You know what I love about Thanksgiving? The only thing anyone expects is food. And then comes Christmas.
My husband bought a newspaper on Thanksgiving and promptly pulled out the pages and pages of ads. "Look what a great deal on this TV!" he said while I pecked away at the keyboard on some work I wanted to get done before we began cooking.
"We have a TV," I reminded him.
"I’m just saying, it’s a good deal."
Five minutes later, as I saved the most recent changes to an invoice, he was gushing about the price of new laptops. "We have computers," I said.
"I didn’t say we had to get one. But maybe the kids…"
"No. No laptops for Christmas this year," I said. "We don’t have the budget for it."
And just like that, I both verbalized and passed on the holiday fears that had been creeping up in the back of my mind since the beginning of November. How are we going to buy all those presents this year?
It’s a worry that affects lots of working parents, for many different reasons. In our case, an unplanned "vacation" to care for a dying parent clashed poorly with a recent move that had already depleted much of our savings. For some it’s an unexpected job loss, an accidental discovery of black mold, or an old car that finally died. For other families it’s as simple as living paycheck to paycheck year round. Whatever the root cause, worrying about how to pay for the holidays isn’t unusual.
I’ve been thinking this weekend about how much that sucks.
As a society, we give a lot of lip service to "the reason for the season" and the happiness that money can’t buy. We turn up our nose at the people who camp out for Black Friday sales, self righteously reminding one another that "things are not love" and "we don’t need more stuff," but most of us who celebrate Christmas (spiritually or secularly) still make room in our home and our budgets for piles of presents.
I spend the bulk of my year working to live simply and without an excess of things so that we may enjoy experiences and time together instead. I encouraged my husband to take a job that came with less stress and fewer hours in exchange for lower pay. Living the philosophy of time over money and relationships over things is very important to me. And yet, I still found myself crunching numbers and putting dollar signs next to the names of my loved ones this weekend.
This is not what I want my holiday season to be about. More than that, this is not what I want the act of giving to be about. I want to give to my family and friends with a spirit of generosity, not with an eye on the bottom line. I want to give from my heart without putting my family in debt and without turning these acts of love into obligations. I think that’s what we all want, but it’s also easier said than done.
I’ve read the articles about giving time and homemade presents. I’ve read about donating to charity in the name of a loved one. And when I do, I imagine my six-year-old nephew trying to understand that a donation has been made in his name to the humane society, or my three-year-old niece getting excited about a knitted scarf or homemade bath salts. I’m not going to be the aunt who says "Well, we know you have enough toys - enjoy this coupon for 30 minutes of reading with me!" To even suggest such a thing seems overly naive and unrealistic.
At the same time, aren’t we supposed to be teaching kids something about the season each year? Are we giving them mixed messages by drowning them in gift boxes and telling them that stuff isn’t important?
As I write this, I remember how thrilled my daughter was not only to receive but to use her pajama day coupons last year. She loves to hang out in her jammies, so the permission to do so whenever she wanted was a perfect (and free) gift for her. My son was just as pleased with his "have your parents do the dishes" coupons. In fact, within my home it hasn’t been too difficult to keep Christmas simple. We’ve spent the bulk of our holiday budget on traveling to visit family for the last several years, and the kids have happily accepted fewer and less expensive gifts.
It seems like that’s a lot easier to do with your own kids, which suggests that I’m worried about how my nieces and nephews will judge their gifts. That’s kind of crazy and probably more likely a sign that I’m worried about what the surrounding adults will think. And is that what Christmas is about? Impressing one another with what kind of gifts we get for each other’s children?
Obviously not. Of course not. When I stop and think about what and who is important to me, I realize that a lot of my holiday fears come from habit and perceived obligation more than actual expectation. There are, I’m sure, lots of ways to show all of my loved ones how much I care without stepping one foot -virtually or literally- into a toy store; I just have to put myself into the right frame of mind.
I’m choosing to look at my list of loved ones with gratitude instead of with a calculator. I’m going to dig deep and think of the best ways to show them that I care. I’m going to give of myself and from the heart instead of relying on my wallet to do the heavy lifting. I am resolving to be generous instead of stress. This year, I am holding onto the reason for the season with an iron fist.