A Treatise on Christmas Presents
On an airplane ( as usual) – August 13th.
Kerstin is a very perceptive person and her comments often get me thinking. Recently we were discussing Christmas presents as I have posted that I am ordering presents.
Okay, time for some history! I grew up in a Jewish family and we did not celebrate Christmas (obviously). But, growing up in a Christian society has a tremendous effect on little kids, and there were all of those store windows with toys and glitter and fantastic moving tableaus. I interpreted Christmas as a mystical magical holiday, where you were showered with presents and all of your greedy childish dreams came true (I never thought about the religious part of it) In our family we got Chanukah presents – which were also wonderful, but more modest. Grandma and Grandpa gave each of the grandchildren 8 silver dollars – quite a sum in those days. I remember a wonderful illustrated fairy tale book from one aunt and a toy typewriter from that same aunt and uncle. But secretly I lusted after the mystery of Christmas.
Then I married Tony whose family is Catholic and Christmas became a BIG deal. Presents for the kids, special Santa presents, total overload! I liked it for the first few years, but then began to not like it so much. So much money spent! So much trying to please everyone, it seemed ridiculous. I don't think I ever got the right present for my sister in law, so much so that it became a joke as to how quickly she would return the present.
When my nephews were born and other nieces and nephews came along, it began all over again. Sean and Brian got so much pleasure from their Christmas presents, as well as the whole season, that it was a joy to see. But at the same time, their very smart mother used the experience to help them give away some of their old toys and not to be completely overwhelmed with new toys and presents. (unfortunately I have never been with Jody and Andrew on Christmas day – I truly regret that)
My favorite Christmas memory with Sean and Brian was when they lived in Ireland in 2001/2002. I went to see them in early December and we sat in the living room one night with a peat fire glowing and the 4 of us sang Christmas carols. I know only a few, but Grace knows them all – even the second and third verses. The room was lit only by the fire, the kids were about 8 and still willing to be cuddled and we sang away for hours. It is a very treasured memory. We have also always celebrated Chanukah together, the boys know how to light the candles, and say the prayers along with me. They especially love potato latkes and those really are a labor of love to make, what a mess! We do the small presents for 8 days, Chanukah gelt and all that. These kids have also come to family Bar Mitzvah’s with me, and have celebrated a few Passovers with my family, one year they said the 4 questions (or tried to) in Irish. In other words, they are learning to be open about other religions and beliefs.
Sean and Brian turned 14 last summer and this past Christmas they approached me with a deal. If I would buy them an X box for Christmas they would chip in half the cost (it’s a very expensive present). I agreed of course, and bought the present, and realized that taking their money was silly – but I didn’t want them to get off scott-free. So I made a bargain with them. They could choose a charity to give the money too. I suggested Toys for Tots and thought that they would just send in the money. But no, the lessons learned throughout the years had taken root in these kids. They researched charities and decided that they would rather give the money to a charity that buys mosquito nets in Africa – they solemnly told me that saving lives was more important than toys. If this is what Christmas and Christmas presents have taught these kids, I consider it money well spent!
If Tony wasn’t in my life (and he is thank goodness) I would happily and easily abandon any type of Christmas celebration. But to make it easier on myself (mentally) I am trying to make presents, draw pictures, make quilts, buy original artwork etc. Last year I made a “Mom shrine” and a Dad collage for my folks. I may even sponsor a dog in a shelter or a guide dog for someone this year. . It’s much more work, but so much more meaningful. Another tradition that is starting is giving a present of time together - a special day, or a family trip. That is working out very well! If I have to celebrate Christmas I want it to mean something to ME and to the kids in my life.
I know this is a long post and many people won’t read it, but it’s really for me anyway. I studied anthropology in school in part because of these early life lessons. To understand the difference between people and their cultures. To be scientific and analytical yet open to the mystical and holy. None of this is really about Christmas, it’s about assimilation, and understanding how to keep your own beliefs while letting others keep theirs. I could go on and on but won’t!
Other Christmas stories in my life:
1) As a child, I had a French friend in my building who was Catholic and one year she invited me to her apartment to trim the tree. I was young and said no – because I thought that trimming meant that you had to cut the tree into that triangle shape and the thought scared me. (City kid, what did I know about fir trees?)
2) My dad is Italian and grew up Catholic so once, and only once, when I was about 6, we had a tiny ceramic Christmas tree and when I woke in the morning there were presents on a chair in the living room. Unforgettable! Amazing that Santa had come to OUR house! I got a Patty Play Pal doll and a real musical recorder. But I think I remember it more because it only happened once – my grandmother probably had a fit when she heard about it.
3) One year I was designated as Santa by my sister-in-law which meant that I had to bring the special present that my then 6 year old niece wanted. I remember that it was MagnaDoodle, some drawing game. I remember it so well, because when we got to New York, on Christmas Eve, a Saturday night, I couldn’t find the present in my pile of stuff. I was panicked, what would Claire do when Santa let her down? The only thing that I could think to do would be to go to Brooklyn the next day, to the Hasidic section and find a store that had this toy. They would be the only stores open on a Christmas Sunday! I did finally find the present in my car, and also vowed never to volunteer for “Santa” again. I still think it would have been fun to shop in Borough Park, and try to get by with broken Yiddish trying to buy a Christmas present.