I was four months pregnant with our third child on a Christmas morning I will never forget. My 24-hour "morning sickness" had failed to subside, and on top of the constant nausea, I came down with an oppressive sinus infection AND a case of the flu. I had never felt so drained and irritable - it was all I could do to drag myself out of bed to collapse on the couch and watch my family open gifts.

That was just the beginning.

Our children - ages 7 and 4 at the time - had not yet mastered discernment in truth telling. My husband, our resident chef, padded downstairs very early to make a lovely homemade French toast breakfast with all the trimmings. To which our little darlings promptly turned up their noses. "This is yucky! We hate sausage! We want cereal!" Big Daddy took it in stride, though.

We nixed breakfast and let the kids jump into opening gifts. What could possibly go wrong there? Well, apparently since "Mrs. Claus" was under the weather that year, her gift choices may have been a wee bit hurried. I won't name which kid was the culprit - because he or she will choose my nursing home one day - but my cherub tore open gift after gift, tossing them aside. "THIS wasn't on my Christmas list!" "I hate this! Will Santa take it back?" Ugh. And I thought I felt sick before I got out of bed.

Hubby smiled through it for my sake, skipping for that moment our requisite lecture about appreciation. But my already downtrodden spirits were dashed even further. Christmas was supposed to be full of peace, joy and love!

But he had bigger fish to fry, getting the kids ready to spend the day with his family, gathering gifts and a side dish to bring along. I couldn't go, but I insisted he take the kids to spend time with people who weren't on the verge of tossing their Christmas cookies at any moment.

Hubby went upstairs, and to manage the stress with his typical humor, belted out irreverent versions of Christmas carols in the shower - "It's the most terr-i-ble time... of the year! Mommy- is- so- sick- and- the- kids- are- all- crazy- and- Daddy- just- wants ... to- get- out- of- here! It's the most hor-ri-ble tiiiiime of the year!"

I laughed so hard I started to cry. And those tears just wouldn't stop. Then, to add insult to my varied injuries that morning, our brand new puppy climbed up beside me - and she threw up on my bed. Yes, you can laugh now!

But of course, even though that Christmas morning had not met any of our expectations - one timeless truth prevailed. Tired and broken, I sought the comfort and peace of the Lord that day. All the trappings of Christmas - the gifts, the parties, the food, the decorations - well, none of those things really define Christmas, do they? Christmas is so much more, and so much less then we make it.

Christmas is a time to simply give thanks and praise for the most generous, timeless gift that humanity ever received. A small, innocent baby boy - born into royalty, sent "not to be served, but to serve." I hope in the midst of this busy, stressful, time, you take a moment to "open" this gift once again. And just savor the joy of our Savior - the only gift that continues to give without ceasing - one you're called to return to your friends, neighbors and family in spades.

Merry Christmas to you and yours! May you make plenty of memories you never mention in annual Christmas cards.

• Diane Meehl is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the AFN. She and her family live in Ahwatukee Foothills, and worship at Mountain View Lutheran Church. Reach her at diane@shiftkeycontent.com.

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