Re-inventing Christmas for Family Sanity

This article was first published in the Island Word for Dec. 2003.  It’s still a good one!

“We don’t need the baby Jesus,” says Serena’s sister-in-law, “We need Martha Stewart!” “Martha’s in jail”, comes the not-exactly-helpful reply.
“I know! And that’s not the point. This season is out of control and I’m tired!”

Christmas once represented our fondest dreams for happy families, traditions, belonging and peace on earth. But we know few adults who are content with the season as it is now, burdened by expectations borrowed from sentimental greeting cards and advertisements, where children love their gifts, everyone gets along, and, for once, no one is left out. For the adult who is striving to put it all together, Christmas is a demanding project with a fixed budget and a million demands on the tight production schedule. Get it wrong, and our children might be ruined forever, destined to be little Scrooges with no sense of holiday spirit, no happy memories, no baby Jesus at all in their lives. Maybe we are sad, or grieving, or tired. Maybe we just don’t want to do it this year. But we’d better hide those doubts, because the constant piped in cheerful music and the lights pushing just a little too relentlessly against the winter nights seem to say “no darkness is allowed here!”

It wasn’t always this way. In ancient and modern times, the dark and cold Northern winters have forced people closer together to share light and warmth. Where people gather, food and stories are shared. In agrarian societies, winter is the time for making beautiful and useful objects for the home, treasures and toys. The festivals of light, warmth and meaningful stories fit well this time of year, and every Northern spiritual tradition has made use of this time to gather, to teach the young, to share wealth and to enrich the sense of community among its members.

As societies grew from tribes and villages to estates, towns, city-states and nations, the festivals of December changed, as well. We still may long to gather still to hear the stories that heal and that bind us together. But a second agenda has grown along with the size of our tribes. It is not enough to just belong; we are also under constant pressure to excel, to compete, and to achieve security through prevailing in the great race for status. Size matters, we are told, and the size of the Christmas tree, the pile of gifts, and the credit card bills that follow all seem to be necessary if we are to give our families the “correct” experience of the holidays. Where, in Medieval times, the wealthy held feasts to share with the poor the necessities of life, we are now encouraged to build the pile of luxuries ever higher for our own families. We live in fear of gift-giving faux-pas—the unexpected gift that we have no exchange for, the present that we spent far too much or far too little for, the look on someone’s face that says, “this thing is hideous”. Meanwhile, work pressure is heavier, not lighter, than in other months. This, combined with an overloaded social calendar means less, not more, time to prepare the feasts and the decorations, the personal gifts, the wrappings, and every little tradition that our families have come to remember and to insist on repeating or “it won’t be Christmas!”

We have each considered, at least once, opting out of the holidays altogether. We dislike status races on principle. We also dislike the oppressive cheeriness that greets thoughtful or stressed expressions with orders to “smile, you grinch!” and leaves no room for the quiet or sad emotions. We dislike canned electronic music and plastic Santas that say “ho, ho, ho!”

But we keep being drawn back to the hearth. December is still dark and cold, and we want to recreate a holiday of quiet and beautiful hope. We want a holiday that does not banish sadness, but offers comfort. We want to share the stories; from our families, our religious heritages, and our favorite books; that make us cry, laugh, and hold our loved ones a little more dearly.

So, how do we reclaim the holiday season? Each family has its own version of holiday traditions and challenges, so each will need its own plan unlike any other’s. We recommend starting to plan and to talk together early in the season, asking questions like, “What is your very favorite thing about the holidays?”, “what is your least favorite thing?”, and “is there anything you’ve been wanting to try differently this year?” Here are some changes that some families have found useful in simplifying and making Christmas, Channukah, Divali, Solstice or other winter holidays worth repeating.

–Have a time to sit in darkness, and light one candle at a time to represent the people or concerns that we want to “place in the light”. Talk about each candle and what it stands for. Light candles to remember loved ones who have died, or who are far away. Send them love and good wishes wherever they are.

–Read out loud. Take turns reading a story while doing a craft or cooking together.

–If your family has school children, consider waiting until after Christmas Day to deliver gifts. This can take some of the pressure off the early weeks of December, which quickly fill up with school, community and other events.

–Replace 25%, 50%, or all of your holiday gift shopping with gifts that don’t cost the earth, or that make it a more fair place to live. Fair trade and organic tea, coffee and chocolate are all available in now in most cities or from on line vendors. Locally produced goods and services, from Apple Cider to Zippered clothing, are easier on the earth and good for the local community.

–As a family, choose one local, and one global charity to support. Share with your children what the money helps to do.

–Volunteer together (but be careful; leave plenty of time for the family to do “nothing in particular” together, too).

–Spend some time outdoors, paying attention to what the earth is doing this season.

–If nature’s resting time so inspires you, try to claim some dormant time for yourself, too. What seeds of creativity may be sleeping, gathering and storing up energy within you? Send them some love, too, and give thanks for the dark places that shelter and feed them.

–Talk to your children, partner, or others about what gives you strength, meaning or faith in your life. Worship in whatever ways you find most beautiful.

–Invite people over one or two at a time rather than in large groups. Invite someone who you think might especially enjoy being a part of your family for an evening.

–If you have a blended family, try not to buy into pressure to double the list of expectations by preserving every single tradition from before. Talk about it, express your need to keep things simple, and come up with a short list.

–Try very hard not to give past your point of resentment. Giving “too much” and regretting it acts as poison in relationships, and nobody wants that. Risk some honest limit-setting, while not holding back on the reassurance of your fondness for the recipient.

–draw names for gift giving.

As a society, we spend a great deal of time, energy and money making this season happen. Imagine holidays that recharge, reconnect, re-create and re-commit us to what matters the most in our lives. Imagine that what matters is not having the biggest, brightest, or even the best Christmas ever. It’s the same things that have always worked best to give comfort in the dark season—warmth, nourishment, faith, sharing what we have or what we need, and lighting candles in the spirit of love.