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Christmas Without You

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Thanksgiving had always been her mom’s holiday, but if Sydney is being completely honest, Christmas had always belonged to her dad.

He would cover the whole house in wreaths and lights, put candles in every window and on every table, bake pies, wrap gifts, and him along to the Kenny & Dolly Christmas album that was on the record player from November ‘til January. He would bring them out caroling, volunteering at the church, handing out blankets at shelters, all leading up to the big day, when Sydney, Elijah, and Caroline would all wake up before dawn, would have Caroline’s omelets and Elijah’s cinnamon rolls, and open gifts. It was the biggest day of the year in the Strait household.

Sydney hadn’t celebrated like that in two years.

Sure, she’d bought gifts for her coworkers (and, usually, Briana) and she’d listened to carols on the radio (and always turned off the Kenny & Dolly) and even volunteered (as long as it was out of town). But the last time she’d really honestly celebrated Christmas had been before she’d left, before her mom had died, before she’d had a sorta-kinda-half-brother- or, at least, before she’d known about him. A lot had changed in those two years.

Sydney had no idea what to expect.

She was a little surprised when her dad had started decorating for Christmas right after Thanksgiving, just like in the past. Especially this year, after everything that had happened. But, in the midst of helping Jake and Sara plan George’s funeral, and struggling with his own loss, Elijah had still prepared for Christmas the same way Sydney remembered from her childhood. It really was Christmas day she was worried about.

It was almost a relief to wake up to the smell of cinnamon rolls on Christmas day. It was the same as when she’d been little- waking up and lying in bed for a few moments, just breathing in the smell. But something was different.

It took her a second to realize, but then it hit her- there were voices in the kitchen. Voices that didn’t belong to Elijah or to Emerson. Rolling out of bed, she ran her fingers through her hair before making her way downstairs in her pajamas.

“Dad?” She called, not exactly knowing what to expect as she walked into the kitchen.

“Oh, so you’re finally up, then!” In her kitchen stood her father, her brother, Della, Briana, Anthony, his wife and kids, and Jake- in other words, her entire social circle. All fully dressed, drinking orange juice, most of them laughing at the way Jake had greeted her.

Sydney blinked for a second, as if to make sure they all were really there, before attempting to defend herself. “Well- if I’d known- I could have- I would-”

“Once upon a time,” Anthony stage-whispered to Briana, “she was considered the brightest legal mind in the south.”

Sydney’s mouth dropped open in indignant surprise, but everyone around her started laughing, so she just shrugged it off.

Looking around again, she turned to her dad. “What are they all doing here?”

Della was the one who answered. “We figured, we’re all family now, right? And we didn’t want any of y’all struggling without your mom this year, and besides, I’ve got nowhere to go anymore, Briana usually spends the holidays with Jake, and he doesn’t want to be home right now, and, well, we figured leaving Anthony out would just be plain rude, so…”

“Is Samantha here, then?”

Della stepped sideways to reveal her wife, standing at the stove making bacon. “Can’t bring her anywhere without her offering to cook, or clean, or both,” Della laughed.

“Not that we mind, of course,” Elijah added as Samantha turned around.

“I’m sure. Bacon’s ready,” she announced, quickly adding, “for anyone but my wife. She gets to wait for the next batch.” She glared playfully before quickly pecking Della’s lips and turning back to the stove.

Emerson reached forward and grabbed a slice, tossing another to Sydney, who caught it reflexively and laughed.

“Dad, do you mind if I talk to you for a sec?” She asked, nodding to the hallway.

Elijah glanced at Emerson, who shrugged. “Alright…” he replied cautiously before following her out into the quieter hallway.

“She’d be making omelets right now,” Sydney said quietly. “And she’d kill us for bringing everyone over this early.”

Elijah’s face softened as he realized what Sydney was struggling with. “Sydney, she’d want us to have them over if she was gone,” he reassured her softly. “They’re like family. She’d want us to keep them close, to do what we can without her.”

“I’m afraid we’ll forget,” she admitted, turning to look at her father. “Will we? Forget to think about her?”

Elijah frowned. “I don’t think we can,” he replied, honestly as he could. “She did so much for us, she’s your mother… she’ll always be with us, in some way, even if our traditions change and our family grows and changes. She’s still our Caroline.”

Sydney thought for a moment, then nodded. Quietly, she wrapped her arms around her dad and hugged him silently, burying her face in his shoulder for a moment. Pulling back, she looked up at him. “Okay.”

Elijah smiled, then nodded toward the kitchen. “Wanna head back?”

Sydney nodded, following behind. For a moment, she stood in the doorway, watching them. Watching Della, one hand resting on Samantha’s waist, animatedly discussing something with Elijah. Watching Briana and Anthony argue about something- sports, maybe, or a job they’d been working on at the firm. Watching Jake play with Anthony’s daughters, his smile lighting up their faces and looking less strained than it had in a month. Watching Emerson sneak pieces of bacon while occasionally chatting with Samantha before he looked up and waved for her to come join them.

Smiling, Sydney walked back into the kitchen. They may have their own problems and their own struggles, but they’d stick together. Because that’s what family does.