Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Little Bit More...

The Grinch has long been one of my favorite Christmas stories. I would don a nasally, scratchy, grinchy like voice and read it to my children and students over the years. But there is a place in the story where my voice softens; it changes from the stingy tee hee sounding twang to a tone of disbelief. It is when the Grinch is a top the mountain with his sleigh full of stolen Who-toys. It is Christmas morning, and he can’t wait to hear all the Whos wailing and crying because they have no gifts. Instead, The Grinch hears singing and joy rising up from the valley below. And it is here where my voice changes: Maybe Christmas isn’t just packages, boxes and bows… maybe Christmas means something much more…”

I have to admit that I have never really liked Christmas, and I think it’s because I have never found a way to de-emphasize the commercialism of it all and try to find out what more is behind the true Christmas spirit. As a child, I would make a list of all the things I wanted and invariably I would be disappointed because I didn’t get something, or I didn’t like the clothes my mother picked out for me, or my sisters got something “bigger or better.” We had so much as children, but we were always looking for more. As a parent, it was fun to try to pick out things that I knew my little tykes would enjoy – and they did- for a few minutes or a few days. Although we didn’t raise our sons with the wealth of my childhood, they still had pretty much everything they needed, and we didn’t have the kind of ready cash to give them the Air Jordans and Saab turbos that many of their peers in the private school world were touting. I sensed that Christmas was never fully satisfying to anyone. Now that I’m a grandmother, the controversy of Christmas continues to plague me. Every year I look through catalogs and on line and talk to my sisters who also have grandchildren to try to find the perfect gift for each of my grandsons. It’s fun; I often go over budget; and I get frustrated with the enormous costs of sending these items across country and oceans… and then most often, I never hear about whether they were delighted, bored, or somewhere in between. The thank-you card is becoming a relic- although the ones I have received I have saved. Even when I talk to my sons, it is rare that there is a mention that they even received a Christmas package from me – let alone telling me that the recipients appreciated my gifts- leading me to conclude that the gifts were really not much appreciated. So this year I have made a small something for every member of my family, and I am seriously thinking of getting gift cards for them so they can get themselves something they like. The problem is, I will probably not hear from them about the gift cards either! And I am forced, ironically, to ask, “So What?” Isn’t just the joy of giving enough? Why do I need a response to my gifts?

Perhaps all of this proves the Grinch to be right- Maybe Christmas is something more than gifts and packages and boxes and bows. Maybe that is what my children are trying to tell me- “Mom, We really don’t care what you get us or even IF you get us anything…”

But now the hard part of this essay begins… just what IS the Christmas spirit, and how can I give it to my friends and family?
I have received gifts from friends that tell me they have given a sheep to a woman in Africa in my name. I always like receiving those kinds of gifts – as I truly do not need any things myself, but I want to be more involved with my children and grandchildren – I think I want something more personal.
I have started a web page to collect family stories – I am very excited about it, and have told all my children “all I want for Christmas is a story.” If I get those stories I will be so happy AND- it is my belief that the sharing of those stories with all the members of the family could truly be a gift for everyone… but I’m guardedly cautious that I will receive any stories. My children lead very busy lives, and I certainly recognize that writing a story is much more labor intensive than ordering a gift on-line.

But the stories may be closer to my attempt to define the spirit of Christmas. I think the spirit of Christmas has to do with connections – reaching out – sharing – being in touch – celebrating meals and traditions together.

Could we limit our material gifts this year? Could we send the message that even if we had no gifts on Christmas morning we could be joyful because we have each other? How would that fly?

I realize there is a bit of hypocrisy here for me. Our economy depends upon the greed, gluttony and insatiable appetite most of us have for the newest gadgets, up to date clothing, and the “in” games, videos, and accessories. Since I have retired, I am keenly aware that my income is tied to the success of the stock market, which is invested in the success of consumerism. So secretly I am hoping that most of America will find many presents under their trees, stuffed in their stockings, and shared throughout Hanukah and Kwanza this holiday season. At the same time I am hoping that my family spends less time and money buying presents and more effort in writing and telling stories to each other. It would be pure joy for me if “all I got for Christmas were family memoirs.”


Anonymous said...

Your essay on Christmas is thought-provoking and beautiful. Years ago the children and I decided we would make one Christmas gift for everyone in the family and that's what we have done. This year's "surprise" should be arriving sometime in mid-December. Now that we are living in Hawaii I like to think of the Christmas spirit as one with the "aloha" spirit of love and generosity, something that can definitely be lived all year. But we need to be conscious of it, calling it forth every day as we stand in line at the super market, drive the crowded streets of our cities and neigborhoods, at work, at the gym, at the bank, wherever we are, we can extend a little "aloha" and watch it make a difference. Xavier pointed out to me once that Americans are no longer polite. We teach our children to say "please" and "thank you," but seem to have lost these words ourselves. Observe next time you are somewhere with the public. See how often people say, or don't say, "please" and "thank you" to store clerks. It's an eye-opener. Meanwhile, much aloha and love, C.

Anonymous said...

Well, of course I love the idea of sharing stories--but KNOW my family would not go along with it .nor do they want or expect big gifts ---Nor do I want to support the materialist economy we now live in. I have taken to reading the Simple Life magazine--published free on internet about how to turn at least your own life around . It always amazes me when people seem as pleased with a homemade gift as a bought one....of course we all have TOO much...How many sweaters or blouses hang in your closet.?..I know we are so fortunate to be "without need or want"...but it isn't enough unless you can somehow pass this along to out grandchildren.
I so admire the Buddhist practise of living with little...Sometimes I see some attractive thing which I can afford,but try to remind myself that I don't need it. We are lucky that our children are able to provide fairly well for their children --and so it should be. The few things I have moved and saved are those people have either made me, or some thing from a special friend...and I try to think about these things when I use them.
Check out the web site for Simple Living...
I enjoy a long letter froma friend or a book they have read and enjoyed and now want to pass on.
and more soon too, EMMY

Anonymous said...

Hello, my friend.
I, too, dread the “holiday season" which seems to have become more complicated and consumption-oriented over the years. In fact I have often felt like hiding from all of it. One year when no one was coming to our house for Christmas we went to Florida to 'escape.' I was afraid I would feel really depressed, dwelling on memories of Christmases past, and the joy I would feel, along with the fatigue, of having children and magic and friends and family. Instead, we had a wonderful time, ignoring it all, and I remember walking on the beach on Christmas Day, reading, eating a meal I hadn't prepared, and just having a very calm and restorative time. I can see that being a choice many people our age may be making in the future.

There is just way too much hype and conspicuous consumption, and rampant commercialism. Giving to worthy causes, like Heifer, helps a bit, but even that is becoming 'the thing to do' and I hate that many very good organizations are spending huge amounts of money sending glossy solicitations. This year we will be having both of our mothers, and Christopher will be able to come home, and it helps so much not to be working - to have time. So ours will be simple but warm and not too frantic.

One of the things that has happened since we've been having the grandchildren is that we started not having lots of decorations, or
even a tree, or a big Christmas dinner - the children were too young
- and we figured out that everyone was happiest sitting around in
their sweats sharing a leisurely brunch instead of the traditional dinner and letting the children play. Once I got over lamenting that the next generation will never know the tradition of the silver/linens/dressy clothes and came to terms with their having memories of another tradition - which included much more relaxed parents and grandparents - it has been wonderful. And perhaps when they are a bit older we'll have a Christmas Dinner on occasion.

But - as to gifts for children who lack for nothing. First, an
anecdote: a couple of weeks ago I was to have Luke and Isabel all day. I had purchased a lovely 'farm set' with many pieces and
animals and so on to set up, so I thought they might enjoy having that special toy on this day. Well, they were interested in it for
about a half hour. Then, somehow, they decided they wanted to take all the stuffed animals on a 'trip' and so they ended up finding all the cardboard boxes we had, figuring out how to tie them together in a caravan and were totally focused on those boxes, string, and old stuffed animals for the rest of the day. Later, a bubble bath occupied them for another hour. And by the way - those fish you gave them when you were here this summer? The little rubber fish that cost about $5.95? They are absolutely a hit and they love having them in the tub. During the summer they used them in the river! Again - inexpensive toys that 'do' nothing - but open up all kinds of possibilities.

My idea for you and your children, and I'm sure you've thought of this - is tapes or cd's that you record reading favorite stories from our children's childhoods. Like "Frederick." Or, that you tell stories about your childhood or their parents' childhoods. How wonderful to have grandma's voice reading them to sleep! And
especially for the Brazilian contingent - listening in English to American tales. Is it possible to make cd recordings? Isabel loves
listening to books on tape. I found an old walkman, and the library has lots of audiotapes. I'm trying to figure out how to make my own recordings for them - you'll know the technology better than I. Another idea might be one of the good children's magazines that
abound - at least for the two older ones. And I do hope that your boys and other family members will send memories - that is an awesome idea and I may try it myself.

Another thing, though, is that I've pretty much abandoned gift-giving on their birthdays and Christmas and just give them little things when ever something occurs to me. I don't think they notice or care that they don't get gifts from us along with all the others on those 'big' days. I would imagine that a box from you just for no reason as a surprise in say....February...would have much more attention paid to it. Filled with markers and paper and glue sticks....and an electric pencil sharpener (kids love them!) and stickers and stuff like that! It does seem that boys are harder to amuse or impress, but perhaps?

I haven't been back to your blog to remind myself if this is exactly what you were writing about, but anyway, this is what's on my mind. It is so much more difficult for you to stay connected, I understand. Are there websites out there for grandparents who live
long distances from their families? Perhaps they would have some good ideas. Meanwhile, I'm saving the back covers from the twelve
catalogues I receive each day and, as soon as I can, will go to to opt out of all of them. I'm shopping only locally for the few things that I will purchase - we basically do not exchange any gifts among the immediate family any more, and I'll bake or start an amaryllis for the very few friends that we might see.

I think our society's commercialism in general, not just at Christmas, is deplorable and I have an almost visceral revulsion at going into stores. However, I did replace our dead dishwasher the other day, even though I really tried to think I didn’t need one. And we don't. But I did. But I couldn't bring myself to go to the stores and comparison-shop and all that. I just asked the repairman to bring the lowest-end model and that was that. At least we were supporting a local small business.

Oh dear, I really have gone on! Before I end - can you tell me how much it costs (roughly)to join the sites from which you send those
wonderful cards? And which ones you like? And whether joining makes you vulnerable to advertising. Right now I basically get NO advertising in my email and I'd really like to keep it that way.

What are you up to these days? Did you have a lovely Thanksgiving?
Michael and I were in NYC for three days - it was wonderful! We almost went to hear Arlo, who yes, is still doing his thing at
Carnegie Hall - but we decided to wait until we can take the grandchildren.

Sorry for running on like this....imagine us having a cup of coffee or
two and batting these ideas back and forth. I'm off to yoga. Love you lots.


Anonymous said...

Hi Nancy, here are some long overdue thoughts on Christmas.

I am not a protestor at heart but I would have been had I lived in 1659 when the Puritans passed a law banning the celebration of Christmas which had become known for public drunkenness, licentious sex and gambling. Even with that reputation, I would have scaled the highest spruce tree, a star in hand and protested loudly with my off-key rendition of “Joy to the World.”
I love Christmas including the commercialism. I love the hustle-bustle, crowds of shoppers who get in my way and decorations (even if they are displayed a bit early). I love the sale flyers and advertisements and admit that the only time I look at them is at Christmastime when they are jam-packed with ideas. I love Christmas music. I love wide-eyed children who want everything they see. Yes, I love all these things that lure me into buying too much and I don’t apologize for it. If the celebration of Christmas were banned because of commercialism, I would protest.
I must also add that I do not understand how anyone would prefer to shop on-line and through catalogs when decorated stores not only energize but offer so many gadgets that are not available at other times. Yes, I love gadgets and I mean inexpensive usable, not high-tech, gadgets. Last spring, I realized that we had remote controls lying about here and there. I searched store after store for a caddy (similar to the one I gave my grandson last Christmas) and found none so I went on line and the price, as far as I was concerned, was out of whack. I bided my time until Christmas and bought a caddy for $9.99.
Sometimes I think that gadgets and drugstore dollar bins were made just for me. The packages, boxes and bows don’t have to contain a fortune. How often have you started to cook and said, I need to buy a good sturdy wire whisk, spice rack or whatever? I say it and forget it until December when all my senses come alive. Seems to me that what I need is perhaps a need for my children, too. My younger son will tell you that for three consecutive years, he received a spaghetti server while I’m still using my old plastic one. The truth is that when December comes, my needs dwindle down to giving and togetherness.
I try to be lighthearted during the holiday season and it’s not easy because my first born son has an addiction. Emotions flare up. There is part of me that cries and longs for him but I deal with it and force myself to accept that which cannot be changed.
We all question materialism and greed, then we wonder what it’s all about. Are we trying to recapture something we’ve lost or have outgrown? Are we looking for reasons to not fully give of ourselves or are we waiting to be disappointed in what we receive? Have we forgotten that Christmas is a birthday and aren’t birthdays wonderful days for children?
Let us not forget the children. To me, Christmas is their day. We ask them what they want for Christmas and we tell them to make a list for Santa then we say they want too much and get too much. Because we ask them, we either feel guilty or complain about greed if we cannot fulfill their wishes. Children are adult-wise⎯don’t underestimate their smarts. They ask for everything knowing they’ll be lucky to get one half of what they ask for. What do you want for Christmas? Maybe we should not ask nor should we tell when we are asked the question. Maybe, just maybe, we would pay more attention to the likes, dislikes and needs of others and they to ours.
Christmas 2007 is now Christmas Past. My love of this holiday is hard work and now every bone in my body aches. Shopping and wrapping gifts is no easy feat and Christmas dinner served to ten adults and four children was a lot of dicing. Each year I vow to cut back and I have cut back some on gifts but never cut back completely because I sure do love shopping for gadgets. I’ve also considered a buffet instead of a formal dinner but probably won’t do so. I’d miss admiring my beautiful table. When set, it’s festive with red tablecloth, candles, special Christmas wineglasses and party crackers. Besides that, by next December I’ll be well rested and ready to do it again. Pollyanna I may be, but I know that my family cherishes our traditions. Their smiles are the best thank-you.
Sadly, thank you cards are a relic. For families who live apart, I suggest that pictures be taken during gift opening and sent to whomever gave the gift. Zero in on the wide eyes and smiles that say thank you, Grandma.
What is Christmas spirit? For me it’s elusive, yet I know it’s hidden somewhere within all the things I love about this holiday⎯perhaps it's the child within me.
For those who dread the holiday season, in preparation for next year, I recommend A Family Christmas by Caroline Kennedy.

nanwebware said...

Shirley- I loved getting your comment on Christmas on January 12th. Our Christmas tree is gone; the cobalt blue lights around the windows are down; the Christmas CD's have been put away - and I have to admit to missing it all. Then, your response brought such a smile to my face- I can just picture you rummaging in the Walgreens batrgain bin on the day before Christmas and shouting, "I found it! I found it!" and giddily yaning at that remote control caddy.
We had one of the best Christmases in a long time- spending quiet time with Mel and Dave and then having a wonderful dinner for nine- bringing friends together that might otherwise have spent Christmas by themselves. I loved fixing the meal- and getting help from eager hands, and I must admit the table looked lovely.
I still think there is a bit too much emphasis on "things"- but I am on my way to a paradigm shift and plan on replacing a smile or a phone call with a thank-you note. I love the idea of taking pictures of children opening gifts!
I still count people like you as the best gifts of all. Happy New Year!