In a climate of continuing economic uncertainty, many of us are considering a reduction in holiday gift spending, and perhaps feeling a sense of disappointment and guilt as a result. Although the Chamber of Commerce would probably cringe to hear me say so, I think that this largely misses the point. When I look back upon my own childhood, I can’t recall a single specific gift I received. What I recall instead are the simple traditions my family adhered to year after year, and the time we spent together.
Growing up in a warm climate, the holidays were my only exposure to the wonderful scent of evergreens. The tree was especially magical since all four of us children were involved in its selection, decoration, and daily care. It was also the one time of year that the Lionel train set came out of storage and circled the tree, and so my memories have a background sounds of tiny wheels on tracks and the soft hoot of a toy train whistle.
My family had other recurrent traditions: the lighted boat parade, driving through town at night to take in the decorations, and caroling. Perhaps our voices were not the best, but an elderly neighbor greeted our efforts as if we were the Tabernacle Choir, and invariably invited us in for cookies. On Christmas morning, my Mother always made hot cocoa and my father always lit a fire, no matter the weather. I remember so vividly the taste of the hot cocoa, the sound of a crackling logs, the smell of the tree, and the feeling of our family taking the time to simply be together.
You’ll notice a theme here. What I remember about the holidays were the simple things, traditions which were special not because of their glamour or expense, but for their sounds and smells and tastes, their texture and warmth, and the closeness of shared experience with people I loved.
Once I grew up and had children of my own, I endeavored to create traditions of meaning and simplicity with my own family. Each year we drove up in the mountains to a remote Christmas tree farm and harvested our tree in the snow. Each year we made a pilgrimage to an elaborately lit neighborhood called Peacock Lane, and to the river to watch the parade of lighted boats, bundled up against the cold of an Oregon winter night. We got a train set and each year added a new car. And on Christmas morning I made sure we had a fire in the fireplace and hot cocoa with marshmallows. As an educator, I was never able to afford the quantity and quality of gifts received by many of my children’s classmates. However, I suspect that what my children remember has nothing to do with the gifts they did or didn’t receive.
What I’m suggesting is that you stop stressing about how much you can afford to spend on gifts for your children. Instead, focus on developing your family’s own holiday traditions, the ones that arise from your own childhood and your family’s culture and religion, and give your children that most precious gift of all, the gift of your undivided attention and time, of a shared experience of meaning and texture. Happy Holidays!