(Updated from an earlier post)
I didn’t always enjoy Christmas as much as I do now. In the past I felt compelled to create a perfect holiday experience for everyone. Every year we put up and decorated a big fresh-cut tree, and I festooned the house inside and out, hosted a big Christmas Eve open house, and bought lots and lots and lots of presents. I baked hundreds of cookies, cooked special meals and ate too much. I overdid it all, and we always spent way too much.
It was exhausting, and I came to dread the arrival of the holiday season each year.
I let my own past get in the way of being sensible when it came to the holiday. Christmas was one of those things growing up that I always wished was a big deal but never was at our house. Raised during the Great Depression, neither of my parents had celebrated Christmas in a big way and saw no reason to change. Christmas always seemed to be pure drudgery for them, not only for the presents that had to be bought (and the money spent), but for the decorations and other holiday cheer that had to be endured. Still, my siblings and I eagerly awaited Christmas morning each year although the few gifts we received were typically uninspired. It was difficult to visit my friends’ beautifully decorated homes, or go back to school after the holidays and see and hear about all the wonderful, thoughtful gifts they had received.
I made a vow that when I grew up and had my own family, Christmas would be fabulous. It took me many years before I figured out I was using my own childhood disappointments as a reason to overspend and overdo Christmas, that I was trying to create the perfect Christmas that I had longed for and never experienced. However, for everything I did to make Christmas bigger and better, it still never seemed to be enough.
I don’t remember exactly when the switch flipped, but for the past few years Christmas has been a much, much simpler event at our home than it was in the past. I finally had enough of all the hoopla, or noticed, bit by bit, that it really didn’t matter to everyone else if the entire Santa collection got put out or not, or if there was garland down the staircase or around the door, or if there were lights around the house. It wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t bake ten different types of cookies or didn’t put out the Santa cookie jar. It didn’t matter how many presents were under the tree. What I realized was it was more important that we were together, and the gifts given and received were thoughtful and something the receiver truly wanted.
Christmas is a very simple affair around our home these days. Everyone pitches in some way so that no one (especially me) feels overloaded. We maintain a few simple traditions that are meaningful to us. Until recently we still decorated a big tree with ornaments that had been collected for over 40 years. The ornaments marked places we were stationed in the navy, our son’s early life, the girls’ Chinese heritage, our travels, and other milestones and occasions. These days a little twig tree holds just eight ornaments: one representing the Chinese zodiac animal of each family member (Brett and WenYu share the tiger); a sumo wrestler representing Japan; a felt chicken for Kaua’i, and a blown glass ball in colors of the ocean to mark our island life and travels across the seas. The rest of the ornaments have been divided between the children to be used on their own Christmas trees.
On Christmas morning, when the kids were small, stockings were opened early, long before Brett and I got up but these days we either don’t do stockings or everyone gets someone else’s to fill. When we’re all awake and up, Brett still serves coffee or hot chocolate with marshmallows in the Christmas mugs we’ve had for over 30 years, followed by bagels with cream cheese (or scones), smoked salmon, and fresh fruit, the Christmas breakfast our son asked for when he was seven years old, and that we’ve served ever since. As we eat presents are opened. One of the children serves as the “elf,” and chooses the gift each person will open for their turn, always in order beginning with the oldest person present to youngest. Gifts are opened one at a time, so that we can all admire each one. We still do a family Secret Santa exchange, and no present can cost more than $35. Not as many presents are under the tree these days as there were in the past, but each one is selected with care and love.
Although our Christmas celebration these days is not the grand affair of years past, it’s immensely more enjoyable, especially for me. The season no longer wears me out, but the magic and meaning of the holiday remains. We save every month throughout the year to cover our Christmas expenses and purchase gifts, and we no longer go into debt. We are able to give more to others outside our family as well, both in time and money. It’s been the best gift for all of us.