I was telling the person who cuts my hair that Christmas wasn’t my favorite holiday — in fact, that I had come to not like it all that much. She reminded me of the true meaning of Christmas. And then she told me about the car load of presents she had bought for her grandkids.
It’s not that I don’t like Christmas per se; rather, it’s that I’m not particularly wild about what we’ve done with it or, more precisely, what I allowed to be done with it in my life.
Over the years, Christmas became a source of stress and guilt for me. The stress and guilt came from:
- not being able to be everywhere at the same time and satisfy everyone
- the hassle of having to buy gifts for people who don’t actually need anything
- nearly always having to travel (sometimes, on treacherous roads)
- the disturbing reminder that I had so much when other people had so little (or nothing) and that the imbalance didn’t seem to be fair or just
- the bipolar nature of the holiday
Concerning the last point, suffice it to say that I was never good at reconciling the two dominant Christmas themes: 1) it’s about the children (i.e., gifts) and 2) it’s about Jesus (the “true” meaning of Christmas). For goodness sake, make up your mind. Which is it? It can’t be both.
The other tension came from the practice of loading up some people with gifts while many children around the world (including kids in our own community) have nothing or next to nothing. It seems likely to me that Christmas reminds some people who have little (or nothing) just how little they have. A holiday that is the source of sadness can’t be all good.
Yet I don’t think celebrations and gift giving are off limits just because someone else is dying of hunger, sleeping on a dirt floor or dodging bullets in a war zone. I just wish we wouldn’t hitch all the capitalistic excesses to Christian mythology. The fall of the “true” Christmas, the way I see it, came when the religious observance was grafted onto pagan rituals. It strikes me a savior would deserve a day all his own.
When we were rearing your dad and uncle, Vera, we didn’t invite Santa into our home. It just seemed wrong given the “true meaning of Christmas.” Frankly, it would have seemed sacrilegious. Moreover, it would have required telling a whopper of a lie. I got blamed for telling too many other lies; there was no sense in making the situation worse.
That’s not to say I think other people should change their ways. Personally, I don’t care how people celebrate Christmas. Well, actually, I do. All that spending helps keep the economy chugging along, so I suppose it benefits all of us — except, of course, those who splurge beyond their means.
So what have I learned from my experiences with this holiday of holidays?
- Be myself. If it’s better for me and your grandmother to stay home for the holiday and not drive or fly long distances or worry about trying to please everyone else (my problem, not theirs), then we’ll stay home. One year, I took your dad, uncle and grandmother to Portugal. That was fine, too.
- If shoehorning Santa and Jesus into the same celebration is discomforting, then I’ll go one way or the other but I’ll stop trying to dance to two tunes at the same time.
- If spending countless hours at the mall or on Amazon, etc. trying to find the perfect gift creates stress and is counterproductive to a joyful life, then I won’t do it.
So, how am I spending Christmas this year?
Leading up to the holiday, we spent some time with some dear friends and neighbors. But we do that a lot anyway. It’s special whether it happens on December 25 or February 20.
Of course, I’d like to spend the day with you, but I’d like to spend every day with you. It’s your other grandparents’ turn. And that’s fine. We’ll see you soon in any event — not soon enough, but soon.
I’d also like to see your uncle Andrew, my mother, my brothers and their families, and my sister-in-law and her family. But that’s not doable this year, at least not without creating a major hassle for me. And stress. So that will have to wait.
We will be spending Christmas with a family member: your dad’s Uncle Mike (your grandmother’s brother). Mike lives in Las Vegas. I never thought I’d be spending Christmas in Vegas, but I have no doubt it’s going to be just fine. Mike’s a great guy. We don’t get to see him as often as we’d like. I’m sure we’ll have a wonderful time.
We’ll probably also do a FaceTime with you (provided your parents are the good, considerate people I think they are!). Seriously, though, if not, that’s O.K. There’s nothing that can be done only on Christmas Day; everything we think of as being special can be done on any other day of the year.
Which brings me to what I’ve concluded is the special part of Christmas: the time we spend with people whom we love. Go figure: it’s the same thing that makes every other day special.
If Jesus was about anything, he was about love. Apparently, it’s easy to forget that.
I think we show love by being present and by caring — deeply, selflessly and unconditionally.
We will, of course, buy gifts to give you on December 25 as long as we’re able, but I’m not going to try to dance to two different tunes.
The other thing I know is that I’ll never take as much delight in the practice of gift giving as I do in playing with you. Or showing you new things. Or taking you to the park or museum. Or, hopefully, someday, showing you some of the amazing sights and wildlife that inhabit our precious earth, such as the herds of bison at Yellowstone or a magnificent vista at the Grand Canyon.
I’ve come to view the earth and nature as gifts. It’s a shame we don’t always treat them that way.
In any case, whatever you do, please never, ever fret over what to buy me. I don’t need any thing. But I do need and want a lot. Fortunately, a genuine, heartfelt hug satisfies both need and want. Now that’s a gift.
Presents are fine. But presence is so much better.
(A note about the photo: One Christmas before you were born, Vera, we spent the holiday with your mom and dad. It snowed. You can see that your doggie-brother Kosmo was having a good time in the snow. I thought it captured well the joy you’ve brought into our lives. It’s also a reminder that the best things in life can’t be bought.)