Each year the Christmas season is full of relentless planning and preparation. The weeks leading up to Christmas Eve are fests ad nauseam: shopping fests, wrapping fests, decorating fests, cooking fests, eating fests, drinking fests, party fests. Unless we are mindful about the real meaning of Christmas, all the rigmarole can cloud our thinking and dampen our spirit.

Only one thing truly matters beneath the razzle-dazzle of the holiday season: love shared between family and friends in celebration of the birth of our Savior. Santa Clause is a close second for the little peeps.

For many of us, the apex of coming together with those we love is Christmas Eve. This is when the magic happens for our kiddos as their hearts overflow with anticipation over what morning will bring. Christmas Eve is also the day some of us go to church and sing songs of joy over the coming of Emmanuel.

Because of the importance of this night, the list of non-negotiable tasks is lengthy: presents wrapped, Santa’s cookies put out on a plate, camera charged, food ready for Christmas day, outfits clean for Gramma’s house, knowing the whereabouts of ceramic baby Jesus is so He can be placed in the manger.

And if we are hosting the night before Christmas, our to-do list will include items all through the house such as stockings hung by the chimney with care (in hopes the dust bunnies would soon disappear) scrubbed toilets, vacuumed floors, a cooked meal, and drinks aplenty.

But there is one very important detail that should never be forgotten on such a historic night. I’d never once overlooked this until several years ago when I hosted Christmas Eve dinner for my husband’s family.

Our group totaled 13, and dinner went off without a hitch, the kitchen was restored to order, and we spent two hours enjoying family fun, laughing, and playing games before church. Midnight Mass was the final item on the agenda.

We live one mile from church, so we game planned to leave by 11:15 pm to ensure we could find seats together for our large group. Per usual, 11:15 p.m. rolled around and trying to get 13 people rounded up and out the door—more than half with opened gifts, leftovers, and other belongings—was complete chaos and a no-go.

By the time we finished scurrying around like ants and packed ourselves into four different vehicles, it was 11:30 p.m. As we unloaded car-by-car in the church parking lot, something strange happened.

“Hey Chris, do you have Gramma with you?” I asked my nephew.

“No, I thought she was in your car?”

“We don’t have her. Maybe she’s with your mom and dad,” I hoped.

“Hey, Jane. Is Mom with you?” I asked my sis-in-law.

“Um, no. I thought you and John had her?”

“No, we don’t. She must have driven with Brian.”

I threw up in my mouth a little before asking my other nephew.

“Hey Brian, is Gram with you guys?” I asked as we all walked into church.

“No!”

Four cars. Four no answers.

And there the 12 of us stood in the gathering space of my church, staring at one another in utter disbelief and red-faced shame. Because for the love of Jesus’ birth, not one of us remembered to make sure GRAMMA GOT A RIDE TO CHURCH!

Unbelievable. So not kidding.

You’ve never seen wider eyeballs and gaped mouths in your life. Pretty sure I heard nearby parishioners whispering about how inspiring our transcendent spirit of awe and wonder was over the coming of baby Jesus.

Um, no. We’re just a bunch of idiots.

Twelve people couldn’t account for one, which defies bad odds. Instead, the woman responsible for all of us sharing life together had become an afterthought.

For heaven’s sake of the Most High! We were fools. That was us.

A son, daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, six grown grandchildren, and two granddaughter in-laws were responsible for the most epic of all family fails. ‘Twas now the night of a living nightmare.

My sis-in-law and brother-in-law raced back out to their car, calling our beloved matriarch on the cell phone as they ran. The rest of us sauntered into our pews feeling less than and morally disturbed.

Like how? Just wow.

Fifteen minutes later, after the service started, I saw my sis and brother-in-law walking into the church with my mother-in-law. Dear Lord, bless this woman’s soul and free the sorrow in her heart that our blatant carelessness has surely caused, I prayed. As if on cue, all 10 of us turned in unison to look at her with our sheepish grins and mournful expressions mouthing “I’m sorry.”

Sure enough, my mother-in-law stayed true to her saintly form and greeted us all with a smile while wagging a playful finger of jest. She knew our forgetfulness was a complete accident caused by our rushing around. To be honest, her kindness only made me feel worse. I’m still scratching my head as I write this years later. God love that woman.

Turns out, Naomi (as I lovingly refer to her while she calls me Ruth) had gone upstairs to change while the rest of us packed up cars. She was living in my home at the time, and in the hustle and bustle, her absence was overlooked. We all assumed someone else had her.

Moral of the story?

Headcounts. Always. Especially on Christmas Eve. Or roll call. Whatever it takes.

Otherwise ,you might be toasting, “Merry mortifying Christmas to all, and to all a regrettable night.”

Shelby Spear

Shelby is a Christian mom to three beautiful knuckleheads who have left her with an empty nest in which to ponder what the mom thing has (done to her) meant over the past twenty-four years. She is working on her first book and you can read her open heart of revelations, screw-ups, gaffs, and joys at https://shelbyspear.com/