Losing and finding meaning in Christmas
Ask anyone over the age of 40 these days, and they will tell you that Christmas isn’t what it used to be. Most of us have special memories, not of extravagant gifts or trips, but of simple things like a box of Christmas oranges being passed around at a community supper or the delight in being given a box of Pot of Gold chocolates.
The reason these things were thrilling is that you could only get mandarin oranges in December, and kids weren’t given treats in their every day transactions.
It’s difficult to make something special when our routine is full of daily rewards for doing regular things. You did your homework? How about a candy? Getting groceries with mom? You must need a sucker!
As parents and grandparents, we’re under enormous pressure to top the Christmases of old. But how can we recreate a magical feeling that we can’t quite define? And how can we reclaim the holiday for ourselves, and make it meaningful, when it seems to have become a runaway train of commercialism and debt?
It’s not only the expense of trying to capture the perfect Christmas memory that’s the problem. In fact, if money could do it I might give it a whirl. But you won’t find contentment at the bottom of your wallet, and what joy your gifts bring to others will slowly fade and by mid-January we’ll be back to the old grind with nothing but a mountain of bills to show for it. Will our kids remember these as “the good old days?” Probably, because they don’t know any better. And perhaps every generation has looked upon the next with a certain degree of gloom. But I ask you to sit in a quiet hall and listen to children sing Silent Night and not be moved to make Christmas more meaningful than just the bonanza of gifts and waste that it has become.
It’s not gifts we seek at Christmas, most people would agree. In The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff hits the nail on the head, saying: “The Christmas presents, once opened, are Not So Much Fun as they were while we were in the process of examining, lifting, shaking, thinking about them, and opening them. 365 days later, we try again and find that the same thing has happened. Each time the goal is reached, it becomes Not So Much Fun, and we’re off to reach the next one, then the next one, then the next.”
Okay, if what’s in the box doesn’t matter, why do we do this? Why do we believe magic can be purchased, wrapped and given? Were our childhood Christmases so happy because our gifts were better in those days? Or was it because we didn’t get new things year-round or put up the tree in November?
Many of us preach that giving is much better than getting, but we should question why we feel the need to go over the top year after year in search of some emotional connection that is fleeting at best.
If we know we can’t really outdo ourselves year after year, why do we continue to try? Isn’t it a tad defeating? And is that contributing to the sense that Christmas just isn’t what it used to be?
In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding writes: “It is just so stupid, everyone exhausting themselves, miserably haemorrhaging money on pointless items nobody wants: no longer tokens of love but angst-ridden solutions to problems…What is the point of an entire nation rushing around for six weeks in a bad mood preparing for an utterly pointless Taste-of-Others exam which the entire nation then fails?”
It’s not all so negative as that. When we overspend on gifts we are trying to tell each other, hey, I love you. I heard you say you like purple so I got you a purple scarf. Or, hey, I want to show you how special you are by spending much more than the agreed upon limit, for what says love like the burden of debt?
A recent report in The Atlantic (December 2017) states that $70 Billion worth of gifts are returned every Christmas in the US, and that 30% of gifts go to waste. Are we putting ourselves further into debt in an attempt to show love, while those very tokens of love are unwanted? Why is this happening?
It’s happening because we all want to regain that feeling of childhood wonder. We’re just going about it the wrong way. Christmas will be magical again when we can honestly say we spent more time than we did money, that we made it a special season for strangers not just ourselves, and that we sought to reconcile with those with whom we’ve fallen out.