Christmas is almost upon us; a holiday that I am not very good at, and have, at best, mixed feelings about. So: time to dig into those feelings?
It’s a religious holiday in origin; and certainly I would never say that Christians shouldn’t find Christmas to be deeply meaningful. In some circumstances, I would expect its religious nature to be an active negative for me personally, though: I find Christians’ domination of public discourse to be abhorrent in political contexts, so the fact that the year’s largest holiday is a Christian one isn’t a plus for me. The thing is, though, the holiday has become so secular that its religious heritage almost never impinges on me enough to matter! So, if I had another religious tradition, Christmas’s Christian nature would probably annoy me, but as is, I’m surprisingly blase about that aspect of it.
Christmas is a holiday that serves as an excuse to get together with family and to have a nice meal; both of those are certainly good things. It’s a bit unfortunate in that regard that it’s so close to Thanksgiving, and I like it that Thanksgiving is open to friends in a way that Christmas isn’t, but still: yay Christmas in this regard, even if it isn’t as nice as Thanksgiving.
Christmas and New Year’s provide a time when people generally have several days off from work and often can take off an entire week without disruption. That’s certainly a plus: we get too few vacations in the US, and it’s good for some vacations to be naturally synchronized. Again, it’s a bit of a pity that Christmas and Thanksgiving are so close in that regard, but there’s not much I can do about that.
Christmas is, I think, the most musical holiday of the year. Which would be awesome, except that most Christmas music is awful. Ah well.
I kind of think that I don’t like Christmas trees, except that there turns out to be something quite powerful about putting up decorations that have been in the family for decades. And it never takes nearly as long as I think, and some of our ornaments are adorable. So that turns into a good thing, too.
But really: Christmas is mostly about the presents. We get a couple of months solid of being told that we should be shopping for Christmas; that would annoy me except that I’m pretty good at tuning out shopping-related messages in general. So it mostly annoys me when I find stores unexpectedly busy or shipping unexpectedly delayed or something because other people are paying attention to Christmas. (Not that I regularly go to stores, other than grocery shopping! But once every few years Christmas traffic ends up directly affecting me.)
That’s just the general consumerism, but my problem is more specific: I’m really not very good at the whole ‘present’ thing. I don’t in general like giving or receiving presents, so a holiday around that puts me on edge.
That’s actually not entirely true: there’s one aspect of present giving that I’m happy to participate in and see other people participate in, namely uncles (or aunts or grandparents: relatives other than your parents) giving kids presents that expose them to bits of culture that they might not get directly from their parents. Miranda’s Uncle Jack and Grandpa Bross are very good at this: she’s gotten lots of fun stuff from Think Geek, and she’s a big fan of the Get Smart DVD set that she got a few years ago. So I like seeing Miranda being on the receiving end of this, and it’s fun for us to pick out presents for Miranda’s cousins, too.
The kind of gifts that I’m particularly bad at are gifts between adults. I think the idea of noticing something that you think a loved one would particularly like and getting it for them is charming; in practice, though, it’s not something that I almost ever do. (Though I actually had a fun time getting jewelry for Liesl and Miranda at Bien Mur during PSL.) It’s a good thing that Liesl is so accepting of this foible of mine: I wouldn’t blame her at all at being annoyed at me.
The kind of Christmas gifts I feel strangest about, though, are actually gifts from parents to children. Sometimes, those can function in a similar way to “crazy uncle” gifts, and that’s great. But, a lot of the time, they aren’t: Christmas and birthday gifts seem to me to come from a combination of parents’ default response to kids wanting stuff to be “no” and a recognition that always saying no isn’t the right thing to do; so you provide an explicit safety valve twice a year.
And having a safety valve is good, no question; and it’s also not like parents are going to always say yes, to give kids a credit card that they can use on whatever they want.
Still, it doesn’t feel right to me. Partly, it’s an imposed power dynamic: reinforcing the fact that children are financially dependent on their parents, turning the kids into supplicants and making them be grateful for whatever they receive. And partly it’s a reinforcement of parents as culture determiners: they get to decide what aspects of culture are worthwhile enough to spend money on.
And partly it’s artificial infantilization of kids, removing a learning opportunity. Yes, you can’t buy whatever you want, that’s a real constraint. But, especially as kids get older, shouldn’t you use that constraint as a learning opportunity? Let kids make choices about spending money, and involve larger amounts of money in that as the kids gain experience. And, if you don’t do that in ways that make the parents nervous, you’re doing it wrong: kids should sometimes buy things that their parents wouldn’t approve of; and kids should sometimes make mistakes, mistakes that they themselves would regret later. Much better to do that in a relatively safe environment than to shut kids off within a financial bubble until all of a sudden they need to be really independent and mistakes start actually mattering.
I’m not sure exactly what I would like Christmas to be. Further away from Thanksgiving, sure, and less overwhelming. But mostly I’d like the gift giving to be toned down. By all means we should keep gifts that are about somebody saying to somebody else “I thought of you when I saw this”; but I’m quite dubious about all other classes of gifts. And I wish I had better ideas for how to navigate the tensions around financial dependence for children that Christmas provides a release valve for.
This post has not been revised since publication.