As with most, I learned this lesson the hard way. (Okay, so I’m a little stubborn.)
I never intended to hurt feelings, or be that daughter-in-law or come across as fussy about food, a hardened hand-crafter or anti-dolls that defecate (okay, so I’m sticking with that last one). It’s just that my ideal Christmas has always been a bit more gasp-in-delight-over-new-handknit-mittens-while-savoring-a-single-stick-of-peppermint than fifty-presents-each-she’s-going-to-know-when-I-ditch-that-lifesize-Barbie, and in the early days of motherhood, compromising my values with regards to my children stirred up a sort of get-your-paws-off-my-bear-cub protectiveness that rendered me, well…a big pain in the ass, probably.
The thing you don’t realize as a new-ish (passionate, perfectionistic) mom is that your own mother, or mother-in-law, or Great Mammy Gram Grams or whoever The Holiday Way trickles down from once fought (or sold her hair) for her kind of Christmas. And to her, your way is probably just as Backwoods Hippie Cultish as hers is Kill the Oceans Quick! to your sensibilities.
Truth is, my inner conflict regarding this season hasn’t changed much:
I am still dumbfounded by the notion of excessive, needless consuming in the name of Jesus, of all people.
The hustle and stress we’ve deemed “festive” still goes against the calm, introspective pace that feels instinctual to me come winter.
My kids still turn into monsters when exhausted, overstimulated, high on sugar and bombarded with mixed messages (mother vs. marketers, who else?).
And I still don’t want the clutches of consumer culture all up in my celebrations, especially not at the expense of the environment, my family’s together time and my children’s sense of what’s important, worthy and wonderful.
(Trust me, I could go on.)
BUT, after 19 years of black-sheeping it, and reflecting back to both the times when I went way overboard trying to keep everything as “pure” as possible (and handcrafting my way to hell and back again by Christmas morning) and other years when I gave up and gave IN (to the 300-piece make-up set implanted in the backside of a rainbow-maned ungulate), I now see things that weren’t clear to me before:
Like the preciousness and brevity of a mother’s time with her grown children and just how much she lives to see them all together.
Like how much energy it requires to prepare elaborate meals for 10, 20+ people to begin with, never mind catering to the preferences of the first generation EVER to deem gluten poison and free-range turkeys worth half a year’s wages.
Like how unique and valuable each grandparent/grandchild connection really is, and what a gift to us all that someone else loves our kids in ways we never will.
Like how you don’t end up remembering the details that seemed so significant at the time, but that you rarely forget the associated feelings.
I do believe there’s a sweet spot somewhere between our ideal, best case scenario and the surrendering of our values for the sake of peacekeeping. Perhaps we know we’re there when we’re able to be both true to ourselves and empathic toward everyone around us.
May the following reflections, based on my own lessons learned (though never completely), be a gift to you and yours as the season unfolds…
How to Make Christmas Your Way (Kind Of)
Decide how you want your holidays to feel. If it’s simple you’re going for, there are many ways to achieve this overall feeling (and even more ways to prevent it). If it’s connected, prioritize accordingly. Focusing on the feeling instead of the to-do list encourages presence and eliminates the needless, nagging sense of obligation.
Check your moral imperatives. My moral imperative is just that: it’s mine and mine alone. Your set of values is based upon your own experience of the world, and no doubt, you’ve got me beat when it comes to something virtuous. Judgement divides us and kills connection. When we choose to focus on living admirable virtues instead of sticking our nose in other peoples’, everyone wins.
Go slow. Most traditions take years, even generations to form. Undoing them, or establishing new ones in their place might be better thought of as five or fifty year goals. Subtle shifts are more likely to be embraced and cherished in the long run anyway.
Consider the culture “they” grew up and/or raised kids in. Given that ours was the first generation raised amidst rampant consumerism and with access to so many things for so little money, it’s little wonder that older generations (who grew up wanting for the basics) can’t understand why we don’t need any more toys! Theirs is a different worldview. We ALL see the world through our own conditioning. Keeping this in mind can go a long way toward mutual understanding.
- Distinguish between tradition and effective marketing. Why are we nostalgic for certain things and experiences this time of year? Because they make us think of Christmases past or because we’re bombarded with want-evoking, feel-good seasonal marketing? Prying consumer culture from our traditions is no easy task, but in doing so, we claim the right to decide for ourselves what matters most.
Realize “they” mean well and adore your kids. Even when they know your preferences and don’t seem to respect them, rarely are family members acting out of spite. Their thought process is probably much more simple than you think. “If my kids grew up playing with Barbies and turned out just fine, my grandkids will, too” is not only a logical explanation but an emotional one. Your mother may have fond memories of you playing with those Barbies (whose pumps she saved repeatedly from the vacuum). Tread lightly and assume good intentions beneath seeming disregard.
Determine your core values and hold them as intentions, not absolutes. Along with the feeling you’re hoping to maintain, it helps to get clear on the values driving your angst, elation or indifference. The clearer you become about what’s beneath your emotional reactions, the more effective you will be when communicating your values.
Add a tradition or two before you eliminate others. It’s easier to drum up enthusiasm regarding change when you’ve got something else appealing to offer. An annual solstice campfire or neighborhood Soup and Song is no less festive than swapping needless gifts. Whatever it is, if your heart is in it, it’s more likely to be remembered and anticipated.
Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”
I guess that makes me middle-aged.
Enjoy the season, my friends! however you choose to define it.
Full disclosure: We never actually received a life-sized Barbie or a makeup set that required we wipe a horse’s butt. I don’t even remember what obnoxious toys we were given anymore, and on the whole, my family has all been amazingly thoughtful in their gifting. What I do remember is the realization that I’d hurt someone’s feelings or stressed out my kids, and years later, these things seem WAY more significant than whether or not the wrapping paper was hand-printed or the chocolate sweetened with stevia.