Christmas On Your Terms


November 22, 2011 by rebelwithalabelmaker

I once had a life changing conversation with my friend who is not named Salash.  He grew up as a Masai warrior in Kenya.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Masai, they score as among the worlds happiest people–although I have no idea how this could possibly be scored.  They live it little villages of huts, raise herds of cows and goats, and walk long distances to carry water and firewood.

I remember asking Salash once about the work of being Masai–all that chopping and gathering and carrying and herding. 

"It's more work here."  he said–I'm paraphrasing a bit.  "Here, the real work is already done and so you make new work–and everyone is always very busy."

I felt a bit defensive.  What I do is necessary, important stuff.  None of it is related to providing adequate shelter, food, water, education or medical care for anyone, of course, but Important Stuff nonetheless.  Maybe.

Your life changes when you carry a mental stack of "optional" labels, and start putting them on stuff.  One of the optional things I hated was Christmas presents.  I don't like buying them, I don't like giving them, and I don't like getting them.  I think that people who derive joy from that part of Christmas are generous, wonderful, very organized people.  But that's not me–I am wonderful in other ways.  Ways that don't involve keeping track of complicated lists.  As I keep explaining to Revenue Canada, lists are not my forte.  (That all turned out okay.  Revenue Canada insisted that one of the "other ways" that I should be "wonderful" be hiring an accountant, and we've been on good terms ever since).

But how do you stop buying Christmas presents?

 Turns out, all you have to do is stop buying Christmas presents.  This will be our fourth year without buying any Christmas gifts for anyone.  We make chocolates, and assemble them in little boxes like gleeful elves–these go to friends, relatives, teachers, and such.  We make things for one another, too, usually out of pipecleaners and bits of old string.  In our household, a common Christmas morning quote is "Thank you so much, and what is it?"

 When we started, I didn't really think it would work.  Christmas was too… big to be changed by a mere mortal such as myself.  I believed it wasn't possible that this dramatic a change could ever last.  

 Turns out, it was not nearly as dramatic as I thought.  Anticlimactic.  On the surface, it's still Christmas.  The kids still have a few things under the tree–stuff we made, stuff that came from grandparents, and so on.  The ritual is the same.  The excitement level is the same.  There is still all the cooking and baking and signing and decorating and eating and visiting.  Turns out the Dr. Seuss was right, as usual, and Christmas doesn't come from a store.

It took me a couple of years to notice the very subtle yet profound changes that had happened.  Christmas runs deeper now.  Each ritual of Christmas–visiting the Enchanted Forest, singing Carols, decorating cookies–each of these has taken on new meaning.  In part it's because we have more time now, without the shopping and the wrapping.  But it's more than that.  When there's a pile of gifts as the main event, all the little preparations become little more than tasks.  A prologue.  Things to do to keep busy until the real Christmas is unwrapped on December 25th.  Now these rituals have importance and meaning in our lives that they didn't have before.  They have become the "real" Christmas.

There is a second shift I'm just starting to notice.  This whole presents thing–it really worked.  I didn't think it would–it seemed insane at the time–but it worked.  Those "optional" labels have real power.  I don't have to accept the life and priorities that have been laid out for me.  As parents, we have more power and responsibility to choose the terms of family life than we realize.  This has become deeply obvious to me as I watch my boys over the last few days, lovingly putting together gift after gift out of junk from the recycling bin.

"I have nine presents under the tree!"  Eric said, his whole body shivering with glee, like the lid of a pot that's boiling over.  He let out a laugh of sheer joy before dumping them down in front of me and repeating "NINE!"  He was the very image of the typical eight year old boy waiting for Christmas, until he began lovingly tallying up his gifts.

"This one's for you, this one's for Dad…"  he paused in his sorting of "his" presents that he'd made for various family members, and declared, "Mom, I have more under the tree than anybody.  Maybe it's because I'm the only one who knows how to use the printer."

8 thoughts on “Christmas On Your Terms

  1. Jason says:

    Excellent as always.

  2. Taran says:

    Hmm. Can I send my kids over to your house for the Christmas Experience(TM)? It’s the baking and making stuff and decorating that stresses me out. My favourite part of Christmas has always been the visiting. Robin still doesn’t get how I can ENJOY running madly from one relative’s house to the next for a week straight…

  3. Cari says:

    Ah, Christmas…. Like Taran I’m looking forward to seeing people again. Maybe not running madly from one to the next, but definitely settling in and getting together with people. And I’ve got nearly 3 weeks. 🙂 Can I come help bake?

  4. Megan says:

    Aw, this warms my heart.
    And in defense of children – I think every one of them has that capacity to be so full of the joy of generosity, they just so frequently aren’t allowed the freedom.

  5. Liz says:

    I don’t know that we have the Christmas Experience TM, necessarily! It’s funny, though, what different people love. I hate the crammed visiting at Christmas–which is odd because I’m a huge extrovert the rest of the year! Cari and Taran, your perfect Christmases full of visiting make me feel tired… yet here I am decorating and cooking… funny how that is!

  6. Liz says:

    (@ Megan–hope I’m using the @ sign right…)…
    I didn’t notice until we stopped doing gifts how subtly but forcefully the social pressures are on kids. Everyone is focussing them on get get get. Visits to Santa at the mall required background pamphlets… haircuts in January were complex… it’s much easier now that the kids are old enough to answer coherently rather than just respond “we get to BE santa” which was their standard (confusing) response to the “what did you get/do you want to get for Christmas?”

  7. Charlotte says:

    Great article Liz. My dad (Keith, who apparently you know) sent it along to me because this year I’ve stated that the gift I want to give people is “the gift of time” — and baking! — something which I think my mom is struggling with, because she loves to buy presents for me. I feel I’ve grown out of having the most presents under the tree (I’ve got no siblings, so Christmas was kind of over the top lol), and realize how much stuff I DON’T need. So we are making gifts and/or buying the other person ONE thing they really need or want — and making the rest. Its also the first year we’re not doing a present exchange within the extended family. I think my mom is having a hard time with it, but I’m really glad we’re not the only ones, and this article is great inspiration to do it your own way! Thanks 🙂

    • What a neat idea, Charlotte! You know, we tried a lot of different things (and we’re still experimenting…). One of the great things about Christmas is you can’t break it–it always comes back… you can always give it a shot one way and your mom can see how she feels… we did a lot of that…

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