Reclaiming Christmas

For years, the adult members of my family have had the tradition of choosing names out of a hat each Christmas. The name you pick is the person you are getting a gift for that year. It is a really nice tradition, relieving us all of the pressure to buy presents for each member of the family. That way, each of us can also sped a little more money on one gift than we otherwise would if we had to buy several gifts.

I have really appreciated this tradition over the years because it did help to get me out of the holiday frenzy. Since I have been an adult (and when or if that has actually occurred is up for debate), I have never really enjoyed the holidays because of the Christmas chaos. I have hated everything about it: the insanity at the malls, the lines snaking out the door of the Post Office, the incessant holiday music wherever I go, the boxes of cookies and candies around the office which I feel obligated to imbibe only to end up feeling sick later, and the flowing cheap wine, egg nog, or other nasty alcoholic concoction that makes me feel even worse. I dread the lines of cranky people with crankier children at the airports going to visit Grandma, the crowded planes. And I, along with millions of others, have persevered through all of this to reach the crazy family at the other end of the journey, whom I love, but let’s face it, at the holidays we’re all a little more challenging than usual.

The pressure of performing at Christmas gives me anxiety. I have chosen some years not to participate, or to participate in a limited way, not traveling, not sending cards, not decorating my house, and abstaining from the candy and cookies. But ultimately I have found that I still get sucked in against my best intentions even so. At best, I would feel inspired to shower my beloved with gifts and spending beyond my means. At worst, I ended up feeling sad about not reaching out to friends that I normally don’t have the chance to connect with over the year, and really sad that I didn’t find a place to hang the stockings or put up the few decorations that I have.

The truth is, I love Christmas. And much in the way that I am in a constant struggle to embrace my Christian identity which has been hijacked by right-wing zealots with a heartless political agenda, so has Christmas been hijacked by the retailers and architects of an economy that is entirely driven by consumers. It is true, and even though everyone seems to know it, we all seem to turn away from the fact that Christmas is the single most important consumer holiday. The majority of retail sales happens between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And this just isn’t a sustainable way to have a healthy economy. I don’t know much about economics, but I do understand that it is folly for an economic system to rely on our collective ability to make money during the work week, go to the mall on the weekend and buy stuff, most of which will eventually end up in a landfill.

The way most of us celebrate Christmas isn’t healthy or sustainable for many reasons.

I won’t wax nostalgic for times gone by that were simpler and better. I have no illusions that Christmas wasn’t the chaotic consumer frenzy that it is today when I was a kid. I loved Christmas as a child, and I loved the presents (I don’t know how my parents did it with five children). As a child, for me Christmas was about the anticipation of the gifts I would receive. I loved all of the other things, too: the decorations, the carols, the food, the gatherings, the television specials, and the telling of the story of the birth of Jesus.

But for a child, it was all about the presents. For an adult, it has become all about anxiety and stress.

I think I have finally found the way to celebrate Christmas in a way that I can really enjoy. My beloved and I did not exchange gifts. We are staying at home together for a cozy day of relaxing, game-playing, reading, eating great food, enjoying each other’s company, and being grateful for all that we have. This year for the family gift exchange we all made gifts to charities in honors of each other instead of buying each other stuff that we don’t need (more about that in posts to follow). We didn’t get a tree that we would have to dispose of later, though we did hang some lights and put up a few decorations. We will send out a few New Year post cards to let our far-flung friends know that we think of them and love them even if we can’t see them.

And I will continue to write these blog postings as an exercise of creative expression and as a way to stay in touch with people. I figure if I keep putting it out there, people will stop by and keep connecting or reconnect. And it’s working!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

A Close Call

Gillian and I ran some errands this weekend, and had a perilously close brush with holiday stress, the kind of stress I have vowed to avoid while at the same time participating in enough activity so that I can enjoy the season. Its a delicate balance, easy to topple, we found.

We needed supplies for truffle-making, so we went out and about in the world, braving the holiday shopping chaos. It was really quite fun. There is an aspect of holiday shopping that I actually enjoy, if you can ignore the consumer greed. There is a palpable excitement in the air, coming from the energy of people bustling about getting very important things done. This past weekend was so cold in the Bay Area that it really felt like winter “back east,” as we like to say in California. The cold made me feel cozy and Christmasey. We werre bundled up, getting done our list of important things, bustling around, running into old friends, and enjoying the scene.

After much debate, we decided to get a tree. Already feeling we had put in a full day of bustling, we persisted in getting our tree on Saturday. Young men with chainsaws were taking orders from a much older man who looked like he had seen some hard times. We showed the man which tree we wanted, and he said that he would have it ready to go after we paid for it. We went in the store and paid for the tree, got hot dogs on the way out, fetched the car, and drove up to the curb to claim our tree.

The young man helping us was none too happy about it. It was clear that he wanted to be doing anything but help us strap a Christmas tree to the top of our car. The poor kid was clearly not happy in his work. What should have taken 10 minutes took 45. Gillian and I didn’t know what to do to prod this kid along. We’re not professional Christmas tree fasteners. We didn’t want to tell this guy who so obviously hates his job that he was doing it too slowly. And we were pretty certain that he didn’t care that we had to get home to decorate the tree and make chocolate truffles for our friends. But we really wanted to get home! We were risking getting cranky and tired.

We finally got the tree home, and it took a lot longer to set it up than we thought. Putting a six-foot tree in a tiny apartment is not easy (although I do believe that no matter what, there is always room for a Christmas tree). We had to re-arrange some large furtniture and our entire entertainment system, but we were determined and we got that thing to fit! Then the decorating: We had to string the lights twice because we realized that it works better to string from the bottom up with the lights plugged in too late. I think I have to re-learn that every year. then the process of hanging the decorations, going through the Christmas box, gushing over the angel cow ornament and the baby ice skates that I used to wear as a kid (my mom turned them into holiday deorations after I grew out of them. They are pretty cute.).

We had planned on making truffles that day, but by the time we got home and got the tree decorated, it was about 8:00. We were tired and couldn’t possibly get started that late. We’d be up all night! We agreed to skip church (gasp!) and stay home and get started in the morning. We also had to go to a co-worker’s Hanukah party the next day (which I really wanted to attend), which would no longer be convenient since we’d be in the process of making truffles. Undaunted, we were determined to do it all.

Mind you, this is how I get into trouble around the holidays. I get overly ambitious. Really, its the story of my life. I guess when I grow up I’ll have the goal of not having eyes bigger than my stomach. Right. Like that’s gonna happen.

Gillian and I started to disagree about process. To start, our disagreements were friendly debates, and for quite a while, we were able to work things out amicably. Gillian finished the ganaches (I assisted and washed dishes), and by noon they were all setting. We went to the party, had a nice time socializing with friends from the office, played with cute babies, ate yummy potato latkas with home-made apple sauce, caught up with a few old friends, and finally made our excuses, which people were willing to accept because they knew they would benefit from our planned afternoon activities.

We came back home and immediately started making truffles. Without the truffle-making, we had already had a full day, I think most would agree. But we were determined, and we perservered.

The process took far too long, and half way through, we realized that we didn’t have enough paper cups for all of the truffles. Gillian was going to have to drive accross town to get more. I really didn’t want her to go. I wanted to have a stress-free day of holiday activity and not have either of us go anywhere. I immediately became cranky, and we argued. Was it better to just make due with the paper cups that we had, or should one of us just bite the bullet and go get what we needed? I felt we should stay home, but Gillian is more of a perfectionist, especially when it comes to food. She wasn’t going to be relaxed unless we had everything we needed. I gave in and let her go, but I wasn’t happy about it.

We were both tired, and we both new that we were going to be up too late. I had to go to work at 6:30 the next morning, and I wanted to go to bed. It was 10:30 and we still needed to box the truffles after the were shaped and rolled in cocoa. We were in the middle of a long process, and we didn’t have enough time to relax, and for a moment it didn’t feel like we were having fun. It felt too close for comfort to holiday stress.

We bickered and whined at each other. My feet hurt, and I wanted nothing more than to be horizontal by 11:00. We had a hard moment discussing whether or not I should go to bed or stay up and see the process through. We never settled the argument, but I stayed up and helped assemble the boxes, and the process went by pretty quickly. Once we got past the crankiness, we were punchy and silly, laughing at ourselves because we were so tired that we couldn’t accurately count truffles any more.

In spite of ourselves, we had a fun time, managing to fill our weekend with holiday activities, creating an unrealistic agenda, accomplishing most everything and then some, and avoiding a close call with holiday stress.

Merry Christmas, indeed.