On the first Christmas I celebrated with my then-boyfriend now-husband’s family, they gave me a navy blue and white striped sweater from an expensive brand name label that I wore only when I knew I would be eating dinner with them. The nautical nature of the sweater reminded me of the way my mother had decorated our house in the 80s, and I hated wearing things with labels meant to show people how much you spent on your clothes. The second Christmas I celebrated with their family they gave me literally the same sweater, only this time with light pink and dark pink stripes to replace the nautical theme of the year before. At least this sweater could be worn on Valentine’s Day to look festive.
The year after that the family announced that they would begin a new Christmas tradition: buying presents for yourself. We were all instructed to purchase what we wanted for ourselves, to wrap these presents up, and then we went through a whole silly charade about how surprised we were to receive these awesome presents on Christmas Day. Admittedly, I was into this new tradition (minus the fake surprise) for the first few years. Having been disappointed by the twin striped sweaters in the past, it was much better to pick out a matching hat, scarf, and mitten combo that I really needed and really liked. Also, it was a relief not to go through the agony of trying to find gifts for this family that clearly did not know me that well, nor I them.
After a few years of this self-centered tradition, I started to realize how antithetical to the Christmas season it is to buy your own gifts. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the gift God gave to humanity of God’s only Son, a gift that is beyond measure, as it is the gift of God’s very presence among us. We celebrate that fact that God so much wants all of us to be part of God’s family that God gave God’s only Son for our salvation. Christmas should be about celebrating our place in God’s whole human family, as well as in the small human family of our birth.
Certainly, my husband’s family, and me as a part of it, took awhile to catch on to this meaning of Christmas. But this year, we just might be on to something. There are going to be no gifts in the form of boxes wrapped under the tree. The gift we are choosing to give each other is time spent together–cooking a meal, playing games, making puzzles, and just generally enjoying each other, something we do not get to do often enough because of everyone’s busy schedules.
And this year I have also come to a new appreciation of those striped sweaters that I finally donated to the Good Will last year. Unfortunately, this awareness has been raised by a good friend of mine who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer. She has been receiving a lot of gifts this year, some of which bring her to tears because they speak to the bond she has with so many people, who know her so well that they know just what odd item will brighten her day. But she has also received the equivalent of the expensive sweaters my in-laws purchased for me years ago, things that cost quite a bit of money but that are really of no use to her. When I asked her if it frustrated her to get gifts like this, her response was that even if gifts seem stupid and unhelpful, they are people’s awkward way of saying that they care, and that we should cut the gift-givers some slack since it is the thought that counts.
So in addition to celebrating Christmas by spending quality with my family this year, my resolution is also to try to be appreciative of whatever anyone gives me, to approach gift opening with a stance of gratefulness that mirrors the gratefulness I have that God chose to be born of a peasant woman and made flesh among us. Merry Christmas!
What is the meaning of Christmas to you?
How do your family’s Christmas traditions reflect this meaning?