It is December 5th and we only have two wrapped Christmas gifts under our tree. They were deposited there by my sister who visited last weekend. Usually the tree starts to accumulate presents within a day or two of when it goes up. This year the tree has been lovely for more than a week and we can still see both the tree skirt and the stuffed nativity set. I kind of like letting the tree be a center piece without the distraction of packages. I like even more that none of the kids have commented on this. None of them are hovering hopefully to see if there are presents for them as has been the case in years past. In fact our house has a significant lack of the things-I-want vibe. Howard and I have had a couple of discussions about what to get the kids, but there aren’t any items we must get or be faced with disappointment. Some of this is because our kids are older, but I think some of it is the family culture we have gradually built around Christmas. I thought it might be useful to list out the things we consciously do to focus on the non-commercial aspects of the holiday season. I ended up with twelve list items which seams seasonally appropriate.
1. We keep it small. All of our Christmas decorations fit into four medium size boxes and one big Christmas tree bag. It is enough to make our front room lovely, but not for a dazzling show. If we want to spread the holiday through the house we light a scented candle and play music.
2. We don’t do Santa. This was really hard when the kids were little and everywhere we turned people expected them to believe in Santa. I was always afraid that my kids would talk Santa with other kids and then angry parents would confront me. However, without a belief in Santa, my kids never believed that their wildest dreams would just appear on Christmas morning. They understood that even Christmas has practical limitations because the providers of Christmas were a very human Mom and Dad. Christmas morning surprises supplied by parents were still magical.
3. We avoid exposing ourselves to advertising, particularly television commercials, as much as possible. Advertising creates a false reality which aims to make people believe their lives will be better if they buy something. This is rarely true.
4. If at all possible we avoid shopping in a hurry. Going to stores and looking for gifts can be an enjoyable part of the holiday season, but it is when we’re stressed and in a hurry that we blow our budget or buy items we regret later. We usually try to enter stores with a clear idea of what we’re looking for and why we need it.
5. When gift giving commences we sort the presents by who is giving them not by who gets to open them. We take turns and each gift is handed over by the giver. This practice really helped our young kids focus on the giving aspect of the season.
6. We remember that disappointment happens and it is not the end of the world. Christmas does not have to be perfect. The gifts do not have to bring ecstatic joy to be good gifts. In fact, we try to avoid frenzies of excitement because they are always followed by a let down. Half of our Christmas efforts involve slowing things, calming things, and pacing the season.
7. Many of our traditions and decorations are about lights in darkness. We light our tree, light our house, and burn an advent candle each evening. (Except when we forget and light it extra long the next day.) On Christmas eve we light all the candles of a nativity pyramid. Light in darkness makes us all more happy and peaceful.
8. We don’t travel during the holidays. These days staying home is critical because I’m in the midst of holiday shipping, but even before that we stayed at home. Connecting with extended relatives is lovely and important, and we do get together with the ones nearby, but any trip which requires a suitcase can find a different time of year. That way we can focus on the visit instead of holiday logistics.
9. Optional events are optional. This season is full of concerts, special events, displays, and limited time offers. No one person can take advantage of them all. We sample as the mood strikes and try to not feel obligated to do too much.
10. Traditions which add more stress than joy get culled from our holiday practices. The best traditions are the ones that happen of their own accord because someone loves them enough to spend the effort. We have a tree because we all care about it enough to haul the thing up from the basement and assemble it. This year we have outdoor lights after a long outdoor light hiatus, because this year I wanted them enough to put them up.
11. We know that holiday culture grows and changes. When the kids were younger, I had to spend a lot more effort creating the holiday, planning the gift choices, planning family traditions. We’ve reached a stage where we all create the holiday for each other in small ways. Ten years from now things will be different again.
12. We weave our religious beliefs into the holiday celebrations and preparations, but not every single thing has to be about Christ. We try to make themes of Christ the ever present background music of the holiday rather then always requiring it to be front and center. That way when we do bring it to the front, we’re able to focus and attend.
I’m aware of the irony that I try very hard to de-commercialize and simplify our family traditions, while simultaneously running a retail business for which we offer holiday sales and incentives. I can only hope that our books and merchandise are things which add joy to holidays rather than stress. Because I really do wish for everyone to have a December that is tailored to their ideas of what the holidays should be. That is the key really, finding what brings happiness and paring away the rest.