For me, December means candles, latkes, gingerbread, carols at nursing homes, pine boughs, meals on wheels, my stepmother’s antique Christmas tree decorations, and those first bright white snowfalls.
I remember after my son was born, looking forward to his first winter holiday season. But in November of that year, we got a call from a relative with a question that I’d been dreading since Alexi’s birth. “So,” inquired the aforementioned loving and well-intentioned relative, “what’s on Alexi’s Christmas list this year?”
I have lots of company in hating the commercialization of Christmas, Hanukkah, and the rest. Many of my fellow idealogues solve the problem by disregarding those holidays altogether, something I have never been willing to do. I want Alexi’s childhood to be one of joy and participation. But I also want him to learn and live our values of simplicity, non-materialism, service, creativity, and caring for the earth and all its inhabitants.
On that phone call six years ago, I froze as my mind traveled back in time. Throughout my life, I’d experimented with ways to bring my values into Christmas, Hanukkah, and Solstice, to varying degrees of success.
In my late twenties, I simply boycotted the gift exchange and instead focused on those aspects I found meaningful. While this decision freed me up to volunteer, socialize, send cards, and bake cookies, it unfortunately didn’t stop my friends and family from buying me gifts, something I had asked them not to do. This left me feeling queasy and selfish, not really what I was going for.
Thinking a compromise was in order, I then spent countless hours in my thirties making homemade presents. I painted wooden frames and inserted photos I had taken. I baked bread, made tree ornaments with beads and fishing line, and shot and edited video shorts featuring me in a Santa suit, menorah in one hand, feline elf, Lizzy Borden, in the other. Although these gifts went over well, the time involved made repeat performances unsustainable. And even though I used recycled materials, I still felt uncomfortable making more “stuff” that, however lovely or amusing, nobody needed.
I decided to try a completely different tactic the year I turned forty. Instead of purchasing lots of inexpensive individual gifts, I made a large contribution to an organization that provides food, shelter, and social services to homeless women and children. I wanted to pass on the care, the nurturing, and the sense of “home” that my loved ones had given me over the years. I sent a card to everybody in my inner circle with the organization’s logo and a letter explaining the gift. I felt soulfully happy, but only one person responded and indicated that she found meaning in the present. I experimented with different versions of this for several years but unfortunately the experience continued feeling one-sided.
Any or all of these versions of giving and receiving are fine for adults, but a child’s needs are quite different. That first holiday season with Alexi, I thought a lot about how I should respond when people questioned me about gifts for him. I started thinking about the quality of presence, because in a way, that’s what is underneath all of my efforts to live the holidays authentically.
After hanging up the phone six years ago with the loving relative, I reread passages in some my books about simple living, wondering about presents with presence. What would they look like?
For me, presence incorporates community and its traditions. Gift exchange is one of the few rituals that most people share. There is something satisfying about both preparing a surprise for somebody and also watching that person receive it. Presents with presence would include these pleasures but also contain a mindfulness of the object’s history and an understanding of economics; for example, goods made via exploitation would not make the cut.
Knowing the receiver’s relationship with “stuff” would be another important component. When we consider loved ones and ponder who they are, we’re more likely to make choices that deepen our connection with them. Giving somebody a present is a chance to mirror him or her-to say, “I see you, I know something about you, and here is something that I believe will bring you joy.” For example, if your great-aunt Hilda had 14 garage sales last summer in preparation to move from a house into a studio apartment, a gift certificate or a pair of earrings might work better than an antique bookshelf or a philodendron. That mirroring is precious and essential to feeling intimate with another person. For Alexi that first year, gifts with lights, music, or texture that could safely be put inside his mouth were his favorites. This year, as a six-year-old, we’re thinking about gifts that encourage his interests, including metros (the Montreal Azure is his favorite), piano music, maps, and water slide parks. Feeling known is feeling like we matter; I believe this is especially true for children.
Getting back to the loving and well-intentioned relative on the phone six years ago…well, I’m not proud of my response. I did what I do anytime I am rendered speechless: I handed the phone to my son’s other parent and let her handle it. But six years later, it’s still an ongoing conversation. Some of the big success stories include our nephew and niece’s gift last year, a subscription to the children’s environmental magazine, Ranger Rick; a video montage I made of Alexi riding the metro set to a crazy song I found on the internet when he was four; an airplane trip to New York City from his Mimi; and his godfather’s gift of an old guitar he restrung and onto which he pasted letter stickers spelling Alexi’s name.
My son, like other children, will be exposed to many adults and their values. For this year’s holidays, we will light the menorah, make latkes with close friends, and buy and decorate a Christmas tree (we are looking for a live one that we’ll plant on our property in the spring). We will make cookies for the neighbors and sing holiday songs at a nursing home. We’re intentionally keeping our calendars open for surprises and spontaneous helping and socializing. Our gifts to the planet include stepping up our commitment to eating leftovers and taking better care of our compost pile; we’re also planning our first big vegetable garden for the spring.
And yes, we will give and receive presents at our family Christmas Eve party. For this year, Alexi’s list has some items he’s asked Santa for, including Magic Tracks, a microscope (to look closely at the teeth he has started to lose) and a bike. We’re helping Santa by looking for these items on Craigslist and in second hand shops like Village Value in Quebec and the Salvation Army in Vermont. We’re also letting relatives know that if they would like to buy something for Alexi (always adding that their presence alone is the best gift), that we prefer used items like clothing, battery-free toys, acoustical instruments, and books, especially books that present characters of diverse cultures and experiences.
Ultimately, what relatives decide to give him is their choice. If they pick violent gifts like guns or scary masks, we will have to take them away. Luckily, most presents don’t have those qualities and exist in the gray area. Like other aspects of being a parent, holiday traditions are another opportunity to practice letting go, gently feeling our way into interactions, allowing compassion and flexibility to lead. They are also an opportunity to spend quality time with loved ones. For a simpler holiday season, think about what being truly present means to you and your family. You might be surprised at how your plans change.