I try to look forward to Christmas as a time of family, charity, tradition, peace, and renewal. But it seems almost impossible to do that when our society is obsessed with the gift-giving aspect of the holiday. All of the more somber, wholesome aspects of the season are totally eclipsed by presents, presents, presents. And as my husband and I discovered this year, it gets even worse when you add a kid into the equation.
It’s a shame really, because I love Christmas. “How can you love Christmas without Jesus?” I dunno, maybe you should ask the vast majority of Americans who check “Christian” on the census forms but pretty much celebrate it as a secular holiday anyway. It may be that I take Christmas more seriously than a lot of Christians do, when you consider that in practice, Christmas is often just an exercise in keeping up with the Joneses, watching football, overeating, and family fights. Of course, there are plenty of devout families that celebrate Christmas with quiet and reverent hearts, but Christmas a holy day has become something quite different from Christmas as a secular celebration.
Perhaps I shouldn’t say I love Christmas, since it’s technically cultural appropriation. I could call it Solstice or Life Day or The Holiday That Must Not Be Named. Then again, the entire idea of Christmas has been appropriated from other cultures, so it’s a little late to cry foul. But you may be wondering, without the religious aspect, what exactly is it that I love about Christmas? I think Charles Dickens sums up my feelings perfectly in The Christmas Carol.
‘There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,’ returned the nephew. ‘Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!’
This is the sentiment I want to pass on to my children. If I really believed I could keep my children’s focus on that and still have lots of gifts, I would do it. I know they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. But I’m not confident that I really could succeed in juggling those competing ideas, knowing my own limitations.
Yes, I said competing ideas. Materialism is truly at odds with the virtues of Christmas. Whatever people may claim, the obsession with “What is Santa bringing you for Christmas?” is not an expression of the virtue of giving. To pretend that avarice reflects the spirit of charity and self-sacrifice is not only deceitful, it is downright corrupt. If you love presents and you want gift-giving to be a staple of Christmas in your home, that’s fine. But don’t try to couch it as if it has anything to do with teaching your children generosity or selflessness.
Well, for all your high talk, you sound like a real Scrooge to me! If you think I’m just being a Bah Humbug, it’s probably because you’re relying on a movie production of the story. If you watch any of the movies, you probably think Scrooge is just money-grubbing and mean, and the evidence for his redemption lies with the extravagant gifts he buys for the Cratchett family at the end. However, if you read Dickens, you will understand that it is because Christmas has become so superficial and materialistic in society that Scrooge fails to see its redeeming qualities. Scrooge isn’t merely being tightfisted because gifts are sentimental. I’m sure that’s a part of it, as he was so tightfisted in general, but the primary reason he refused to have anything to do with it is because society had shifted it so far away from its virtues that there ceased to be anything genuine about the occasion. The typical Christmas that Scrooge witnessed was selfish and creaturely, and as removed from humanity as Scrooge had become over the years, even he felt repulsed by it. I actually don’t think it’s a coincidence that every film adaptation of the story leaves this theme out.
So, I don’t want to do something simply because everyone else is doing it. And if something seems contrary to virtue, I definitely don’t want to indulge in it. That’s good enough reason all on its own, but on a more practical note, I just think gift-giving at Christmas isn’t much fun. The ideal of the carefully selected gift that is perfect for the one you love is usually overshadowed by the social pressure involved, not to mention the toxic nature of crowded department stores and the possibility that you might be wasting money on something your loved ones wouldn’t bother buying themselves. Can we honestly say we’re truly in the “giving spirit” when we feel obligated to check people off our gift list like it’s a grueling task? And if that isn’t what it’s like for you because you love shopping, then I can’t help but wonder if this practice is just exacerbating a character flaw.
There’s one more aspect of gift-giving at Christmas I’d like to briefly touch on. Children are naturally selfish, and from an early age, the propensity for greed springs up in human nature like a fountain. Whether you’re a Christian in America or a Hindu in India or a Shintoist in Japan, parents will universally tell you that kids have a greedy streak a mile wide. One of the most important jobs of parents is curbing that “Mine, mine, mine!” mentality. With that knowledge, it seems especially strange to shower kids with presents at Christmas. Wouldn’t it be a little like bringing your alcoholic wife to a wine tasting? “Oh, she just loves it SO MUCH! I can’t help but smile when I see how much she enjoys it.”
The title of this post is actually misleading because I’m not planning on cancelling Christmas at all. The tree, decorations, candles, carols, charity, and dinner are still going to be staples of the season for us. If anything, it would be more apt to say we are cancelling Giftmas. But the reason I titled it Cancelling Christmas is because those are the exact words of a set of parents who are receiving national attention for withholding presents from their kids this year. What does it say about our perception of Christmas that not giving gifts is automatically equated to cancelling the whole thing? Even these parents, who most people hail as heroes even though they would never do the same thing themselves, are kind of missing the point. They are withholding presents to punish their children for their bad behavior as if they have no idea where this entitlement came from. I guess it never occurred to them that their children’s focus on presents was fostered by a lifetime of decadent Christmases. Their parents taught them that certain things matter, that certain things should be expected, year after year. Why should they be surprised when their children take those lessons to heart?
So I must ask myself two questions:
- Do we really have to give gifts?
- Does it reflect the values that are important to us as a family?
With this in mind, I think the extent of gift-giving in our household will be filling stockings with a few small, inexpensive gifts (and no, they won’t come from Santa). There will be plenty of gifts from grandparents as it is. In place of presents, I hope that our other holiday traditions will bring a joy all their own. Traditions like:
- baking cookies for the neighbors
- attending the local production of The Nutcracker
- singing carols together
- donating canned goods to the food pantry
- listening to the local brass band’s holiday performances
- donating old toys and clothes
- making winter bird feeders
- watching the Christmas Parade
- reading winter books aloud
- decorating with fir boughs and lights
- creating Christmas shoeboxes
Our decision stems from one guiding principle: LIVE INTENTIONALLY. We don’t want to make the mistake of doing something just because it is expected of us. We love the Christmas virtues of gratitude, tradition, forgiveness, kindness, and peace. Especially that last one. Our culture’s focus on gifts has really upset the idea of peace in the home, so we will be breathing a big sigh of relief next Christmas that we’ve finally discarded this particular obligation.