Monday, December 26, 2011

the meaning of christmas

This is a tough one for me. I've always loved Christmas, but it seems like there's always been a touch of sadness about it, too. So this year it was anxiety about the onslaught of stuff. I really worried about it. It's partially an environmental concern... all that plastic, all those batteries, the imports from China. Not exactly an ecologist's dream holiday (but then again neither are earth day celebrations with "free giveaways" of junk with the recycling symbol on it-ugh). But I also worried about the general sense in this culture that we show "love" with stuff (we do). I worried that our little guy would get overwhelmed (he did). I worried about acquiring more things than we could store (it happened). I worried about getting a bunch of gifts that would dampen my child's creativity (we did).

It all happened like I thought it would. He got some gifts that I probably wouldn't have selected for him. He got some gifts that I certainly wouldn't have selected for him. And at the end of the night, I asked him if he had a nice Christmas he looked at me and said "It's not nice to get too many presents at Christmas." At some point Christmas morning he just looked kind of quiet and befuddled. When the relatives came in the afternoon and we opened more gifts, he opened his first one, and went off to assemble it and play with it, but then people *insisted* that he come back into the fray to keep on opening gifts. It made me a little sad because that greedy present-ripping behavior that adults so often criticize is a learned behavior. It really is.

And I could try to put a stop to it all. I could hand everyone a list of the "Christmas Rules." I could try to dictate all the terms of everyone's gift-giving. I could try. But then I would run the risk of actually making Christmas about stuff, after all. I would ultimately be saying that the stuff you give him or don't give him is more important than our relationship. I really do love our relatives very much, and they love our boys, and it's their Christmas, too. They get so much joy out of giving him things. And once the holiday is over, we can make choices about what keep and how we use the gifts. That's sort of an unspoken contract, right? The holiday is for everyone to share and celebrate in the way that works for them, but our home is our home is our home.

People love Thanksgiving, and that's a holiday without gifts. In my perfect world, Christmas would be kind of like that plus a couple of gifts, but not so much gift madness. And lots of Christmas music. And snow. Lovely, sparkly snow.

I think it might be particularly strange for people like me who want to have a meaningful Christmas, eschew consumerism, but also aren't deeply religious. We talk about Jesus being born, and the whole Christmas story. We read him the accounts from two of the Gospels (which he called poems), and he sweetly asked for "more poems about Mary and Joseph" (we did oblige). But I think that Christians feel that story in a very real, meaningful way. I've always felt like I was faking it when it comes to religion. For as long as I can remember I've felt that way. I love church services, music, etc., but in terms of having a truly spiritual experience on Christian holidays, well I don't. But nor do I feel any special connection with Solstice, even though that seems like the natural alternative for --ahem-- the crunchy and semi-crunchy folks like me. I could work on these things.

Yet I do feel Christmas. I like making candy and doughnuts for the neighbors and having a special meal together. I love Christmas music and singing carols. I like looking forward to winter. I love our Christmas tree and the "end of the semester" feel. I adore getting the mail in this season and seeing the pretty cards and photos people send. I like making it seem magical for the little ones. It may sound odd after my ranting, but I really do like giving and receiving, despite my many reservations about that whole process.

So another Christmas season has started and will end soon enough. I think that some of the most wonderful moments of the year have happened in the past month. All the singing that our little boy has been doing around the house. All the love that he has for our beautiful tree. All the fun he has giving candy to our neighbors. Ultimately that little guy is right about Christmas, I think. It really is not nice to get too many presents, but it is nice to give and receive a little something around this time. In his stocking he found a sketch pad and colored pencils, and he took great pleasure in drawing a picture for everyone who had Christmas dinner with us. At the end of the night he said that he hoped "Phil's knees would feel better so he could walk." (Phil is my mother-in-law's husband who has MS, and no, we haven't been talking about Tiny Tim with him). So I must say that on Christmas day I just felt grateful for having such a wonderful little boy who is so sensitive to others and to the world around him. The meaning of Christmas is in that sweet little soul who thinks about others* and sings, sings, sings.

*Lest I end on an overly sentimental note, I'll also share another Christmas thought from the little guy. As his Auntie was playing with him on the rug, she said "Oh I'm so full from dinner!" And he said "If you go poo-poo, then you will have room for more food!"

I hope you enjoy all the pictures below!


  1. I can *so* identify. As I type, there are 2 big bags of gifts by the garage door that are on their way out of the house. I agree with you on all of the environmental concerns, and I also hate to see people spending money on stuff that is just plain crap.

    There's an emotional piece, too. I have to remind myself that the gift is not the giver---just because we aren't keeping the thing you gave us, we still value the relationship (although it's hard to make that separation, and I don't think it would be taken well by my family). I judge the *stuff*, but not the person giving it (although, I was so surprised that some family members made the choices they did).

    I struggle with this so much, and I hope that the stress involved will diminish as the years go on and I become more confident in our choices and traditions. This year, for the first time, we skipped Christmas dinner with my family and just went for dessert, which apparently means present-palooza. It was just like you described, calling back the kids (who were engaged in something) to open gift after gift. My mom kept saying "Now this is Christmas" (really, like 6 or 7 times), and I felt so isolated. For me, it's partly about the stuff itself and mostly about what we're missing due to the materialistic focus: connection. I think that's part of what bothered me about family members giving my 3-year-old a plastic princess "glam girl" dress up set---that they didn't know us well enough to know that that's not us.

    Not sure what we'll change next year, but I'm so happy to have friends who are feeling the same. Like I said, it can be isolating. I love your perfect-world vision of Christmas!

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Miss you guys!

  2. Emily, that was a thoughtful and honest expression from a good mother's heart. Do not worry about your little boys being absorbed in plastic and commercialism. You exercise the right amount of controls in their lives and you are doing a beautiful job. We are so proud of the caring little guy that Theo has become. I still picture his nearly three year old self playing the piano, singing "Rudolph"with complete abandon, turning the pages of a Methodist hymnal as he does so. Too, too cute and a highlight of my Christmas.