“It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on” Joni Mitchell
It’s mid December again, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. At this time of year I look back on my relationship with perhaps the most central, unifying aspect of American culture. For ten years I’ve been on a journey that has led me to pretty much give up Christmas.
No, I don’t go around saying “Bah, Humbug.” I don’t boycott gifts or glare at the Salvation Army bell ringers. When people say, “Merry Christmas” to me I cheerfully echo it back, although Christianity is no longer my religion. I’ll say “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Solstice” too; whatever brings a smile to the person I’m greeting. It doesn’t matter, really, as long as I’m wishing them merry and happy.
My process of giving up Christmas began when I became an adult, I guess, and was no longer required to attend Catholic Mass and its ancillaries. Except for a brief period in fourth grade when I wanted to be a nun, I never took much to the religion. The Christmas season was the best it got though, with the cute little manger scene and much better hymns to sing. The extra church days due to Christmas and New Year’s were a drag, but it still beat Lent.
What I remember most about those days, besides dreading Mass, is the intense anticipation I felt waiting to open the gifts. It consumed me as a child, and I still clearly remember its corollary: the acute disappointment I’d feel when each gift had been opened. This wasn’t my parents’ fault; the gifts were fine. The feeling of disappointment confused me immensely throughout my childhood, but I finally recognized it as an adolescent. I was disappointed because the party was over, so to speak. There would be no more Christmas for a year. The bubble had burst. Lent loomed.
Still, as an adult I celebrated Christmas, although in a more secular, rote fashion. As a young bride and mother I enjoyed the decorating, the bargain hunting for ornaments, giving everyone in my extended family the perfect gift, the adrenaline rush of getting to the post office on time. Years later, as a struggling single mother, each of these former joys took on a stressful connotation. When would I find time to shop? How could I avoid charging these “perfect gifts” when the alternative was to offend those closest to me by not honoring them with material things? For years I struggled with this concept, determined not to short-change my children, gulping and gasping at the credit card bill that arrived in January, and again in February, and again in March. For me, Christmas stopped being fun, and started being packed with pressure.
I noticed something important around this time. Most of the gifts I received I could take or leave. I might appreciate them for awhile, but before too long they’d end up in a thrift store box or given to someone else who really needed or wanted them. I realized with horror that the gifts I bestowed on others were probably facing the same fate. I began to see the ritual as a meaningless, materialistic game of checkers rather than a soulful exchange.
Around then, I remembered that my dad had a holiday ritual that didn’t leave me feeling empty or disappointed. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas he would go to the local Safeway and load up the cart with a holiday meal. This was special, too, because usually we went to the commissary, being a military family. Dad wouldn’t do that in this case, though, because the food wasn’t for us. I’d go with him often on these civilian shopping trips. We’d then haul the grocery bags into the rectory; the priest would thank us and promise us the food would go to a good home. Remembering this, I began donating money or food to the food bank, then sending my parents or others a note saying the donation had been made in honor of them. My parents, who had by that time sent quite a few of my gifts to the thrift store, loved the idea. I liked the way it made me feel. This was my first giant step away from the commercial Christmas machine. I’d found a new religion to celebrate: The Church of Stop Shopping.
Still, there was the annual schlepping of decorations, the problem of where to store them, the expense of keeping up with them. Still, there were gifts to select for my children. These soon became stressors, too. I worried that my kids would feel the alienating, mysterious disappointment I felt. I began to tell them that celebrating Christmas wasn’t working for me. I wanted to stop.
This didn’t go over well at first, as you can imagine. What made it possible, I suppose, is that their father celebrated Christmas, so they did not entirely have to give up any of the rituals they valued. They had to give them up at my house, though. We looked at what that looked like. We thought about what we would have more of when we spent less time shopping and spent less money on things. I asked the kids if I could give them presents throughout the year, as they needed or I wanted, rather than lump everything together on one big day. That idea intrigued them, and they continue to appreciate it. Still, they do get one special Solstice present to mark the season; they receive one in summer as well. This winter they got seasonal ski rentals, last summer new motocross helmets. Giving them two significant gifts each year (besides their birthdays) meets my need for giving and their need for feeling appreciated. Deciding together what they need and will receive eliminates the stress I used to feel when I had to shop and surprise them on a specific deadline. True, there is no “Christmas surprise”, but there is likely to be a random surprise in July or February, when it truly is a surprise.
We were reluctant to part with the baking delights that are associated with Christmas, however. We all agreed on this, and still make Hernshen, Christmas cookies, and pumpkin bread, our three favorites. We enjoy giving many plates away. This, like the food bank donations, reminds me that giving is one part of Christmas I truly value, especially when I give with an open heart and not out of a sense of obligation. Why not give things to people all year, I began to wonder. Why compress my generosity into a six week period of time?
And so, my boys and I slowly leached the traditional Christmas out of our lives. These years, now that they are in their early teens, our pre-Christmas days are wonderfully luxurious. Because we are not racing around buying much, we sleep in, have long talks, watch movies, play with the dog and cats, bake decadent desserts and delicious chicken pot roasts. When we drive to a gathering, we enjoy seeing everyone else’s lights and decorations. We relax and remember each other after a busy fall of school, work, and sports. We nap. We play in the snow. We mark the solstice and rejoice in longer days. They go off to their father, then, and have one Christmas—less stressful for them than the two we used to pack into our joint custody schedule. Once they are gone I have no decorations to put away, no tree to clean up after. I have dozens of trees out my window, though, and plenty of time to walk among them and reflect on all I have, all that I appreciate about the last year, all that I want to experience and accomplish in the next. I do not feel like I have a stone of worry in my gut due to the money I spent giving people things they didn’t need and perhaps didn’t want. I do not have a car full of rejected gifts to bring to the thrift store. And I still have money in my wallet to buy my loved ones perfect, needed surprises when I see them. In short, I’m a volunteer, not a contracted consumer.
So really, I am no Scrooge. Somehow my journey led me back around to Dickens’ famous sentiment. Even though I’m not a Christian, even though my house has no colorful lights blinking, even though I’m not behind you in the line at Penney’s or K-Mart, I’ve ended up figuring it out. I keep Christmas in my heart all year. It feels good.