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The peace of a saner Christmas

Published December 19. 2009 09:00AM

For the first time in years, I'm enjoying the Christmas season.

That's because I'm finally doing something right about the way I celebrate this special time of year. For years, I have regretted that we are completely eradicating "the reason for the season." Many are even afraid to use the word Christmas, substituting "holiday season" so no one gets offended. The so-called holiday season has turned into nothing but a spending spree that leaves us stressed and in debt.

Finally, my family has agreed to take the commercialism out of Christmas.

We are giving each other the gift of presence, not presents that come wrapped in a box.

While we've talked about doing this for years, we never did implement a more meaningful Christmas. Now that we are doing exactly that, we are all amazed at how good it feels.

By taking the emphasis away from giving presents, we have eliminated the time, money and pressure of shopping for gifts for everyone, trudging through malls for hours on end trying to find perfect presents.

What we found year after year is that there is no such thing as the "perfect present" because the most satisfying things in life can't be wrapped in a box. Yet, year after year we kept trying, thinking we could package happiness in a box, if only we looked harder for the magic gift that would do it. Or, if only we spent more so we could buy a "better" gift.

As much as I hate to admit it, I have to confess that I'm the one who created the false values in our past Christmas celebrations. I made the same mistake a lot of people do - I tried to show how much I loved each family member by how much I showered on them in the way of gifts. I never had much growing up and I was determined my children would have wonderful presents.

But instead of giving only a few gifts, I piled on the presents for each family member. I don't want to tell you how much I spent or exactly how much I gave. But I will tell you that each year, instead of feeling ecstatic on Christmas day, I always had this deep feeling inside that something wasn't right about the way our family celebrates Christmas.

The worse thing about this is how it carried to the second generation. Children learn what they see and my daughters learned my extravagant gift-giving ways, taking it even a few steps farther in the wrong direction.

They piled expensive presents under the Christmas tree, filling a room with the overflow.

For their children, opening gifts on Christmas day took all morning. There were so many presents that I don't think the kids could truly enjoy any of them.

Year after year, it was with a sad heart that I saw the Reason for the Season buried in discarded boxes and wrapping paper.

Last year, after opening one expensive present after another, my daughter, Andrea, turned to me and said: "Do you ever get sick in the stomach at all this?" I told her I had that feeling a lot of times, but I never did anything about it. She said she felt the same way.

This is the year we changed all that.

Not putting the emphasis on gift giving means we are free to enjoy the simple joys of the season. For the first time in decades, I am truly enjoying Christmas carols.

I drive through neighborhoods ablaze with colorful lights and sing along with the Christmas songs on the radio, truly feeling the joy of the season.

Instead of wrapping presents to tell my family how much I love them, we will relish presence. Our gift to each other this year is to cross the miles and be together as a family.

What brought about the change? What made us finally wise up and do what we should have been doing all these years?

In a major way, it's the economy. It seems gross to spend money on expensive gifts when so many people can't afford to put food on the table. We realize that our gift-giving this year needs to be directed toward helping the needy and filling the food pantries of outreach charities.

Andrea resolved to stop the madness of Christmas spending after her family vacationed in Costa Rica. She said the poverty she saw there made her feel ashamed to be there at a luxury resort while so many others were living in shacks that could barely pass for homes.

Declaring that her children "already had too much," Andrea said it was time to end the madness. We all agreed and a saner Christmas season was born.

When I asked youngsters in my religious education class what they were most looking forward to at Christmas, their answers were surprising. Only one boy mentioned getting gifts.

The others said the most meaningful part of Christmas was having a big family meal together and having relatives visit from out of state. "My granny's coming!" said one boy in obvious excitement.

Even at that young age, they know in their hearts that presence is the greatest present of all.

The gift of presence isn't easy to give. Plane fares are expensive and it's hard to arrange family schedules. But in the long run, there is far more meaning in family time together than anything we can put in a box.

Why is that so easy to forget?

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