By R. U. Bored
When it comes to Christmas I’m quick to admit I’m a bit of a Scrooge. Not as extreme as the lonely, bitter, stingy character in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But his terse trope of “Bah, Humbug!” comes closest of any words I’ve heard to express my honest feelings about this holiday.
Why? Life experience. Through the years, year after year, I observed what I see as the insanity of the season – people rush, rush, rushing all around, not thinking, mindlessly trying to fulfill personal, family and society’s expectations of what Christmas is – or ought to be – trying to participate in layers and layers and layers of traditions and activities, all crammed into each other, overlapping, and heavily laden with expectations of fantasy perfection – adding up to more tension, stress and anxiety than peace, joy and love, as far as I could see.
My attitude most likely began as I purposely turned away from my rigid religious upbringing. By my mid-twenties I had gradually decided that I was not only not a Catholic, but not a Christian. So, if Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus, then that basic meaning lost all meaning for me. But I still kept Christmas – as a seasonal celebration of light and love. Simple. Good enough for me.
But Christmas has been secularized for a long time. And commercialized. So I still bumped along on the bandwagon of all that for years, especially after having kids, and making Christmas happen for them. I wanted our family holidays, without church or religious connections, to be happy and bright – but also practical, not extravagant. I tried to be sensible about celebrating Christmas. But it’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of extreme expressions all around us.
What really bugs me is what I see as a huge misuse of resources in the name of Christmas, and other holidays as well. Is it just Americans or is all humanity driven by a natural tendency to overdo almost everything? And often in competitive ways that speak more of ego than generosity. For example, the even-Steven mentality that if we get a card or a gift then we absolutely have to give one back. Why? Are we trying to impress people? Make them like us? I see so much given and done at Christmas out of – what? Guilt? Peer pressure? Fear of other people’s judgments or opinions if we don’t partake in some inane custom that is meaningless to us? Or avoid empty festivities?
It quickly gets to be beyond ridiculous. The epitome of this, for me, was seeing a Christmas card to send “From Our Dog to Your Dog.” Come on! All due respect to pet owners, but – seriously? Looking at that, I had to ask myself, “What does this have to do with baby Jesus?”
My friend and her husband once went to a family holiday gathering where she was quite surprised when the only two people there that they’d never met, her daughter’s aunt and uncle-in-law, brought gifts to give to everyone there. One way to see this is, “How sweet. How nice of them.” Another way to see it is, “What a waste.” Is it not enough to gather to enjoy the season in each other’s company? To simply be together? To feast, and talk, listen to music, sing? To me, the best gifts can’t be wrapped. Just give me your true, undivided attention for three minutes of positive conversation. Make me laugh. Give me a smile. A wink. A pat on the back. Really.
With all due credit for sincerity and good intentions, I see so much misguided generosity at holidays. I call it “miss -giving” or “miss-gifting.” Of so many examples, the ultimate, absolute classic is O’Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” about a poor couple’s Christmas gifts to each other. The wife sells her beautiful long hair to buy a fob for her husband’s pocket watch, which he sells to buy combs for her hair. First reading it, when I was young, I was touched by the romantic notion of each giving up something of great value to them to gift their beloved. Later, older, I thought, “How foolish. How useless. What nonsense.” Maybe asking each other about things is better than being surprised? Besides – no fair – her hair will grow back, but what about hubby’s watch? Sentiment is one thing. Using your head is another.
I warned you that I’m a Scrooge! I get grumpy when so much of Christmas gets to be about those who have so much more than they need getting more than too much more of what they don’t need, while others live in true need – struggling to survive without basic necessities. I say, “Give to need, not greed.” Not just at Christmas, but as a lifestyle. For example, some of my family and friends have made a tradition of making a donation in a loved one’s name – or giving mutual donations, in each other’s names. Even for kids, we are shifting away from gifts in favor of activities. It can be something as simple as a visit to the library, watching a movie, fast-food lunch and ice-cream, or hot chocolate with Santa after seeing the local lights. It takes planning and travel, but it’s all about making the effort to be together.
There are so many creative ways to gift well at Christmas. Which brings me to my favorite gift of giving at Christmas – a personal, enduring tradition born of my young heart being touched by love long ago.
Growing up in a big family meant limits on Christmas gifts and celebrations. And no one ever had to tell me the secret of Saint Nick. Even as a little kid I knew that my wish list to Santa couldn’t be outlandish – because Santa was mom and dad. Some years we fared better than others, but one year stands clear for me as the most magical Christmas ever.
It started on a rather sad note. My dad gathered us kids around the dining room table and told us that, because my mom had been sick, there wasn’t much money for us for Christmas. He said that we would have a good dinner, and one gift each, but maybe not even a tree. Tough to take, as a kid. But in that moment, sitting in disappointed disbelief, none of us knew that what would actually happen was beyond anything any of us expected or imagined.
People at dad’s work took up a collection for us. One day three men came to our house – bearing boxes and bags of groceries that they piled high on our dining room table. There was turkey, ham, potatoes, squash, cranberries, bread, rolls, stuffing, vegetables, milk, flour, sugar, butter, ice-cream, cookies, candy, nuts. And, my favorite – fresh fruit – bags of red and green apples, oranges and grapefruit, pears, bananas, grapes. In my mind I still see the bright colors of all of them together. It was almost too much to take in. And then there was more. A tree. And money. One man handed some cash to my dad and said it was for gifts for us kids. I’ll never forget it. It all went straight to my heart. I was in awe, that people would do this for us.
Not knowing we got a tree, my older brother came home with another. And, later, another tree mysteriously appeared on our front porch. We had three trees that year! All put up in the living room – the tallest one in the middle big bay window, and the other two in each side window, facing the street. We put every light and ornament we owned on them. And then some. It was amazing. Magical. Real, true Christmas magic. I was touched very deeply by the gift of love of all those people who cared enough about my family to give us an especially Merry Christmas that we wouldn’t have had without them.
I’ve held that magic, ever after, in my heart. A few years later, changing my beliefs, and seeking new meaning in Christmas, I realized a lasting, deep desire to make that magic of love happen for other children. I wanted to give other kids the same feeling I had that Christmas. I got the idea of adopting a Christmas family every year. I had a contact at a social service organization who would choose a family for me from among his clients. He’d get a wish list from them with information about ages, sizes, likes and dislikes, favorite flavors and colors. I liked that it was personalized each year. I’d go out and shop, and wrap, and bring it all back to my elf-buddy, who would put on name tags and make delivery. It was great. We did this for decades, until he retired.
As I had kids, we did it together, every step of the process. We were Mystery Santas – making magic for our Christmas family. It was my way of encouraging my children to think beyond their own needs and wants to a greater community. I wanted to teach them generosity. But more than that. I wanted them to learn the lesson of intelligent compassion – the spiritual principle of serving where there is need.
Recently I happened to see the man who was my Santa connection all those years. As we recognized each other, and I approached him, the first thing he said to me was -“You made a lot of families happy all those years ago.” He paused, looked into my eyes.” I know. I saw the effects of what you did. I saw the effect you had on them. You made a difference to many, many people.” It was so quick, so direct, so unexpected. I felt a bit embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say. So I just said, “Thanks.” We chatted a minute and then had to go.
Later, pondering his comment, it was oddly difficult for me to admit my own goodness. Strange thing. I realized that I’m a lot more like old Ebeneezer than I thought I was – only in a different way. I’ve identified for so long with the stingy, skinflint Scrooge, rather than the generous, loving man he becomes after his transformation, that I kept myself from seeing that I never closed my heart. It’s been open all along. Especially since that poignant childhood Christmas that put me more deeply in touch with my own compassionate nature – that, so long ago, so inspired me to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in my life in my own way – being true to myself, and my values and beliefs.
Still, I keep my adopted Christmas family tradition. Once I started, I haven’t stopped. I keep finding new helpers, more ways to carry out my secret missions. I’m happy being mystery Santa. Each year is different, but magic always happens. It’s fun. And loving. And my inner Scrooge approves. “Bah, Humbug!”