Christmas with sweet Emma.

Last February she flew on her first airplane. In March, she celebrated her first birthday (as a 4-year old). Since then, it’s been a succession of all her first holidays – Easter, the 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving. It’s certainly been an exciting year with so many reasons to celebrate!

This is not what life was like in her orphanage.

Where Emma grew up, there wasn’t much to celebrate. She was one of 70+ orphans crammed into a 3-bedroom compound. The orphanage was enclosed by a rusty sheet metal fence that surrounded the one acre lot. There was a guard out front with an AK-47.

Poor Emma only ate one meal a day. She played in a yard of dirt, and she took care of the younger girls assigned to her. Her dull routine was basically the same every day.

Their version of a “holiday” was on take-away days – the day parents came to take their adopted children home. On these days, the staff opened the donation closet and gave every child toys to play with while the parents toured the facility. For those special hours, she was supposed to look happy and act like she loved her life there.

Every other day the toys were locked up and the nannies didn’t care much about whether she was having a good time or not.

Of course since having Emma home, I’ve cared.

Her needs are attended to and I’m doing my best to give her the individual attention she’s lacked all her young life. In less than a year, she’s gained ten pounds, grown an inch, learned to speak English, and started to genuinely smile.

It took three months for her to call me “mama” and five months before I received my first unprompted hug. While our relationship has grown slowly, the fact that it keeps growing is what keeps me going!

So for this holiday, I knew we had to go all out. For her first real Christmas, I wanted Emma to experience all the trappings and get as many confirmations of our love as possible.

I started buying presents in October and by early December my closet was so crammed with hidden gifts, I could barely get to my clothes! As the presents piled up, so did my anticipation of seeing our sweet Emma open each and every one.

Today, Christmas morning finally came and I was the first one up. I made cinnamon rolls in the kitchen and waited for the aroma to wake my little princess.

Soon enough, she hopped downstairs albeit at a hesitant pace – like she didn’t quite know what to expect. That was understandable considering the confusion a few of our unexplained holiday traditions had caused earlier in the week – like eating deviled eggs and making gingerbread men. The poor thing still takes things a bit too literally, so I’m sure she was worried that she’d misunderstood some other aspects of the holiday. But once she saw the mountain of presents, her excited smile showed me she knew just what was coming next.

Her daddy sat down near the tree and she quickly plopped down next to him. As he divvied out the presents, I brought in the plate of cinnamon rolls and we all settled in for a grand gift-opening session.

I wondered how this part would go, because in the past Emma hadn’t quite understood the concept of presents. On her birthday, she opened one gift – a tiny teddy bear – and thought that was it. Even when we explained that she had about a dozen more to go, she just kept petting that little bear and smiling at us.  I had to pry the toy from her clutches and gently turn her head toward her gift pile before she finally realized that those were hers too.

Today she was much more confident, probably in part because this time, I talked with her about it beforehand. I explained, “Emma, on Christmas we give gifts to show how much we love each other. Christmas is a special day where we spend time being happy with our family.”

Now that we were settling in for the part of Christmas that she clearly understood, I could see she had her game face on. Her first gift – an art easel – brought a sweet smile, a genuine hug, and then an immediate re-positioning for her next present. Not as much exuberance as I was expecting, but I’m not going to take that hug for granted!

Gift #2 was a cute new outfit. Emma opened it, looked up and thanked me, and immediately began looking for box #3. Once found, she sat happily holding her next present prepped and ready to open it as soon as mom and dad caught up. I guess she’d gotten over that lingering habit!

Rounds 3-5 were more of the same. Politely unwrap the gift. Acknowledge the gift. Look around right away for the next one.

Her sixth present was one that I hand-made. They were little band bracelets that I’d seen her admire on her friends. I made a dozen of them in all different colors knowing that she’d love the bright selection.

Surprisingly, when Emma opened this box, she again only took the time to recognize that the box contained bracelets before setting it aside to make room for gift #7. I had hoped she’d at least linger a bit over these, but maybe tomorrow she’ll realize the hard work I put into it.

By round 8, Daddy and I were all done with our presents, so Emma could open hers unhindered. There’s really not much to tell about presents 8-20. Her reaction was the same no matter what the size or significance of the gift. The one thing I did notice was how her smile was always strongest when she was being handed her next present. Each new present seemed to be greeted by an even bigger smile.

After opening her final gift, Emma eagerly turned back to the tree; and I won’t forget her reaction. Right as her bright teeth began to peak through her blossoming smile, she froze. I knew she recognized the gifts were all gone.

As Emma looked back to me, her excited eyes wilted into teary confusion. She was trying hard to look happy but was barely holding it together. It actually looked quite unnatural. Her tiny voice trembled as she said, “Is that all?”

I answered her question with my own perplexed (and truth be told somewhat irritated) response: “Emma, what do you mean? You got so many gifts this year! Look how loved you are!” I suggested Emma play with some of her new toys, but she just settled into a blank stare, sitting there like she was shocked that was it – even though she was surrounded by a closet-full of brand new Christmas treasures!

In resignation, I thought we should at least try for a family picture before moving on from this strange gift-giving experience. Daddy set his camera timer and we both huddled in on either side of Emma.

As we  got into a happy family pose, I tried to get my stoic daughter looking at least a little full of holiday cheer: “Smile for the camera, Emma!” But for some reason that was it. In that moment, something in our child snapped. Immediately she whipped around to look at me and her sad little eyes narrowed into an enraged scowl.

I don’t really want to get into what all happened next; but in short, Emma threw her first full-blown fit. When her shocking tantrum was over, her new presents were very much worse for wear and now I was the one staring in disbelief.

Emma’s been in her room since then crying Christmas day away. I’m not sure what we did wrong, but I assume this must be an adoption thing. To be honest, I’m pretty much at a loss for what to do next.

I’m planning to assemble her new art easel and take it up to her as a peace offering. We’re hoping that might cheer her up.

If I can coax a few smiles from her later, I’ll be sure to post that first family holiday pic! Until then, I hope your Christmas has been much more merry and full of good times with friends and family.

Here’s hoping for a great 2016!