An Annual Post: Enough at the Holidays
On the joy of not giving too much at the holidays: Savoring Kentucky's annual offering to those who face the beautiful winter holidays with weary dread.
We can have joy at Christmas if we choose to do what fills us with deep contentment. And leave everything else behind.
Wonderful readers: This post may not be your cup of tea. It is longer than usual, and although it has a holiday theme, it is not about Christmas outings or baking (although I do link to some delicious recipes near the end.) I have worked on this essay across some years, and it has had quite a few readers at different stages. Unlike responses to more typical Savoring Kentucky writing, I have noticed a gender divide among readers' reactions. For the most part, women resonate and share the piece with sisters, daughters, mothers. An occasional man, though, gives a visceral "No!" I have theories, but I won't prolong the introduction. If sharing your own responses to this piece will add joy to your holidays instead of adding stress, I would love to hear from you. Here we go!
Christmas! The word electrified me when I was very young, promising happiness and joy beyond imagining. Sadly, that powerful current changed its nature as I grew up. By the time my own children were in middle school, the electricity of Christmas delivered shock after shock as I faced the Season of Joy with dread and resentment.
Ten years ago I sat in a warm synagogue one cold December morning as a friend's daughter celebrated her 13th birthday and became a bas mitzvah. Sunlight seeped through the stained glass windows and spread pale colors on the happy faces in the congregation. My Southern Baptist upbringing proved surprisingly good preparation as I joined in the prayers and scripture. I felt the exultation of parents and daughter and congregation in welcoming a new spiritual adult into their fellowship. The family walking around the sanctuary with the Torah radiated joy; the couples kissing and wishing each other "Guten Shabbos" beamed with joy, safety, happiness. The whole congregation ate together in joy and delight after the service. I felt I was truly in a sanctuary, a place of refuge.
I basked in the beauty of a religious rite of passage carried out in freedom and love. I also basked in the absence of Christmas madness. I talked with many people that morning, and not one had to rush out to the mall, the rehearsal, the office party, or the Nutcracker ballet performance. That was the Christmas I found joy in a synagogue.
I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not;but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.Take Heaven.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.Take Peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.Take Joy.
And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever,the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
--Fra Giovanni, 1513, excerpted
I want joy every day, and I particularly want joy at the end of the year when so many religions and cultures celebrate love and giving. Sadly, without meaning for it to happen, we people who have plenty in the USA have turned our year-end joy into six weeks of obligation and overwork.
From Thanksgiving to Christmas each year in mainstream USA—and in many tributaries as well—many people, families, churches, businesses, schools, and non-profit organizations turn confusion into commerce. Instead of celebrating, we shop. It may be good for business, but it is terrible for well-being. In spite of calls to "remember the reason for the season" and "put Christ back in Christmas," millions of us turn into pressured, fretful consumers while visions of silent nights by a quiet fire dance in our heads.
Many people take for granted that the holidays will be a somewhat miserable, costly, health-damaging experience—and yet believe their inability to enjoy the holidays is a personal failing, some private penury of spirit. January through October each year, we are clearer about all this. We see how a simple holiday of joy and love has gotten way out of hand. Before the 20th century, Christmas for ordinary people meant, at most, a feast day, a small exchange of useful presents, and perhaps a reason to share food and necessities with the poor. Try finding references in any literature written before 1920 to regular folk giving outrageous holiday parties, exchanging multiple extravagant presents, squandering money on outlandish decorations, or going on months-long holiday shopping sprees. I am no historian, but I assert it did not happen, and you will not find the references.
Ideas about "enough" that suffice in other parts of the year falter at year's end, and we find ourselves yielding to wretched excess with predictable results—yes, we feel wretched. Mostly without intending it, we have built ourselves a holiday that can only fail to meet impossible expectations: Celebrate the wondrous birth of Jesus; move enough merchandise to keep stores in business for the rest of the year; express love, friendship, or appreciation to family, friends, business associates, and "Secret Santa" partners; give generously to people in need; beautify homes, lawns, and buildings; go to as many parties as possible while not eating or drinking too much, make other people happy, and "catch the Christmas spirit" ourselves, if we are really good people.
Here is the crown, the summit, the annual apotheosis of our cultural confusion about enough: We in the mainstream, who already have more than enough, enter willingly—though blindly, I think—into a marathon of misery that centers on procuring and exchanging stuff with other people who do not need it either. It is foolish, it is unnecessary, and it is all-consuming for tens of millions of people in the USA for the last six weeks of each year. We can do and be better.
If we understand the causes of our year-end excesses, we can work out a way to bring a sense of "enough" to them, and perhaps to the rest of the year as well. Some people identify the causes as greed, the natural selfishness of the naturally self-centered human being. Maybe so, though I doubt the full validity of any answer premised on the human being as inherently bad.
See how this sounds instead. I believe we are in a "pretend" sleep from which we are afraid to awaken because it will take more time and effort to be aware, and it will definitely be riskier to tell the truth. Most of us know in our hearts that something is wrong with the way we live at the end of each year. Do we push down those thoughts because we think maybe the illusions of happiness and joy are more real for others around us? Maybe. Perhaps, in a way, we collude with each other. We take part in a grownup version of the Santa Claus myth—we pretend the right holiday spirit is visiting everyone else we know, so we hesitate to end the shared delusion by pointing out that we are not having fun, not feeling joyous, not exulting with hearts full of love.
Those other people who are going to all that trouble about gifts and food and parties and concerts and trips and special family rituals and so on—what if they are pretending, too? Pretense is a big habit in polite cultures. Some pretense may be necessary, and some can even be fun (as when we clean up our homes before visitors come so they will think we always live in pristine rooms.) The pretense of the holidays is more sinister, largely because we seem unaware we are pretending. This pretense is so thoroughly infused in our experiences of the holidays and gift giving that we have stopped recognizing it.
If we want to test out the possibility that people all around us are pretending joy while experiencing distress, we need a general truth-telling. My own life suggests that one way to joy is to cut through pretense and out the other side by being honest with myself and others. Just as we grow up a bit when we learn Santa's true identity, we can try helping each other grow as adults by saying to each other that we, ourselves, are tired and overworked during the holidays and are planning to do less. We can say we do not want to spend money unnecessarily when we already have enough ourselves, and so do most of our gift recipients, so we are planning to buy and give less. We can say that we do not want to cram months of visiting friends and attending performances into a few short weeks, so we are planning to stay at home more, and go out less at the end of the year. We can ask whether our friends, family, and colleagues feel the same way. Maybe they do, and maybe they do not, but without asking, we cannot get past pretense.
Our family has changed how we celebrate Christmas. Though it has its own eccentric aspects, our story may help by showing that ordinary people can back off gift-giving and not only survive but increase the joy of the holiday season.
I have been interested in freeing myself from the miserable part of gift giving and receiving since I was a child. I have done this in many steps, not all of them voluntary. The first big change was an unhappy one. After ten years of marriage, my first husband and I separated three months before Christmas, 1981. I could see the holidays looming even as I moved into my own place on September 17 that year. I was worn out and resentful just thinking about the holiday stresses we had experienced during our entire marriage while trying to meet the interests of two active, extended families separated from each other (and from us) by several hours of driving. Now the dreaded season of tinny music, endless advertising, not enough money, and not enough of the right stuff loomed, and I faced it with no generally cheery husband and child to distract me.
I decided to avoid Christmas 1981 altogether. I told myself that my precious son, just turned three, had no memory of previous Christmases, and would have plenty of Christmas attention with his father and multiple grandparents. I decided to avoid all usual Christmas routines, including going home to my own parents, since I could not enter any Christmas activities joyfully. I bought no presents, and I received one exquisite hand-made bowl, wrapped in a brown paper bag. I still treasure that gift and its giver (but not the wrapping.)
In a few years, my present Fine Man and I became a family, with three boys ages five and six. For the next several years, I made an effort to celebrate a family Christmas in traditional ways. We decorated Christmas trees, we filled stockings and wrapped modest presents. The boys, who all lived primarily with their other parents, had many families, including multiple grandparents from the different sides of their now quite complex family structures. Everyone wanted to give the boys presents at Christmas. Of all the families, ours had the least money and the least inclination to spend large sums on gifts.
After a few years of the discomfort and even pain of trying to celebrate Christmas with the children after they had "had Christmas" with several other families and came to be with us on December 26, I knew we had to make a change. My favorite man had never been excited about Christmas in the first place, nor, having grown up in a Jewish household and community, did he have the old aches and miseries of failed holiday giving and receiving to trouble him as he thought about our sons' well-being.
I began inquiring deeply within myself and looking around to find out how other people might be solving this Christmas problem. As the only female in our family of five, I realized that, even if I wanted, I did not have the energy or the money to produce the long chain of picture-perfect Christmas experiences that I still believed might help our sons know how much we cherished them. As is my habit, I looked to books for guidance, and found Unplug the Christmas Machine, by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Saeheli. Bingo! Books about predicaments I experience myself always relieve me, help me understand that I am struggling with something at least partly shared in our society, not just a personal set of failures, gaps, and shortcomings. This book reassured me that I was not a stingy, grinchy Scrooge. The authors suggested specific ways to restore some sanity to the holiday. I read, thought, watched, and waited.
From the great pile of special foods I wanted us to make together, concerts and shows I longed for us to attend, decorations and gifts I thought we should make, I decided to hold onto a certain few. For several years we made Christmas cookies together, decorated a large real tree, exchanged gifts, and had a special dinner. I filled stockings for the boys.
Our sons were perhaps 11 and 12 when they first showed no interest in helping decorate the tree. That was a big signal for me. I believed we might be able to drop the holiday effort to a bare minimum level without causing them any kind of distress. We consulted with them before the next Christmas and secured their agreement to keep our gifts intentionally small. We began a new tradition. My husband and I now search carefully for a couple of books for each son each year. We kept the stockings for a while longer, but recently have been offering tins of special homemade foods or short-term consumables instead. I used to have a formula for small items that must be in each stocking: amusing buttons, great soaps, small candles, something useful, something chocolate. Once I began visiting our loved ones in their homes and realized they had more than they need, I stopped enjoying even this small bit of Christmas shopping, and so stopped it as well.
Four years ago we went a step further. We stopped giving nearly all gifts to people outside our small family. All that remains of my former two-column list are the several beautiful James Archambeault Kentucky calendars I send each year to a beloved aunt, a Left Coast brother's family, and friends overseas who have a spot on their walls that would look bare if the annual replacement calendars did not arrive. I note, though, that even this one simple purchase, plus shipping, puts me over the limit for the "hundred dollar holiday" some advocates now promote.
Once I stopped the great portion of the gift buying and wrapping and mailing and distributing, the strain went out of the holidays. My enjoyment of the Christmas season increased markedly. I go to some concerts. We help give a big annual carol singing party, with a lot of great homemade food, that brings many people real joy. Some years I go caroling. One year I spent a day making beaded earrings to wear and give away. I sit in front of the fire in my living room, with some pine branches on the nearby bookshelves, and rest, and feel rich. I listen to Handel's Messiah all the way through once, using wonderful stereo headphones my sweet man gave me. I work on my parts of the large feast our family now prepares together, usually on December 26. I think forward to the year-end reflections my man and I will share at the New Year, when we make what sense we can of the ending year and state some intentions for the new one.
It is true I do a lot less for other people during the holidays than I used to. I assert that it is also true that they do not miss it at all, and I benefit from having back the time I used to spend, stressed and overextended, to meet the imagined expectations of others. The pain that used to be the main flavor of Christmas is receding, replaced by joy in the beauty of the story of the birth of Jesus, and in the idea of seasonal rebirth and continuity.
The decision to step outside the whole gift giving process has cheered me up and made it possible for me to enjoy snow, carols, Christmas cooking, and, especially, music, more than I could for most of my adult life. All I have to do to consider myself recovered from the confusions and pain of holiday madness is to compare the fun and contentment of the last few holiday seasons with the dread that used to set in around September 15. That is when I used to begin realizing I had already waited too late to buy and send overseas presents by cheapest postage. The season of dread ended only after I made peace with the financial damage staring at me from credit card notices the following January.
My hope now is that more and more people will reclaim their hearts, wallets, and calendars from the Christmas machine, which is the ultimate "not enough" torture device of mainstream society in the USA. We are all part of a culture of consuming that manages to warp even our generous impulses into something shallow and commercial.
We can do better. Lots of people are already working on ways to end the pain of holiday consuming and gift-giving, while bringing happiness and satisfaction back to the end of the year. If you want to join others whose views of the holidays are changing, and if you use computers, go to a search engine and type in "hundred dollar holiday," and you will find a host of intriguing efforts led both by faith groups and secular ones. Go to your library and check out Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, by national treasure Bill McKibben, for a sweetly Methodist/Christian approach. Don't take my word for it: read Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season for yourself, and benefit from its sturdy set of ideas about increasing happiness while decreasing spending and exhaustion.
Or do it yourself. Take a grown up look at what you want the end of the year to feel like, how you want to feel, and how you want your loved ones to feel as the holidays unfold. Talk with your loved ones. You will not need any website or library book to tell you how to stop shopping, spending, eating, drinking, and even visiting too much. You can figure it out, and put some stillness and peace back into your plans.
If we were talking together as friends, what might I suggest? Plan silent nights in every week of the season—nights to stay home, drink cocoa or peppermint tea, sit by a fire or a bank of beautiful white candles.
Give fewer gifts. If you belong to clubs or groups that exchange gifts and have parties, suggest alternatives. Do a joint work project, adopt a family and supply its Christmas dinner, create or contribute to local or global positive change, or take up a collection and give to your local community foundation for use where need is greatest. In Lexington, the Bluegrass Community Foundation and Smiley Pete Publishing sponsor a special giving challenge for nonprofits at year's end that offers real help to the many organizations taking part. Add your bit to projects like that. Reschedule parties for other times of year when the pressures are lower, and enjoyment greater.
If cooking a little bit comforts you and you want to make your own delicious drinks, try easy Homemade Hot Chocolate, with or without Homemade Marshmallows. For even more intense and delicious flavors, enjoy Stella Parks's particularly wonderful Hot Cocoa (which leads in the direction of Stella's famous work on homemade marshmallows.) If you would rather not cook one extra thing, heat milk in the microwave, add some vanilla and a bit of maple syrup or honey, and you're home.
Most of all, choose to create a sense of enough within yourself. Choose the mind set that you have abundance, you and your family have enough already, and you can move the focus of your holiday celebrations from the shopping mall to the concert hall, or to your living room—anywhere you experience a sense of plenty. Tell others about your changes, to help end the pretense. And prepare yourself to greet joy as it makes its way back into your year-end holidays. Your joy and contentment will spread to those you love, giving them a priceless gift, the very one they most deserve.