December 17, 2011
Another holiday season, another reason for buying presents. Or not. Another reason, maybe, to think about the kinds of gifts we’re already blessed with, and those we have to give, without buying much at all. There’s nothing new about this anti-materialistic perspective, but when I look around me, I realise it’s a timeless message, and one that bears thinking about once again this year.
Christmas is a stressful season for most of the people I know who grew up in a Christian tradition, certainly including myself. My friends and relations who come from Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and other traditions seem to have an easier and happier feeling about this holiday season. Many of them can say—without irony or wishful thinking—that they actually ‘like’ Christmas. I find it far too loaded with memories of Christmases past—times of sadness, loss, longing, and disappointment, as well as happiness, joy, excitement, and pleasure—as well as with perceived expectations and need for preparations, so that no one will be sad or disappointed this year—to feel anything as clean and simple as ‘liking’ for it.
One of the big seasonal stressors concerns gifts. Adults worry about finding the right gift for each of the people on their list. They worry about the price of everything, and how they’re going to pay for it all. In the hustle and bustle and stress of the season, they sometimes don’t see that their children can be worried, too.
There are children whose only worries concern whether or not they’ll be getting what they want for Christmas—the right doll, toy, bicycle, building set, or something else— but a lot of children have the same worries as their parents: will they be able to find just the right thing for each of the people on their list? And if they find something right, will they be able to afford it? And if they buy only what they can reasonably afford, will they look cheap? Will others think they don’t care? And I’ve also known a surprising number of children who worry deeply about people who don’t have so much.
By thinking creatively about what we give our children, we help free them from some of these worries. By providing a model of thoughtful expression of the spirit of Christmas –love, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit—we can help them relax a bit, and maybe even enjoy the season. What are some of the possibilities?
Gifts of presence. One of the best gifts we can give our children at this time of year is the reassurance that they are the biggest gift of all. That their presence in our lives is the biggest and best present they could ever give us.
Gifts of our fully present time. We can give them discussion time, to talk about and find out what they might like to do, and then do it with them. It might be time to take a walk together, do some cooking, go to an art gallery or zoo or museum or movie or bookstore together. Time to take a trip together, whether it’s to see the Christmas displays in the downtown store windows, or to somewhere else you’ve both been wanting to go. And then to be fully present to them during that time – we snatch the gift out of their hands if we’re irritable or impatient, or spend some of our together-time on a phone or iDevice.
Gifts of developing gifts. My professional life has focused on developing giftedness in children – finding children’s passions, interests, and abilities, and then looking for ways their parents and teachers can support them in developing those gifts. One of the best gifts to give children at this time of year is to acknowledge what it is that makes them special and unique, even if it is only a dream. It’s even better if we can also give them something to help make their hopes and dreams become real — a computer for the wannabe writer, ballet lessons for the child who loves to dance, paints and brushes for the child who is interested in art, a chemistry set for the aspiring scientist. And when money is tight, to look for ways to provide access to these opportunities in ways that don’t break the bank or overtax the budget.
Gifts of sharing. In our family, we’ve stopped buying presents for each other, except for the smallest children. We still get together to share the season, enjoy some great food together, and be present to each other in ways that reflect the reason for the season –love, generosity of spirit, acceptance, forgiveness. Several of us also choose this time of year to give something—time, money, or something else— to a cause that helps others who aren’t doing so well. Children can derive huge pleasure in thinking about others at this time of year, and finding ways to make the world a brighter place for people who are struggling.
Gifts of doing. I remember one Christmas, one of my daughters gave me a package of tickets she had carefully printed out in her eight-year-old hand. The parcel included tickets for folding the laundry, being nice to her sister, going to bed when asked, clearing out the dishwasher, and a number of other gifts of doing, things she knew would ease my daily life. What a delightful and thoughtful gift that was, and one that kept on giving for many months.
Gifts of making. I’ve always treasured gifts that people have made for me—baking, sewing, woodworking, knitting—and I try to give handmade gifts myself, as much as time and my creative imagination allow.
It may be inevitable that Christmas is bittersweet for those of us who come from a Christian tradition– that the joy, the laughter, the food, the music, the expectations, the happy holiday gatherings—will always be shadowed by thoughts of absent friends and family, awareness of people who are having a hard time of life, and memories of sad and disappointing Christmases past. One burden we can let go of, though, and relieve our children of, is the need to spend a lot of money on gifts at this time of year.