With all the talk about the commercialization of the Christmas holidays and the laments about being inundated with tinsel and lights from Thanksgiving on, I began to reflect on my own experience over the years, and wondered whether the magic and meaning of Christmas no longer spoke to me. Was the stress of coming up with the perfect gift worth the time and effort, or could I persuade my beloved family members to put a moratorium on this obligation and let me enjoy bringing gifts to them from my travels, whenever the spirit moved me? And give them freely at whatever time of year? Of course, the moratorium did not apply to the great grandchildren. After all, I’m not Ebenezer Scrooge!
I remember spending most of the last ten years in Nepal during this time of year, and there were some charming children’s Christmas pageants in Boudhanath, near Kathmandu, and a few decorated trees at the guest houses, but it was subtle and not overwhelming. One year, at the Shechen Guest House next to the temple, where we were staying, a guest put up a line across the main lawn and hung stockings for all the children of the employees. It caused a great deal of excitement as well as some hearty laughs when one of the monks mistook it for a clothesline and started hanging up his wet socks.
Christmas took its place along with other religious celebrations and there was a warm feeling of fellowship that filled me with nostalgia. Now, after two years of relative isolation, and a move to a co-housing community here in Langley, I can see that Christmas has no obligations. If you feel like wrapping up a piece of cake or a silly hat, and giving it to your neighbor, you do it. If not, you enjoy the voluntary brand of each individual’s generosity. It is charming and it is spontaneous. I’ve finally been able to weed out and laugh at the commercialism without becoming a part of it, and to retrieve the old-fashioned spirit that brought me joy for so many years. I wish this for all of you.
There are not many photos on this posting, but how many pictures of rain can you take? Instead, I want to share with you a chapter from my new book, I Love You To Death, But…. yet to be published. It seems especially relevant to our society at this time.
GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT
I’m ashamed to say that I always gave my children too much for Christmas. My rationalization: as a child I got almost nothing. Well, one, maybe two presents at most. Christmas was a religious celebration at our home. It was wonderful, heartwarming, and somewhat dull…except for all the wonderful cakes, cookies, and fruit baskets the parishioners showered on my father, a Methodist minister. And the traditional midnight candle service. I finally got to stay up past nine!
One year our big present was the LP (that’s old-speak for long playing record) version of Peter and the Wolf. My mother was sure the surprise would be revealed, since my father whistled Peter’s theme interminably. Not a problem. We were none the wiser and it was, indeed, a splendid gift. But we were three girls, and one record and a wood burning set just didn’t do it, especially when we compared our gifts to those of our friends. Oh, yes, Aunt Bea relieved the monotony by sending a pair of frilly panties to each of us, but that, too, became all too predictable. Still, I never complained. And we did have fun planning an afternoon Christmas concert for the family. I played the violin while my two sisters took turns accompanying me on the piano. And then we wowed everyone by sitting together on the bench and playing a three-part piano arrangement of the E Flat Minuet from Mozart’s Symphony #39. The scene was right out of a middle-European salon a la Haydn. At the end we all sang, “Oh, Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,” while Grandpa slept and Grandma sang lustily in her calliope voice.
I wanted my children to have a little more excitement, but I overdid it. Every single thing they’d needed all year long arrived under the tree. Clothes, toys, educational games, school supplies, you-name-it-I-bought-it. I spent hours in the old wine cellar in the basement every evening for weeks, wrapping and labeling and looking for places to hide the gifts. I tried to make things equal. If one child seemed to have more, I raced out and bought something else to even things out. It was ridiculous and it was exhausting.
But that was just the beginning! Imagine the difficulty of transporting this raft of presents from the basement to the center hall, where the tree stood in all its glory…and doing this quietly so eager children, supposedly sleeping, would not discover the largesse until morning. Once again, the eldest child, who never really bought into the Santa Claus story, took it upon herself to arise very early and stand guard at the upstairs landing to keep the younger ones at bay until the parents, bug-eyed with fatigue, came lumbering down in search of coffee. Then the fun began, if you can call chaos fun. In less than an hour the work of months lay at my feet.
All this changed in 1970 when I read that all you ever need to give to a child for Christmas is the one thing he or she has been asking for, silly as you might think it is. A Barbie doll? No way. I hated everything Barbie stood for! But if that’s what Martha wanted, and probably all she wanted, give it to her.
So the next year I followed this rule. I pulled back on the frantic purchasing and listened to each child. Martha got her Barbie doll and a crinoline petticoat for good measure. Cary, who was passionate about being a doctor, wanted a dead cat, pickled of course. This we bought from a medical lab and it arrived in a thick plastic wrapper. When the word got out in the neighborhood the rumors started flying. The Petersons are crazy. They killed a cat and their daughter is dissecting it in the laundry room. How disgusting can that be? I only recently was told about this. My children kept me in the dark about lots of things.
I was not as sensitive or responsive to my eldest son, Christopher, who wanted clothes from Root’s, the men’s high-end clothing store in town. I hated the pressure the salesmen put on parents to keep up with the most affluent families by buying expensive designer jackets and shirts. But I also resented Chris insisting that it had to be Roots, and everything else was tantamount to Two Guys from Harrison, the ancient New Jersey equivalent of Walmart.
My girls now tell me how wrong I was. I never hesitated to buy good clothes for them. They insisted that I had a “disconnect” in that area. Don’t you love that word? Makes you feel a bit loony, which may be what they meant. But I guess they’re right. In my experience, boys destroyed every piece of clothing in short order, but girls hung their clothes up and took better care of them.
It was also important for girls to know how to dress. Where did that come from? And didn’t the boys need to know how to dress, too? Was that a euphemism for being fashionable…not something you encouraged in boys back then? Wow, I must have been sexist and didn’t even realize it! I probably gave Chris a chess set and a Steinbeck novel, something I thought would improve his mind rather than something he wanted. What happened to the rule about giving each child what he or she really wanted?
Robert and Tom, the two youngest, were easy. Tom loved checkers and all kinds of mind-bending strategy games like Risk, and all year long Robert had been campaigning for Mighty Matilda, the aircraft carrier that shoots real plastic missiles, and keeps Mother busy picking them out from under the radiators and furniture. Since I never gave them anything they begged for if they saw it on a television commercial, they had to be very clever. Robert managed.
“Did you know, Mom, that boys who understand military stuff like aircraft carriers and planes are more patriotic and brave? And toys like Mighty Matilda help with coordination, just in case we have another war.” Boy, he sure knew how to play me!
When I was returning from the store with Mighty Matilda, I heard a radio interview with Mothers Against Military Toys. Did I want to turn my son into a Marine drill sergeant? Did I want to encourage the natural aggressiveness of males (as if I could do anything about it)?
Now what was I to do? The toy was purchased, wrapped, and in the back seat of the car. First of all, I turned off the radio and started rationalizing big time. I would make sure Robert knew that this present was not for war, but to protect the lobster fields of our country’s beloved Maine coastline. That sounded a bit far-fetched, so I switched to protecting the Jersey Shore, where he had noticed on our last trip to the beach that there were huge cement bunkers from World War II, his father’s war, as he called it, placed at intervals along the edge of the sea. Quick thinking can get you out of a lot of unpleasant dilemmas.
It turned out to be a banner Christmas, mostly because at the last minute friends donated a used ping-pong table, which Glen and I installed in the dining room late on Christmas Eve. Martha danced around in her crinoline with Barbie, Robert could not have cared less whom he was shooting so long as the torpedoes were in ample supply, Cary and Tom locked horns in a checkers game to the death, and Chris held forth at ping-pong. He was the best player, so forgot about his wardrobe and spent the day beating everybody who challenged him.
As Chris grew older, Risk tournaments became a Christmas tradition. He would invite several high school buddies to play late into the night. His father joined them for part of the evening and they lay on their stomachs in front of the Christmas tree, shouting and protesting each move until I was sure a neighbor would hear the fracas and call the cops.
Recently, one of the friends, Alan, now into his late 50’s, related to me an episode on one particular Christmas Day Eve when Risk had morphed into poker and it wasn’t until the wee hours that the game ground to a halt. Chris cleaned up. Alan admitted that he’d always been a dreadful player and he and his friend, Henry, had lost money that they didn’t have. At that point Chris said to them, “You can both make good if you run naked to the end of the street and back, holding hands…right now.” This on a cold winter’s night at 3 A.M.? And they did! I wonder how much beer it took to pull that one off! And I wonder just how many more tall tales are floating around among Peterson friends. I don’t really want to know and I couldn’t vouch for any of them. I was asleep.
Unfortunately, a subsequent Christmas did not turn out so well. I was in my “simplification” phase, largely because I was sick of stumbling around in all my accumulated “stuff” and, on a deeper level, buying into the post WWII consumer frenzy that says, “If you want to be a good American you’ll have to buy three shoes…just to keep people working.” Now that must seem eons ago to most of you, but it just kept getting worse and worse as the years passed and is no better now as a way of thinking than it was in 1960, ‘70, or ‘80. I don’t know the answer. I only know how I felt as I looked through my full basement and attic with its assembled junk, now adding, in the new millennium, the specter of ever-multiplying technological gadgets. I saw no end to this growing materialism then, and I see no end to it now. My fears have been corroborated by a proliferation of garage and backyard sales over the past forty years. People pounce on every item like vultures on their last meal. “My crap is your treasure.” Nobody put it better than George Carlin in his famous riff about “stuff.”
But I digress. I admit that at this particular time I was influenced by my older sister, who had just returned from South Africa with five children in tow. Her husband had been a medical missionary in Durban, and she told me the fun they had all had making gifts for one another. And how much it had meant to each of them. This, I might add, went over in my family about as well as my parents’ decision when I was a child to substitute vegetable soup for turkey one Thanksgiving and give the savings to charity.
Nevertheless, the decision was made to simplify Christmas, to get back to the core meaning of the holiday, and to stress love and the holy birth over Rudolph and Santa Claus.
Martha was overjoyed! She loved to sew, and made giant decorative pillows for everyone. I loved to knit and made as many argyle socks as time would allow. Martha worked right alongside me and we spent many late nights rushing to complete our handiwork. I couldn’t finish all the sweaters, so gave Robert ten hanks of wool, needles, and a pattern, all beautifully wrapped and promised by Easter. Cary carved a splendid Chinese checkers set for Tom and it seems to me that there were a few homemade paintings and typed stories in the rest of the mix. By Christmas morning we were all exhausted.
After the gifts had been opened, I noticed Robert sitting dejectedly in an armchair, and asked, sunnily, “Whatever is the matter, Rob?”
“Mom, I’m just not good at all this arts and crafts stuff. All I wanted was one tire for my racing bike. You know, the kind you fold up and keep for emergencies.”
I began to realize how silly and impractical I had been. There must be a happy medium between the overindulgence of the old Christmases and the Spartan experience we had just had. I leaned over and whispered to Rob. “You’ll get that tire. Don’t breathe a word.”
To tell the truth, this “simple” Christmas was a lot more difficult for me than wrapping all those presents in years past.