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I grew up with Thanksgiving feasts, caroling, a church filled with greenery for Advent, and a living room fantasia of big stockings on the mantel and a monster Christmas tree. Said tree couldn’t cast a shadow to cover all the loot. I suspect I’m not alone in this. It seemed pretty normal in the 1960s. Many of us were used to big holiday celebrations then. Now some of us see holidays celebrated differently, and others more commercial.
How commercial was it really?
Those stockings that were hung by the chimney with care contained only oranges, apples, nuts and one candy cane. No small gifts or candy other than that cane.
Santa only brought one thing that we asked for. Other things showed up with our one desire, though. Some of my friends got clothing and hand-knit slippers or mittens. We got extra fun things, but not big: maybe record albums or stuffed toys or Tonka trucks for the boys.
Then there were the off-the-wall gifts from relatives we seldom saw. One Christmas my mother got a red taffeta robe with mink cuffs. Seriously! Her aunt sent it to her. Somewhat more successful was the guitar I got from my grandfather when I was ten. He brought me a beautiful Gibson 6-string that I played for many years.
Our holiday food was plentiful, sure, but it was also well-prepared at home and nutritious. My mother loved doing holiday feasts, and the Christmas cookies too. She even made Springerle, which my father jokingly called “hardtack” because it shared textural and preservation characteristics with the venerable soldier’s biscuit from WWI. We used to occupy several Saturdays doing Christmas baking each year.
We didn’t have a lot of ritual in our holidays. What we had instead was a series of activities that built on one another. That may be my family, being so freeform about things. But we did participate in the church rituals, by going and by my father and I being in the choirs there. I loved the music of our church, especially at Christmas. The acoustics were made for the soaring harmonies of “O Holy Night” and “Joy To The World.” That big pipe organ didn’t hurt either.
Our “rituals” included going to the stand to pick out the tree, bringing it home, setting it up and tying it off so the cat couldn’t topple it, and decorating it. My mother would get out her ceramic decorations and the stockings and the mantle got transformed. My father would put some lights out on the porch too, but not many as it was cold out and his arthritis hurt.
The penultimate ritual was my parents’ shopping date, sometimes as late as Christmas Eve. They went out to dinner and shopped for us. Then they’d come home and my poor dad would be up to assemble all the easy-to-assemble products and insert batteries where they weren’t included. That was it for ritual. After that, good-natured mayhem ensued.
How time changes things
By the time I was sixteen our Christmases had gotten further diluted by Chanukah, which the steppeople didn’t actually celebrate but still clung to. We had no church affiliation because my mother, who cherished it, had passed. So Christmas became a minefield of gift-giving, plain and simple. I longed for the old days, when I spent my saved allowance on my family with abandon. Now I had others to buy for too, and it was a tough job to get “the perfect gift” for everyone.
Still, the urge to splurge stayed with me. When I was in the Army I earned more than I could spend so I bought my brothers extravagant gifts and sent them home, just because I could. It felt right, and I really had nobody else to spoil at the time.
About 40 years ago, through mutual agreements, I pretty much went offline for holidays. It was only my husband and me, no kids, we were far from everyone, and we didn’t particularly want to go nuts any more. We picked out a few people we needed to send gifts to–his mother, my father– and quit worrying beyond that. If anyone came to the house during the holidays I could do a feast; otherwise, it would be a toned down affair because there were only the two of us.
My youngest brother had passed, and my remaining brother felt as I did, that Christmas needed simplifying. We had a no-gift pact, just cards or e-greetings. I snuck in a fruitcake once since he’s the only living being I know who will eat such a thing. He actually likes them!
What the Holidays look like now.
We didn’t go Thanksgiving Day to our nephew’s house for the family feast, because of the weather and fears that our electricity would fail and the house would freeze. Sometimes that’s the determining factor. We missed a great potluck affair with a big turkey and a ham. Instead we ate a miniature feast of chicken, squash, succotash and apple crisp.
Our shopping lists are short. We do buy “for the house” gifts instead of nonsensical things for one another. The bathroom carpet needs replacing and so does much of our bakeware, so that will be our Christmas. We do bags of small gifts for each family household in my husband’s family, at least those we can visit on or about Christmas. And I send my aunt flowers. That’s about it.
In the land of Christmas tree production we will not have a tree, not even a fake one. There isn’t really room, and we won’t put things under it anyway, so we don’t bother. If I get cornered by a kids’ charity I may buy a wreath for the door and call it good. No lights–nobody much would see them anyway out here–as electricity is very expensive here.
Time to reflect, not consume so much.
So for years my household has had minimal holidays in terms of spending money and fussing about guests and eating big meals. We made a lot of our own gifts and used our imaginations more. (And we don’t give gifts on greeting card holidays such as Valentine’s Day either.) That means little or no debt into the New Year and that’s a lot easier on the nerves.
Just because I’m no longer churched doesn’t mean I have no reason for the season. Gratitude is a practice that helps me stay mentally healthy but it’s nice to have the Thanksgiving holiday to share that with others. And though I don’t practice religion any more, I treasure the heritage and try to focus on the positives it has given us. The notion of peace on earth, for example, is a worthy goal.
Wishing you happy holidays, whatever, however, and whenever you celebrate, and worthy goals in the New Year.