Christmas Present

Regardless of which version of history you believe and what holiday(s) you do or do not celebrate, I think it’s worthwhile to have a “winding down” of the year during which we shift focus from frenzied work and socialization to calm time with family and friends–and with ourselves in quiet reflection.

For me, it goes kind of like this:  work extra hard for weeks getting ready to be (mostly) out of the office; run like mad for a couple of days to get ready to go visit family; spend a day traveling; relax, unwind, and enjoy being with people I love for a day and a half; discover when I relax that I am exhausted and require frequent naps; spend a day traveling back home; collapse and relax (relatively) quietly until New Year’s Eve, reflecting on the past year and working on some sort of self-discovery that I optimistically believe will lead to life-improvement.

The time with family and the week “off” between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are the times that matter most to me.  I’ve given up on massive consumerism in favor of minimizing the gifts and enjoying the visit.  For gifts, I go with silly stocking stuffers and money for my college-aged nephews.

Tisen is the only one I go overboard on.  I bought him a fleece that fits him like a dress, a bigger Lamb Chop, and some treats.  He’s easy to buy for and he thinks every gift is perfect.

Oddly, now that Christmas is so much easier (stocking stuffers for 4 and money for 2; I don’t even do cards anymore), it’s less enjoyable.  Having removed the majority of the consumerism from the holiday seems to have also removed much of the potential thrill.

After all, the best gift I ever got wasn’t a gift I received, it was the gift of having thought of the perfect gift for someone else.  It truly is the thought that counts–but I want the thought to be “I know you; I see you; I love you as you are.” Not “you really need this thing you’ve never heard of because I think you do.”  Or, “I have no idea what you would want, so thank you for making a list.”

Gone is the feeling of connectedness and belonging that comes along with knowing someone else so well or at least having paid close enough attention that you came up with that perfect gift for them.

On the flip side, after years of failing to think of the perfect gift for the people I love, I go in with realistic expectations and come out without disappointment.

Perhaps the secret is not tying the spiritual calming of year end reflection and time with loved ones to gift giving.  Perhaps we could give gifts when the perfect idea presents itself instead of based on a date on the calendar.  Then the only problem is if the perfect idea never comes.

Christmas Past

It’s still dark out.  There are no hooves clacking on the roof, no “Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas” echoing through the air.  But there is something magical about this morning none-the-less.  The sun will start to rise in another hour or so.  By then, my nephews will either get up or we will wake them.  But for now, I sit quietly, alone in the living room, looking at the colored Christmas tree lights reflected in the glass.

A million memories swirl in my brain.  They focus around a Christmas tree and rotate by like a slow moving carousel, colorful and full of laughing children.  There is me and my brother, rushing into the living room of long ago, mouths wide open, amazed at the fancy packages under the tree.  Wrapping paper flies as we tear into that moment of hope and expectation.  We are absolutely convinced that what lies below the paper will fulfill our wildest dreams.

As my carousel of memories continues to rotate, our faces fade as my nephews move into the prominent place on the carousel.  Their eyes amazed, their teeth gleaming as their mouths gape in smiles that couldn’t possibly stretch any wider.  They, too, attack the packages before them.  Once more, wrapping paper flies through the air.  And the carousel rotates again.

Now, I see our parents pretending to love the silly dime store gifts we picked out for them and paid for by saving our allowance.  I see their eyes shining with emotion–a detail I missed when I was a child.

Next, our Grandparents smile nervously and watch us intently while we open gifts.  They strain with their desire to see how happy we are with what they so carefully chose for us.

As the carousel begins another pass, I see our parents again, but now watching my nephews instead of us.  They smile wider and their eyes have a little more twinkle as they open homemade gifts from their grandchildren.

I have few memories of what any of the gifts were, either received or given.  What stays in my mind is that shared moment when a group of people lean forward with barely contained anticipation.  In that single moment, before the first gift is unwrapped, we all share in the possibility that our love for one another will transcend any disappointments, any difficulties, any trials or tribulations and we will achieve the perfect manifestation of love through the act of giving.

That is the moment I look forward to every Christmas.  When people ask why can’t Christmas last all year, this is the moment I imagine hanging onto year round.  That perfect moment that is absent of disappointment, history, baggage, judgment.  That perfect moment when the excitement that we might be able to amaze and delight those we love electrifies the air.

When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things – not the great occasions – give off the greatest glow of happiness.  ~Bob Hope

Playing Santa

‘Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la la la la.

Demonstrate our great folly, fa la la la la la la la la.

Ah, Christmas.  Where did the magic go?  The days when I used to agonize over the perfect gift, going store to store to store–returning home frustrated and desperately in need of a nap.  I would put up decorations, wrap every gift with homemade bows.  And I always, always sent Christmas cards.

Then, the circle of friends with whom I exchanged Christmas gifts started to shrink.  As we grew older, there were fewer things we wouldn’t just buy for ourselves if we wanted them.  Besides the occasional bottle of wine in a reusable, decorative bag, we were down to just exchanging gifts with family.

Then, my family had what I like to think of as the “epiphany Christmas.”  We realized that we didn’t know what to get each other and it was silly, as adults to be making lists.  We called a truce on gift buying and agreed just to get the kids gifts.  This simplified shopping and allowed us to focus on the boys, who really made Christmas fun.

But then, my nephews seemed to lose their enthusiasm.  They used to try to stay awake all night so they could catch Santa; now they sleep later and later on Christmas morning.  They used to carefully open each toy, set it aside and play with the box for so long that we’d have to remind them to open the next gift if we wanted to finish in time for lunch.  Now, gift opening barely lasts a half an hour.  And their wish lists get shorter each year.  Until, finally, the youngest stop producing them all together, preferring to be “surprised.”

I have to agree that wish lists feel like cheating.  There’s something really special about a gift that says someone was paying attention to the things you’re interested in or, even better, found the perfect symbol of something special between the two of you.  I love giving gifts when I know I thought of something only I could have thought of and only the receiver can appreciate.  Even if it’s a silly, cheap gift, when it feels like the exact right gift, it really is magical.

The problem is it’s impossible to think of that perfect gift for everyone I know (and remember what it was).  In fact, if I don’t see someone regularly, the probability that I’ll have any clue as to what to give them is so small that it depresses me.  The thought that I know so little about what my father, step mother, brother, sister-in-law, nephews, friends, etc have and don’t have, need and don’t need, want and don’t want serves to remind me that I haven’t been paying enough attention.

Perhaps that will be my New Year’s Resolution–to know the people I love well enough to think of the perfect gift for each of them.