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!
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.
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.
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.
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