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HAPPY holidays!

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Rethinking Christmas

Barb:

I screwed up Christmas big time when my kids were small and I would probably do it again.  Let me explain.  I have gobs of uncomfortable memories of my own childhood Christmases due to the fact that my parents were both chain smoking alcoholics and it was pretty much impossible to have a holiday that did not involve gross states of drunkenness, burned food and sour outcomes.  When I became a mom I was going to do it all differently.  Right from the start of my son’s first Christmas at age 11 months, I became a Christmas fiend.  I baked for weeks in advance, decorated the whole house to beat the band, threw parties with handmade food galore and, of course, purchased ungodly amounts of gifts, each of which I would hand wrap with extravagant ribbons and tags.  Oh, and the stockings!  Egads, they were filled to brim with antique toys, rare trinkets, old fashioned candies and handmade coupons.  I had no idea at the time what a mistake all this was!

For years I kept this up, and I actually loved it quite a bit.  Needless to say, my kids loved it too, in fact, Christmas rapidly became the biggest day of the year in our house.  As time went on and they became teenagers, it was becoming apparent that all this hoopla was no longer valued or necessary.  The truth about Santa had been discovered years ago, surprise presents were no longer possible, and the lists made it all so boring.  How much fun is it to just buy someone exactly what they are expecting?  We can do that any day.  We all knew we had to make some changes, but we didn’t know what or how.  Christmas had so much fun associated with it and we were mourning the old days.

We consciously decided to give it up, but do it gradually.  Over the course of 4 or 5 years we made changes that allowed us to have the fun, excited feeling we associated with Christmas while weaning ourselves off the weird and increasingly uncomfortable gift giving part.  Why was the gift giving feeling uncomfortable?  The big thing was its robot-like connection to the hype and cultural pressure to give gifts NOW, at this time of year, no matter what.  We were also feeling sensitive to the craziness of buying a gift in August for someone and holding on to it until December 25.  We also disliked the feeling of comparing what we gave or got with what others were getting or giving.

Our final years of weaning had us doing a simple one gift exchange, you know that round robin sort of exchange where each person buys one present and they get put in a pile and one person starts by opening a gift and the second person can either take the first person’s gift or a new one, etc.

It’s now been a glorious handful of years since we have consciously not given any gifts at all.  It feels so great to be able to enjoy this holiday completely differently and it’s immensely liberating!

Sarah:

I’m still rethinking Christmas.  I may rethink it every year until the end of time.  Each year things seem to change a little.  We try out new traditions or resurrect old ones.  This year we’ve decided to drive our little car all the way from Texas to New Hampshire to be warm around the fire with my husband’s family!

That said, I’m still grappling with the stress of it all.  Every year I think I’ve got it under control and every year I get sucked down into the current of the stress of making other people happy.  When will I learn that I can’t (and it is not incumbent upon me to) make anyone else happy… ever?  Years ago, it was everyone – my husband, parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, etc.  I wanted to make sure that everyone got that gift that said, “I love you this much” every year.  When we had children I thought it would get easier.  We stopped doing gifts for all the family members.  We pulled a name for a couple of years and then decided that we’d just gift to the children, nieces, and nephews.  Even that started to feel forced (and expensive!) so the kids and I recently started making handmade gifts for anyone we wanted including their cousins (and we still love this!).  And I focused all of my attention on making their holiday season brilliant.  But I have noticed the dysfunction in this intention just this year as I find myself miserable with worry.  What if they’re disappointed?

To stem the risk of turning this post into a therapy session, let me share that I am processing.  My two greatest therapists are my kids.  When I am concerned about their birthdays or Christmas meeting their expectations, I ask them what those expectations are.  And I find that they are so much simpler than I could have imagined.  The worry of disappointment is my baggage- Christmas afternoons spent ritualistically crying in my room as I felt the deflation of the post-Christmas anti-climax.  Then there was the shame of crying after all that I had received, all my parents had worked so hard to give me.  It hit me today.  This stress that I’m feeling?  That’s what creates that anti-climactic Christmas crash.  My kids want to enjoy the season, not just the day.  They aren’t looking forward to a giant stack of presents.  They’ve asked for a few small items and time together- skating, evening rides to view lights, maybe a Christmas play, decorating the RV and talking about the history of each ornament, making candies and cookies, and spending time with family and friends.  And here I was living for the future again.

Barb:

What is feeling dissonant for me this year is the contrast between my fresh, alive rethinking of the Christmas season and my less than comfortable feelings as I tune into my odd love of the old fashioned Christmas carols that take over the airwaves .  I love the melodies of the songs – the notes are easy to reach and I know all the words – but the memories the songs evoke creep me out: they remind me of the childhood stuff I want to let go of and I want to change most of the lyrics!  It feels a bit like being on a roller coaster, an up-down ride of clarity and feel good contrasted with that sucking feeling of moving backward.  Weird!  I suppose I could just say no to the songs, but I like them!  But then I don’t!  Oh well, it will all be over soon, and I imagine I will have evolved just a little bit more… I hope.

Sarah:

Here’s what I love- the awareness.  When something feels odd, dissonant, or wrong, we can analyze it or simply sit with it.  We can choose to make change or not but that awareness allows us to grow.  The holiday season seems particularly difficult because of the expectations, traditions, and memories associated with it.  But it is not unlike any other situation in our lives; there is power in awareness.

Rethinking Everything- PARENT

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. mbh #

    Yesterday, I decided to listen to Christmas music on my computer while I worked. I, too, love Christmas music. While listening, I realized how much I did not believe in/care for the lyrics; yet, that no longer matters for me. The essence of these songs is one of reverence, peace and joy. Those are feelings that do resonate with me. So, when I listen, and even sing, to these songs, I just plug in to the joy (no strings attached.)

    December 6, 2011
    • I have a very similar experience with the songs. I was raised non-religious and with very little clue about the Christian beliefs around Christmas. The songs felt beautiful, warm, mysterious, and joyful to me. As I grew older and investigated religion, I looked more closely and understood the meaning of the words. It detracted from the original meaning for me. I love how you say, “I just plug into the joy.” Yes, that’s what I’m doing again.

      December 6, 2011
    • This is the feeling I am working toward and so far can achieve only momentarily… or sometimes longer, depending upon other distractions to occupy my mind… when it’s background music it’s great. I believe my deal is that I was raised in a Christian faith that was forced down my throat and never made sense to me even as a little girl. I remember so distinctly being 7 years old in sunday school and saying to myself ‘this just doesn’t make sense. none of it makes sense.’ I had no choice in the matter however and didn’t find a way out of that until I was ‘confirmed.’ Ha!

      December 6, 2011
  2. gunta #

    I’m really rethinking Christmas this year! We are a bicultural and bilingual family with our closest extended family in 3 different countries. We agreed to alternate Christmas between our 2 main countries and this year it was Latvia with my family. Instead, after quite a bit of soul-searching, dh will have ‘adult Christmas’ with his family and me and our 6 yo (as of today!) and 2 yo dds will spend a few days with my friends in Southern Finland. Will see how it goes! It did take a lot of letting go of expectations, feelings of duty and subsequently guilt to tell my mother that we will stay in Finland this year. Though these exact feelings were what helped me to realize that I am holding myself

    Dh’s family rethought Christmas gifts a few years ago: there is a yearly draw that determines who’s getting whose present. This way everybody gets something, the gift giver has had time to really choose something for that particular person, and it’s fun to have a different person each year. There’s a cap on the monetary value of the gift. Since there are only 5 kids in the extended family of 14 adults, children get more gifts, though there have been talks of limiting the number of gifts for children, too.

    December 7, 2011
  3. Brycen decided this year that he did not want us to celebrate Christmas beyond being together- He did not want us to put up a tree and he asked me not to get Xmas gifts but was OK with stocking stuffers. It is more important to him for us to focus on his birthday, which is right before Xmas. I think we both feel relieved about the freedom of having no obligation to it. When we get together with extended family it will be kept lose and not focused on gifts. With my son, I try to surprise him with gifts through out the year. In the past, I would stockpile the gifts until the holidays, now it seems ridiculous to make him wait for something that would enrich his learning and fun now.

    December 8, 2011
    • That is really interesting, Laurie. Do you know what is behind Brycen’s not wanting to decorate, etc.? Because it takes the focus away from his birthday? I have talked about the same thing with Elijah but so far he’s not fazed.

      It is amazing how the focus of the season changes when gifts are given freely and not withheld! And withholding/stockpiling just doesn’t feel good. I had a recent discussion with my kids about this. I had bought us all new jackets. And I thought (being on a budget and considering a huge pile of things to unwrap at Christmas important) that I should save them for Christmas. Mind you, it’s cold out. And I’m actually hearing my fear of my children being disappointed at Christmas talking to me in my head. What did I do? I told them the situation (vaguely) and asked if they’d rather have a gift now or more to open on Christmas. They thought and were firmly in the NOW! It’s no different the rest of the year so why should we feel like we need to withhold then gorge at Christmas? The kids have opted for a bunk redo this year (their bunks are their bedrooms in the RV) knowing there won’t be any other gifts from Chris and I. It’s really made the entire lead-up to Christmas like one gift after another- new wall paint, new ways of organizing their stuff, different lighting, etc. It’s been fun and meant lots of creativity and working together. Loved it!

      December 9, 2011
      • Hi Sarah,

        No, Brycen’s decision is not based on Xmas taking the focus away from his birthday- Our family has always been very careful to make separate parties for Brycen and my nephew (who also has a December birthday), with no reference to Xmas. In fact, for Brycen I generally do two parties, one for family on his actual birthday and one doing a fun activity with all of his friends in early December- This year we just did a rock climbing party for Brycen at an indoor rock climbing gym! He gets to celebrate at the beginning of December with friends and on his actual birthday later in December with the family members who can’t physically participate in the activity with his friends.

        Another major celebration that comes up this time of year is in mid-January on our Adoption Anniversary day, the day we met. This is a huge day for us where we go to the diner where we had our second visitation together seven years ago. We both make special homemade gifts for each other, I get him a special big gift (our fifth anniversary I bought him his guitar), we pose for the same “famous” photos every year, we have the same waitress every day and in the past, we’d eat the same meal as the first time we went to the diner. Now, because of our special organic, Paleo diet, Brycen and I decided in recent years to purchase our special meals, but ask the waitress not to actually bring it to us- we bring our own food. We tip the waitress generously and everyone wins.

        My son’s decision this year to not celebrate Xmas has a little to do with wanting the focus to be on his birthday and anniversary and a lot to do with his dislike of the commercialization and materialism of Christmas, especially our culture’s obsession with it. He has been slowly pulling away from other holidays, too, for this reason. We did watch together a few nights ago, at his request, a special Christmas movie from his earlier childhood, which was about a boy getting a special wish come true. Brycen explained that when I adopted him, I was his wish come true. My son is willing to participate in extended family Xmas dinner, as he did for Thanksgiving, but he wants privately, for he and I, to not put up a tree this year.

        December 9, 2011

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