Wrote and addressed a stack of Christmas cards and letters-a depressing, burdensome chore when all I wanted to do was read and write. Made family collages to enclose with them. Made Christmas cake and Christmas cookies. Set up the tree. And lights. And decorations.
Bought the kids 14 presents. I started ordering so they would not be sad at the competitive back to school question, “What did you get for Christmas?” and then went on, and on. Our cheeks ached with smiling as they opened them; perhaps theirs did too. Perhaps they felt like actors—ecstasy expected!—and then, there was a mass of wrapping paper and ribbons, and packaging to clear up, and parts to keep together. And more stuff to nag them about keeping tidy and organizing—and eventually, decluttering!!
We did a turkey, which none of us like, so that if they compared Christmases in school, ours would be the same. Did (other people’s) traditional Christmas dinner with all the fixings–glorious excess that left us in a sluggish overfed torpor even before the Bailey’s Irish Cream and Christmas pudding.
Gone, all gone, gone in incense wisps of peace.
* * *
First went the cards. I am on Facebook, and so are my friends. Cards are no longer necessary. I email the few people who still send me cards, but we don’t send cards, except to our mothers. If I have the energy, I write a Christmas letter and post it on my blog with a link on Facebook for anyone who really, really wants to know what I did all year.
The tree, we still do. But it’s a large beautiful fibre optic tree we bring out every year, with sentimental memories from the Christmas ornaments bought over the years. Irene likes to lie on the carpet and watch red, green, blue lights travel to the tips of the needles and back. And, well, so do I. In America, we had a potted living Christmas tree we brought in every year; I could not bring myself to buy a tree, and then throw it away.
Special treats cooked during the Christmas season—no longer. We have enough of these moment-on-your lips, lifetime-on-your-hips treats at parties. The kids are getting a lot of chocolate gifts from their friends. Why cook things that are not a blessing to our bodies? I cannot do that to myself anymore. I do adore Christmas cake, but Tesco’s Finest Christmas Cake is better than Anita’s. We do have a traditional roast duck dinner, but that’s because we like it, but we don’t overdo the sides—or dessert.
* * *
Then went presents, and what a joyful goodbye! Roy and I are both trying to be minimalistic, so we tell each other one thing we’d really like, and the gift is in the hunter-gathering. Last year, Roy asked for a fur-lined winter hat. I’ve been borrowing it for weeks, so I’m asking for one this year.
While we give the girls a surprise whimsical gift or two, their Christmas present is one thing they really want—a camera, an iPad, a laptop, a kindle, an iPhone have been recent gifts, and a couple of coveted items of brand name clothing. They are teenagers in an all-girls’ school after all.
When they were young, Christmas was Christmas Day, and being told to wait for the sales on the 26th for their presents would have been a disappointment. And I guess retailers count on this traditional sentimentality. Now that they are older—13 and 18 and savvier, part of their Christmas gift is cash for the year’s clothes shoes, bags, accessories, and so they shop the sales the week after Christmas. They are wiser, and can understand and resist the lure of marketers to spend, spend, spend on the big day to create an illusion of perfection as tenuous and fragile as glass Christmas ornaments, and never mind the fiscal consequences. Spending the way an alcoholic drinks. Crazy!
* * *
Why celebrate the birth of the beautiful person who taught us that the Kingdom of God is within us by giving each other things, stuff, which will become clutter? People ruefully say this every year–and what a relief it is to opt out.
I am me. Why should I celebrate the same Christmas as every other person up and down this land? Why should I adopt other people’s Christmas traditions if they are not nourishing to my soul—and it is not nourishing to put up lights and decorations which will be taken down, to make things with sugar and white flour and chocolate which are not a blessing to my body, to send cards which will be opened, looked at for ten seconds and tossed aside. I will not do it!
It’s all a big consumerist keeping-up with the Joneses conspiracy. A spiritual occasion that has been hijacked by marketers, who sell us food to fatten us, alcohol to inebriate us, presents to choke our houses and wardrobes. Oh, how has the celebration of the birth of the simplest and wisest and most beautiful of men become this Belshazzarian feast of excess which strains bodies, emotions, spirits and finances? Are we celebrating Jesus or our traditions? Oh, I am opting-out!
* * *
We do not need to follow other people’s traditions. If you are young and newly married or a new parent, create your own joyful, restful, peaceful, life-giving, people rather than thing-centred traditions.
If you are not young, it’s not too late to gradually change your celebration so that Christmas is a time of rest, and peace and reading and extra prayer, and extra scripture and family and friends without the additional burden of gifts and cards and trees and cooking and shopping and lights and decoration and expense and maybe debt. Perhaps each year, rule out the least satisfying, most exhausting Christmas tradition, and put in a restful, minimalist one?
Don’t cook what you don’t love even if it’s traditional. Don’t send cards to those you don’t love. Give home-cooked treats as gifts, and your sister-in-law who gave you the cashmere sweater in the ugly colour will be so cross that she’ll reciprocate with a home-baked cake next year—and you’ll both be released from the treadmill.
The decorated house, the creaking tables, piles of gifts decked in beautiful wrapping paper and ribbons and cards to be ripped apart in seconds– these bring us distraction, and tiredness, rather than serenity of that first night of stars whose eternal silence was shattered by angels singing of the glory of God!
I sometimes use the extra energy not “celebrating,” to serve—join a group singing carols at a retirement home, or serve lunch to homeless, at which my husband was mistaken for one of the homeless men, and asked, “When have you last eaten?” by a rude woman, and with exquisite sensitive manners, he pretended he didn’t remember just to spare her feelings.
* * *
Rather than celebrate Christmas just like everyone else—tree, gifts beneath it, lights, decoration, cooking, dressing up, frivolity, triviality la-di-da—we started, in contrapuntal harmony, a family tradition we really enjoy. We go away.
One of my treasured Christmas memories is walking by La Jolla Cove in San Diego, California, watching the harbour seals lounge and lollygag. People were out, running or walking by the beach. Celebrating the goodness of God out in nature! Other Christmases have seen us in the unspeakably lovely Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica; in magical New Zealand; in Mexico, Granada, Barcelona, Madrid. We are going to Malta this year.
We walk by beaches or in the mountains, sleep in, read, talk, eat out, and come back rich in memories, but with little clutter.
I am not suggesting Bah-Humbugging everything about Christmas. Keep the parts you love. Keep Christ.
Christmas is for people, Christmas is for peace, Christmas is for rest. Christmas is for quieting the manger of one’s heart and silencing the lowing of consumerism, that there may be more room to welcome and listen to the Beloved One whom we are, after all, celebrating.
The Radical One who shocked everyone by shaking up their ideas and has shaken up our family’s Christmas, and returned it to us as a sheer gift.
Christmas, for us, with the girls at home for three weeks, has become nine days in the sun on holiday, and then fifteen days at home, watching dvds, reading, playing family games, sleeping in, resting up, glorious lazy peace and winter walks observing unusual understated glory.
And just a little bit of Christmas music in the background:
“Glory to God in the highest
And on earth, peace to those of good will.”