December 3, 2020

Can we make this Christmas about Presence—rather than Presents?

Can we all make a pact to do a lot less buying and unwrapping this season?

The advertised “most wonderful time of the year” is actually a source of financial and emotional trauma for many people. The finished product of a perfect Christmas is a toxic standard that is unattainable for so many families. Not to mention, the year 2020 has been anything but a gift.

With insurmountable job loss, a climbing COVID-19 death toll of 270,000 in the United States, tensions from persistent racial injustice—can we just not? Even during a “normal” year, parents all over the map go to extremes at their own deficit so that their children don’t feel like Santa has a preference for neighborhoods other than their own.

I’ll never forget the inexplicable extravagance of Christmases I experienced growing up with a single mom. Christmas was a year-round commitment for her. Before there was Siri, there was my mom jotting down a gift idea on her stationary when we mentioned something we might want during an idle conversation in June. “I want to buy it while it’s on sale,” she would tell us.

Each Christmas Eve, we would refrain from peeking our heads over the railing to see what Santa conjured up in the wee hours of the night. Promptly at 6:00 a.m., I would finally turn off my 15th rerun of A Christmas Story and kick down my brother’s door: It’s time.

We would emerge from our rooms to find a sparkling six foot Christmas tree meticulously decorated by Papa Elf himself and surrounded by two towers of seamlessly wrapped presents. We were allured down the stairs by the aroma of cinnamon rolls and bacon with a perfected crisp while we salivated over the prospect of the contents in each gift.

A candle sat in every window, tiny wooden Christmas trees rested on the shelves in our family room, and hunter green garlands with jingle bells lined the staircase. The Christmas soundtrack “The Gift” resounded from our CD player underneath the TV, and our dog Jack skipped over to sniff his tiny brown stocking hanging from our glass kitchen door. It was truly magical.

The house was saturated in spirit. Christmas was present in every corner, but our father was absent. Since the age of nine, I witnessed anger, job loss, and chaos that we often left our house to escape from. When I was a freshman in high school, he escaped us—although it felt like I had lost him years ago.

Most of my memories of those years are vacant. But my mom made sure with everything in her power that we would salvage some happiness in our childhood to look back on. Her vehicle for this was our Christmas experience. It was what she knew. In her own tumultuous childhood, it was the one holiday that her family chaos was put on hiatus.

At the time, it always seemed like we were just doing something normal that other families were doing on Christmas. But in financial disarray, what my mom pulled off was remarkable. It gave her immense joy to see us relieving ourselves from the progression of rapid maturity that our family troubles expedited—to see us just be kids. But, in retrospect, I can only imagine the stress that materializing the quintessential Christmas as a solo artist must have added to my mom’s already overflowing plate.

My mom doesn’t regret or resent the time, planning, and money spent to create those cherished Christmas days, but that doesn’t mean it was for everyone. No single mom should bear the weight of creating moments of respite and happiness for her children in a situation that was created by two people. No family under financial duress should feel the need to compromise their mental health and resources for the sake of Hallmark’s holiday benchmarks.

Consumerism, society, and social media have cultivated Christmas into a monster. The unrealistic images of families with abundance are dangerous, especially in a time of scarcity in the midst of a pandemic. Social media wasn’t even around when my mom hauled gifts, and packages, and wrapping paper, and decorations around on her independent back. I can’t begin to imagine being a parent in today’s world with all the comparison pervading our lives.

So, let’s put our hands in, six feet apart, and collectively agree that this Christmas will look different. Not just because many of us won’t be gathering, but because it’s high time we dial back our standards for gift giving and excess. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that being present in each other’s lives virtually and otherwise is the greatest gift of all.

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