Family & Friends

True Gifts of Christmas

Last week while digging through a cabinet with Christmas items, I came across an old executive secretary notebook, like the ones stenographers used years ago. When I flipped it open, the year 1976 leaped out at me. On the tattered faded green pages, I had written notes of where my husband and I had spent Thanksgivings, Christmases and even Mother’s Day celebrations. The Christmas page was divided into eighteen sections—one for every family member. Under each name, I had listed gift ideas such as slippers, billfolds, gloves and shirts. I had even recorded the prices of the gifts we purchased. Another page was filled with lists of cookies I baked. Spritz, sugar cookies and chocolate chip seemed to be yearly favorites.

As I flipped through the book into the 1990s, I could not believe how our gift purchasing had increased over the years, much less how organized I had been! Flashbacks of the frantic days and weeks before Christmas rolled through my head. I remembered John and I darting from store-to-store with the holiday notebook in hand checking items off the list and all those hours we had spent wrapping presents late into the night.


Twenty-Eight Snow Angels: A Widow’s Story of Love, Loss and Renewal by Diane Dettmann

In 2000, my Christmas celebrations of the past changed forever. My loving husband had died unexpectedly that June. Deep in grief, I had no desire to celebrate Christmas. But when my loving sister offered to help me decorate a small tree, I thought it might help lift my spirits, so I gave in to her offer. We placed the tiny tree by the window and decided we could save time by putting most of the decorations on the front. No one would see the backside anyway except the deer. When the tree was finished my sister hugged me and left. Minutes after her car taillights disappeared, I heard a crash in the lower level of the house. I ran down the steps. When I saw the tree on the floor, I sat on the stairs and cried. I cleaned up the broken decorations. As I rehung the ornaments that John and I had given each other over the years, I thought of the Christmases we had celebrated together and realized Christmas would never be the same again. I ended up spending that first Christmas with my sister and her family. I didn’t have the time or energy to buy gifts. My loving family understood.

In the years that passed, those frantic days of Christmas shopping were replaced with cash for the nephews and nieces and time spent together during the holidays. In spite of that first tree taking a tumble, I continued to put up a Christmas tree each year. I realized there was just something about the light and glow of the tree in the darkness on a cold Minnesota night that brought joy to me even during the Christmases I spent alone. Each year, as I hung ornaments on the tree, I cherished the memories of John and loved ones no longer with me.  

In 2006, after six years of life alone, I decided to try my dating skills on and met a wonderful guy. Allan and I hit it off right away. In 2007, we hosted Christmas at our house. My family came and shared the day with us. Instead of buying expensive presents, I wrapped up goofy gifts — cheap items, the most expensive of which is a Fleet Farm gift card. When they arrived, we sat by the tree and played the dice game. I can still hear the room filled with laughter and see the smiles on their faces as we rolled the die into a tin pie plate hoping for doubles so we could steal gifts from each other.

Diane and Allan in Cancun, Mexico.

Over the years, my family’s lives have moved in new directions and we seldom are able to come together in one place. Yet like that first Christmas alone, I still put up a tree. Allan and I exchange special cards and instead of presents under the tree, we spend a week in Cancun. The true gifts of Christmas are love for each other, hope in times of darkness and keeping the memories of those we love wrapped in our hearts forever.

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  • Diane Dettmann December 30, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    Thank you so much Elizabeth! Thank you for all your writing inspiration and support.

  • Diane Dettmann December 28, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Sini thank you for your comment. It’s a difficult question to answer. I found making small changes gradually in Christmas traditions helped. The loss will always be a part of us, especially during the holidays. Yet we often can find positive ways of remembering our loved ones through sharing stories and photos or giving someone a special item that belonged to the loved one. In reality, I think, finding that new purpose after a loss is unique to each person and is a process that takes time. Hope this helps.

  • Elizabeth Sims December 28, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    Congratulations on writing such a moving essay, Diane.

  • Sini Ross December 28, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Thank you Diane for writing this piece. It helps me put some perspective on what many of my customers and even employees are facing…the challenge of facing Christmas when we are all supposed to be happy, yet it’s not something that you can just turn on or off. The holidays often remind us of those who are no longer with us and it is a process of mourning. I know that it is important for people to find new purpose and “Keep Going” but how do I coach people to do just that without sounding like Polly Anna?

  • Diane Dettmann December 27, 2015 at 9:53 am

    So many wonderful comments on my Christmas essay. Thank you everyone!

  • Karen Grossaint December 26, 2015 at 9:27 pm

    Enjoyed reading your story Diane and sharing your journey from love, love lost and finding love again. So very well written, heartfelt and meaningful. You have truly captured the true meaning of Christmas. So happy that you included a picture of Allan and you…love to see your smiling faces.

  • Carol Stabenow December 26, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    Thank you, Diane. Such a journey, and you describe it so well.

  • Linda Paulson December 26, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    May we never reach the age where we don’t want to put up a tree anymore. It does my soul good. Yours reminds n me of the way a traditional tree should look. Thanks for sharing.

  • sue walsh December 26, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    Thank you Diane.

  • hillsmom December 26, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Thank you Diane for another inspiring essay. The first two commenters have said it all. So “ditto” and Best Wishes for 2016 and beyond.

  • Susan Odella December 26, 2015 at 11:20 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Diane. Grief can last a lifetime, but it’s inspiring to know it doesn’t have to take away your spirit for living and loving.

  • Sandra December 26, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Diane, I loved your story. Isn’t it ironic that Craig also passed away in June? Unlike you, I didn’t feel like putting up our small Christmas tree. Maybe next year. Hope you and Allen had a very Merry Christmas.

  • Diane Dettmann December 26, 2015 at 9:28 am

    Thank you so much Linda and Ann for reading my Christmas story and for taking time to share your thoughts. You inspire me!

  • Ann Wolff December 25, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    I love the thought of wrapping memories. Thank you for this beautiful gift of heartfelt words, Diane.

  • Linda Parker December 25, 2015 at 9:46 am

    What a beautiful piece. You have such a way with words. Your journey with grief continues to inspire! Thank you for sharing your story.