Our free pre-holiday time is spent in either fighting the hordes at our local mall or getting stressed out over the fact that we haven’t yet jumped headlong into the panicked fray of rabid consumers. Giving gifts at Christmas has become less about giving and more about meeting obligations; we are essentially tithing. But of course, we must buy the obligatory gifts for the usual suspects. The fifth-grade teacher has to have a gift, and if you give something to the teacher it just looks bad to overlook the TA. A little something really has to be given to the ‘cello teacher, (bath stuff, candles) but what about the tennis coach? Bath stuff and candles could be awkward for him. And he already has a Porche.
Fortunately, our older boy is in 10th grade, and his eight teachers don’t necessarily expect to receive holiday gifts from their students. Of course, my friend Celeste gives each one of her son’s high school teachers a gift certificate for fifty bucks, making us all look bad, but thankfully her child goes to a different school than mine. Then again, those teachers work extremely hard, and shame on me for not knitting them all earmuffs, baking them cookies, and writing them fat checks. One more reason to feel stressed out and guilty this festive season.
We are also lucky that our 16 year old is a sloth, (albeit a good natured, polite sloth) and therefore has no outside activities requiring teachers or coaches. Thus, no one to tithe! I’m pretty sure his IM server is not expecting anything. The little Runescape figures he spends so much quality time with are thankfully animated, and therefore unable to appreciate Christmas cookies. Regina Spektor, his main source of entertainment this year, can buy her own bath stuff and candles, and might think it stalkerish if I sent her some. (But thanks, Regina, just the same, for the dulcet tones that emanate from behind our son’s bedroom door at all hours of the day and night!)
For our kids, Christmas is about receiving presents, not giving them. We don’t go overboard compared to most people we know, but then again, it always seems like too much, and I worry about what kind of message we’re giving the kids. Are all those presents piled up under the tree actually undermining the spirit of giving? We hope that by a certain age our kids will both become aware that the season is really more about giving. We want to see the oldest grow from self-centered teen to being a young man who will find as much joy in giving as in receiving, but now that our young sloth is well beyond Santa he is starting to see what Christmas has become for many adults. There seems to be no joy in buying gifts for others, just hassles, lists and obligations. I would love for our children to take part in the giving end of Christmas, but to tell them to get Daddy or their brother a gift is one more chore, to go along with taking out the compost and emptying the recycling. Would forcing the issue be a bad thing? Aren’t obligations good for building character? Probably. But it also seems that gift giving has to come from within, not because mom pasted up a reminder on the bulletin board.
And I’m afraid my husband and I allow them to be in this perpetually infantilized and selfish state, because we have a hard time letting go of our own picture of Christmas morning -- the decorated tree surrounded by a jumble of wrapped boxes and beribboned bags, the fireplace crackling, the sound of crunching wrapping paper underfoot. It’s only once a year after all. And our kids aren’t exactly showered with presents during the rest of the year. Other than birthdays, they are barely kept in new socks, and wear mostly hand-me-downs.
It’s true, we are probably doing a terrible job of modeling the true meaning of giving; yes, we donate our canned goods and buy toys to be distributed to kids less fortunate, but we’re too busy and lazy to take our kids to the homeless shelter to serve turkey, so giving to the community is very much in the abstract for them. Okay, I’ll work on it.
In the meantime, I navigate the hassle and attempt to avoid too much stress in the days leading up to Christmas. And at some point I’m done, and I let go of all the stuff I haven’t done, and I get to hunker down in the warm house to cook, visit with friends, and watch old movies. For us, Christmas is not a big religious holiday – it’s a seasonal celebration, a chance for us to deck the halls, reflect on the past year, spend time with friends around the table and rail about impeachable offenses and illegal wiretapping. It’s a chance for us to give our kids stuff they need or want, plus stuff they don’t even know they need or want. Like socks, and books, and a fart machine, and plastic cockroaches. Because after the dust has cleared, and the bubble wrap has been popped, the fart machine will be making sweet music while I cook up some Yorkshire pudding and crack open a bottle of wine. May a reasonable amount of joy (and with any luck, a shiny new fart machine) visit you this holiday season. And a Happy New Year!