Let’s be real.
Christmas is awesome. It’s the Elvis of the year’s holidays. Even if you don’t like the most recent incarnation of it, you can always look back on what it used to be. Whether you like the nostalgic version or the Vegas version, Christmas is a blast.
I’m a powerfully nostalgic person, and I find joy as much in the idea of traditions as I do in taking part in them. This is what made the first Christmas my wife and I shared such a terrible one. I would have loved to have had a perfect romantic little story for our first year together, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Here’s how it went down:
My family doesn’t have a reputation for being celebratory. Birthdays, anniversaries, milestone events, and most holidays all would pass without much more than cake and coffee at my folks house. It worked for us. We’re a t-shirt and jeans, meat and potatoes kind of family. But Christmas was always special. We would haul boxes out of the attic and set up decorations. We would go to (or perform in, usually) the church productions. My parents would have the Open House every year where dozens of families would stream through the house all day long, and I would stand next to the table watching them as I ate mostly everything my folks would put out for guests.
My wife’s family had huge Christmas gatherings with gifts galore. They would sing carols at the piano. Everyone’s signature dishes would be placed on the counter in Grandma Bonnie’s kitchen. Grandma and Grandpa’s house always looked like a Southern Living Catalogue shoot.
Well in 2006, my wife and I got married and we spent our first Christmas together knee-deep in boring and weird. Christmas Eve, we had our big family gathering and gift exchange, which was great. We met the next morning back at my folks’ house for our traditional breakfast, which was lovely. We went out to a movie together, which was nice. But the movie ended at 4:30 in the afternoon. And suddenly Christmas night was anti-climactic.
How bad was it you ask? Well, we hadn’t cooked anything that day because we had been at my folks’ house. We didn’t have any food in the house since we had spent obscene amounts of money on gifts and decorations and couldn’t afford groceries. So we decided to order out. Do you know what’s open on Christmas night for dinner? Chinese.
On our way to Flung Poo Palace for the least Christmas-y dinner ever, we stopped by another establishment lacking in that old-time Christmas spirit: Wal-Mart. That’s right. I bet you can just imagine all the Season’s Greetings we got there. I rooted around in the dollar movie bin hoping to find a classic Christmas program on DVD for us to watch while eating on the couch. What I found was a collection of classic *read super-old* Christmas cartoons. These were like WWI-era cartoons. They were creepy looking with terrible sound. It was so grainy, it was hard to tell if Santa was eating the children or listening to their Christmas wish lists. Major jingle buster. By far my least favorite Christmas experience to date.
This led my wife and I to decide that we needed some traditions of our own. We could create things that would make Christmas better and save us from the same depressing situation the next year. We’ve both worked hard to establish the kind of traditions that would make Christmastime something enjoyable and memorable for our children every year even if there weren’t many presents from time to time.
Then, almost simultaneously, we wondered, “What if there were no presents at all? ON PURPOSE?!?” Had we done a good enough job building traditions around family, giving, events, and nostalgia that our five-year old son would love his Christmas this year even if there was nothing under the tree?
Such a radical idea sent us right to a notebook to write down everything we had done so far and everything else we had planned. It wasn’t a long list, but we weren’t looking for quantity. We were concerned about quality. Was this year going to be a good Christmas for Christmas’s sake? Or were we hedging our bets with a few gifts?
After looking hard at our traditions, thinking about the substance and motives behind each one, we feel pretty confident that we could do it. We’re making a couple little tweaks here and there, adding some more volunteering this year. But we feel that we’ve got a good balance of doing and being, with a large helping of sentiment and nostalgia.
So let me ask you? What do you do that makes this time of year great? What if your family didn’t do gifts this year? What would be left? If we all took the materialism out of the equation, would Christmas still be Elvis?
I would love to hear from you about memories, traditions, activities, or whatever you do outside the ribbons and bows. Tell me what you do for Christmas.