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Finding the Christmas Spirit




This Christmas will be the first of many things for us. It will be our first Christmas in the new house. Our first Christmas celebrated as Iowans. It will be the first Christmas without my mom and dad, who both passed away last summer. My oldest son will be flying out from Oregon to spend the holiday with us, but we won’t have any extended family at our table this year. That will also be a first.

I’m not afraid of firsts. We’ve had many of them in our family. And I’m genuinely looking forward to Christmas this year. But that hasn’t always been the case for me.

I’ll admit it. I’ve approached Christmas most of my life with a kind of ambivalence that falls somewhere on a spectrum between utter bitterness and cold, numb indifference. My wife loves Christmas. I’ll let you figure out how well my lackluster enthusiasm works in our house.

Why am I such a Grinch you ask?

Christmas is weird for me. I’ve struggled with it. I’ve struggled to find the meaning in it. I mean, I know what Christmas is supposed to be about. In it’s truest sense, its the time we celebrate the birth of Christ and the redemption of mankind. In a more holistic sense, it’s a time for families and loved ones to come together. But making that connection between ideology and reality has been tough for me. And frankly it’s been disappointing.

We don’t live in a Hallmark movie. We live in a world where the cartoon network quickly turns into the news on a regular basis. Think about all the terrible things we’ve read about or watched on TV this year. I heard a story just today about a mother who beat her children with the buckle of a belt after finding out they opened a few Christmas presents early. She actually bit one of them several times. This isn’t discipline, its rage. It’s insanity. These were her children. Seriously? But how often are we exposed to this kind of thing on a regular basis?

And what about the “war on Christmas” we hear about every year? People miffed because Starbucks went to a solid red cup. Do I say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays? Does it matter? And do I need to talk about Black Friday? Mobs of people leaving their families on Thanksgiving to go push their way in line to buy…what? Cheap television sets?

( Please note: If you’re one of the many who looks forward to Black Friday, don’t get me wrong. I don’t get it, but I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad.I’m just looking for something…more.)

The past few years, Katie and I have worked hard at trying to bring simplicity into our Christmas celebration. I think what pushed me over the edge was the year we had so many presents under the tree that they took up half our living room. Granted, we have six children, and these presents were a combination of what we bought and gifts from extended family. But…but…I struggle with excess. I struggle with excess on Christmas. I struggle with the glazed over look I’ve seen in my children’s eyes as they move from one present to the next without ever really appreciating what it is they just opened. Or knowing who it was from. And then to find the toy broken and disgarded merely weeks after they were taken out of their package.

What are we doing to our kids?

I come from a generation whose parents worked hard to give their kids the things they never had. My mom and dad went into debt every Christmas to make sure my sister and I had plenty of gifts. And I’m grateful for their sacrifice, although I certainly don’t advocate going into debt to buy Christmas presents. But it was all they knew how to do. My parents had nothing when they were growing up, and like many of their generation they simply wanted to spare their own children from ever wanting anything. (Sidenote: I have actually come to beleive that going without can be a good thing, but I’ll save that conversation for another time). Somewhere along the way, we’ve taken their good intentions and turned them into something completely different. Something worse. Christmas has become a commercialized march toward excessive consumerism.

It’s a reflection of our society really. We’re a Throw Away, Buy It Cheap, Accumulate As Much As We Can generation. It’s ingrained in our minds from the time we are very little through well placed and high-priced marketing campaigns. Want more, consume more, waste more, repeat.

Maybe there is a war on Christmas. But I would take it even one step further. There is a war on the contentment of our hearts and minds. Think about that for a moment. Are we really content? Really?

I realize that I’m not speaking for everyone here. There are some who have shunned the fanatical commercialism of the holiday and have tapped into the heart of what it’s really supposed to be about. I’m still trying to figure it out.

So how do we protect our children from both the raging lunacy of the world outside our doors and the subtle erosion of values happening on the inside?

Here’s what we are doing. They’re little things, but big steps for us.

  1. Katie and I have decided to buy our family presents without excess. What does that mean? Instead of being wrapped up in matching dollar for dollar in the exercise of gift giving, we are focusing on quality and meaning over quantity. Turning our focus on the person we are buying for, thinking about what matters to them, why they matter to us and how we can truly bless them. This is so much different from just buying them a widget or a thing-a-majig that happens to be on sale. It’s also why I’m a litle adverse to giving gift cards. When we make Christmas about blessing the people in our lives, it’s the act of giving, the thought and energy put into it, that matters and not the sum of what’s actually exchanging hands.  Does that make sense? I care for you, and I want to show you how much you mean to me by sharing this gift with you that further expresses how much I appreciate you being in my life. This is what I’m after.
  2. We’re making some of our gifts. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and will do more of in the future.  When you spend your time making something with your own hands for another person, you’re investing something in that person, and I like the idea of that.
  3. We’re moving toward a toy rotation system. Cleaning out the old toys and putting some of them in bins to rotate out later. Some will be donated. Making room for the new stuff so our kids can enjoy their toys a few at a time. I read an article last week exploring the idea that excessive toy consumption can actually create PTSD-like symptoms in children. Too many choices, too much information, too many things demanding our kid’s attention. By rotating toys out every season or quarter, our kids will always have something “new” to play with and we can focus their attention on just a few toys they can enjoy. Hopefully this will instill in them a better sense of caring for their possesions too (and mom won’t constantly be picking up as much as she does now).
  4. We’re not traveling over the holiday. This was a hard rule we had set a few years ago after moving to Las Vegas and then to Arizona. We realized how stressful it was to travel with a caravan of kids (our first Christmas after leaving Oregon was one of the most peaceful and enjoying holidays we had in a long time), and how much this diminished the holidays for us. So we’ve chosen to stay planted, and have asked our extended family to come spend the holidays with us in our house. Is this fair? I don’t know. But for our kids its extremely important. (Side note: last year we rented a house on the Oregon coast over the holidays and invited our familes to join us; this was really our first attempt to do something different and bring the focus of the season back to the people that matter to us, and it worked!)
  5. I’m going to be intentional about decorating. This brings so much joy to Katie and the kids, and I’ll admit I’ve been a Scrooge about it in years past. Also, I’ve learned that if you just get out the decorations its hard not to get into the “Christmas spirit”.

The key to it all is simplicity. The more we can simplify in our lives the more time and energy we have to spend with each other. And this is a process for us, one that we’re only beginning to figure out.

This is going to be an evolution for me. I told you I struggle here. But I’m hopeful about this Christmas because I think we are making the kind of changes that will benefit our children, and our own mental health. I can’t change how quickly this world is slipping into maddening chaos. But I can quiet the chaos within our own walls. After all, the Christmas Spirit isn’t something you can find in the store. It’s found in the presence of those who matter most to us, and the sense of peace we can find in our own hearts and minds.

After all, as the Grinch soon found out:

It came without ribbons, it came without tags, 

It came without packages, boxes or bags.

And he puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store?

What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?

Merry Christmas everyone!

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