I balanced a stack of presents in my arms and slowly made my way down the steps to the living room, where my sister Kristina fiddled with a stack of Christmas albums.
"Are all those gifts for me?" Kristina joked, turning up the volume on the stereo.
I rolled my eyes.
"What's wrong with you?" she hollered over "Walking in a Winter Wonderland."
"Nothing," I mumbled, wondering how she could be so cheerful, when I couldn't get excited at all. I thought I could hide my grouchiness, but Kristina saw through me. "Turn it down!" I shouted over the music.
She lowered the volume. "It's Christmas. You could at least try to pretend like you're happy."
"I am happy," I lied. "But you know it's not actually Christmas, right? It's a full week before December 25th. Most normal people are still out shopping."
Kristina shot me an angry look and then hit the mute button on the stereo. I instantly wanted to take back my words. When I was 5 and Kristina was 7 our parents divorced. Since then, we'd celebrated Christmas a full week early with whichever parent didn't have us on Christmas day. Kristina had somehow been able to deal with this arrangement. Ten years later, I should have been used to it too—but I wasn't.
"It's Christmas for Mom," Kristina hissed. "She cooked a big turkey dinner and she's really excited. Don't ruin it for her."
I brushed the tears from my cheeks and put my presents under the tree. The twinkling red, blue and yellow lights shimmered against the garland wrapped around the branches. I wondered if the lights would be on this time next week—on the real Christmas day—when Kristina and I were celebrating with Dad, and Mom was left alone in an empty house.
I tried to push my sad thoughts out of my mind. But even as we ate our Christmas dinner, exchanged presents and sang Christmas carols just like it was December 25th, I dreaded the real Christmas day. I felt guilty knowing Mom would be all alone. I went to bed that night feeling empty. Since the divorce, Christmas had become my least favorite day of the year. It only reminded me that my parents weren't married anymore. As Kristina and I opened presents with Mom, I always really missed my dad. The next week, when I was with Dad on Christmas, I'd miss my mom. No matter which parent I was with, I was never happy because I always felt guilty that I wasn't with the other.
The following week, on Christmas Eve, my dad came to Mom's house to pick up Kristina and me. Before I got into his car, I wrapped my arms tightly around Mom.
"What are you going to do tomorrow?" I asked, blinking back my tears.
She squeezed me tight. "I'm going to a Christmas party," she answered.
"I'll call you tomorrow," I promised, sliding into the backseat of the car.
She stood in the driveway and waved as Dad drove away.
"Church is having a candle light service tonight," my dad said, breaking the silence. "Linda and I are really looking forward to going with you two."