Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Meaning of Christmas

Even though I was born and raised "a nice Jewish girl," my mom, brother and I always celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas.  In our rendition of Christmas, there was obviously no religious connection, but we always had a Christmas tree (with presents underneath) in the living room, a big styrofoam Santa Claus face hanging on the front door, and a sprig of mistletoe hanging in the kitchen. We knew all the words to every Christmas carol, faith-based and seasonal, and sang them heartily.
Christmas morning, 1969, with my mom and 7 year old brother.
Note the "irreverent" pregnant angel topping the tree.

In college, by my junior year, I was living in an apartment, and my roommate and I got a tree and hosted a tree trimming party (any excuse to have a party and serve cocktails!) We thoroughly enjoyed our first "adult" tree in our own place.  Sharon and I strung popcorn garlands with our friends, received some very cute ornaments (I still have the skiing teddy bear), and took advantage of some strategically placed mistletoe.
Christmas 1980: Catching my friend Tommy, under said mistletoe.

Over the years, without the pressure of kids in my child-free household, I've sometimes skipped the whole tree and decorating thing at Christmas, but more often, John and I have gone to tree farms and cut ours down. Despite the fact that there is a tree farm 1/2 mile from our house, and we don't even have to go on a public road to get there, I just am not "feeling it" this year.  

Ditto with the exchanging of gifts.  I did select and order books to be shipped across the country as gifts for our young nephews, and I feel good about that.  But I just feel kind of... I can't come up with the right word for it, and I don't know how to spell the sound coming from my mouth, but I just don't feel like buying "things" for people. I'd much rather "do things" with people, and enjoy their company, but this is difficult with both our families and many of our friends thousands of miles away.

I'm feeling a little baffled by this gift-giving disdain, because I've always loved Christmas! Yet kind of like Linus Van Pelt, I am turned off by how over-commercialized Christmas has become in our country. Decorations and music in the stores by late October. The 2+ month flood of television commercials (which at least I can fast-forward through!) 24 hours of Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Huge stacks of advertising inserted in the newspaper. Coupons stuffed in the mailbox. Everything on sale in the stores. Spend, spend, and spend more. I mean, why do I have to buy "more stuff" for the people I love? To prove what? Do they really need anything? I simply don't want to buy presents just to check off that I did so or just because I have always given gifts. Will they be upset or feel slighted if I don't buy them gifts? And if they do, how do I feel about that? Actually, just putting these thoughts into words is helpful and rather liberating.

Turning inward, I feel very happy and secure this holiday season.  I'm healthy, grateful for what I have, and engaged in activities and groups of friends that I enjoy.  I see plenty of people around me who are not so fortunate, whether their despair is economic,  poor physical health and/or diminished emotional well-being, and it troubles me. I have been volunteering some of my time and money, and trying to offer kindness and compassion, yet I know I can't save the world, or even substantively help very many people. 

So when is it all enough? When are love and compassion and gratitude the gifts that are the most meaningful? And will I be able to give those things to everyone who is open to receiving them? And can I make this the way I live my life, and not just the way I live Christmas?


  1. Okay, I'm somewhat of an expert on this subject. Unplugging from the Christmas hype is easy if you're kind of forced into it. My daughter died (of brain cancer – everyone wants to know how but is too polite to ask) when she was 12, two months before Christmas. She loved Christmas – or, should I say, loved getting presents from her paternal grandparents who could never pass up anything in plastic.

    But I didn’t allow Jenn to give “store-bought” gifts to anyone, especially me. Every Christmas she (we) spent days making macaroni collages, or cookies, or stapled books of coupons for things like “One Breakfast in Bed Made by Me.”

    The most precious gift I ever received in my life was one of these handmade presents. It was a poem she wrote when she was 9 years old. She was on deadline, having a hard time coming up with an idea, and was sitting at the coffee table in the living room looking out the window. This is what she wrote:
    When a baby tree loses its leaves in winter,
    Its mother (God) picks them back up in spring
    And makes everything whole again.
    Just like you pick my leaves back up, Mom.

    Thanksgiving is about the food. Christmas should be about the memories. And I dare you the remember any “store-bought” gift you received that brought you anywhere near as much joy and love as this one did for me.

    Go ahead. Unplug!

  2. Deb, Chris and I stopped the gift giving between each other a few years ago. We have everything we need or want. Instead we have adopted a family in need.

    Working with the local Salvation Army this year we purchased gifts for a single mother and her 2 small girls. Some toys but mostly clothes and stuff that is really needed. We also bought Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.

    We still have our tree, and Jessie gets presents but helping someone in need is a great feeling. As Linus would say, "That's what Christmas is all about."

    Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to you and John

  3. Deb - You have become a farmer's wife! My grandparents cherished the return of their children and families for visits to the farm; it was great to have everyone together. Sounds as if you've still got an "outsider" view of Christmas, even though you know all the songs. I suggest you learn more, and attend church. You won't be the first Jew to do so!!! I hope this doesn't sound crass but there are not enough bits in FB for me to write what I've learned, to share with you!! A thought regarding gifts: view giving or receiving a gift as either sharing something that's important to you with a friend, to encourage them with new interests, or to offer support. If the gift becomes "I'm doing this with you next year", awesome!! If the gift is simply sharing your recent life's journey in a letter, with those who don't live it with you every day, that's awesome too. Christmas brought new, beautiful, saving life to the world. Do you get that?

  4. I forgot one last point:

    Merry Christmas!

    Love, and I miss you too!!!

  5. "Christmas" is and always will be evolving. It seems to me that it is a reflection of our collective values. Where it is going seems to be very shallow and unsatisfying to those of us who are no longer obsessed with a bought and marketed "Christmas". Getting caught up in the hype of the holiday and the mass retail feeding frenzy that surrounds us is understandable as we are bombarded with all sorts of messages about the significance of our purchases. It seems that we as a society have taken our significant life moments and miles stones and transformed them into ever spiraling upwards celebrations of capital expenditure.
    While this is most evident at "christmas" it is symptomatic of every aspect of our lives. From Weddings to Bar Mitzvah's we have made the celebration of more important than the occasion. So we have taken the celebration of the birth of the Son of God and turned it into the mother of all holidays. It is so out of control that our economy has become dependent on the mania that surrounds this occasion. An occasion that most of the consumers don't either fully believe in or understand.
    Yes "christmas" is for every red blooded American, Spend what you will. You can't buy Christmas or the true spirit of the holiday regardless of what you do. That is the hard thing to remember. You can't buy love or grace or peace. And love and grace and peace are not the sole province of any one belief.
    Once we all understand that we will truly have a Merry Christmas...regardless of christmas evolution.

  6. I say bring back the simple excitement that used to be Christmas - the excitement of friends and family getting together, the excitement of getting a gift when you/kids didnt have lists and requests and months of subjection to marketing, the excitement of having food and wine that was special and rare, the excitement of picking and decorating a tree. All of this so rarely happened, now it seems that we have fine food all year and gifts are definitely to be known quantities. i think we all miss the excitement. I feel for the person who lost their daughter and realise how lucky we are when I hear the thrill and excitement in my son's 6yr old voice as he announces that we dont buy our tree we just go outside and look for one around our house. As you said it's the homegrown memories that count.

  7. Christmas is what you make it. It is a time we may spend more of remembering our love ones, persons we are acquainted with and those we do not know at all - but we do it. I personally love the beauty of the world, through the Xmas music, and I prefer it 2 mos. ahead over the other music I hear,the beauty of homes that so many people give to me through their time, effort and cost, the ringing of the santa bells reminding me there are those who need my help. The planning and sharing a meal with all my family, and knowing that I have in a small way filled the table of someone I don't know. What is wrong with taking the time to plan and give a gift of time, talent or purchased in a room of those you care for and want to share this joyous season. You can share with the angel on the angel tree and feel the warmth of those you interact with. Thinking of others is what it is all about. Merry Christmas!!

  8. Just read your christmas post, something about this time of year that seems to promote reflection on our station in life. For those of us of a certain age and fortune the giving and receiving of "things" has certainly lost it's luster.
    At this point in our lives many of us count our friendships as our most prized possessions.

    I really liked the piece, you started all light and airy and finished with what you felt in your heart, keep it coming.

  9. I really love this post. I wish I would have come over before Christmas, and I would have shared it. Have a wonderful new year!