We’ve officially entered that wonderful time of the year. The Holidays. A time to celebrate and share with friends and family. A time to sing holiday songs, decorate the tree, light the menorah candles, honor the traditions of Kwanza and give to those that touch our lives.
But instead of the good cheer and love we profess to encourage, all too often, it becomes a frenzied, overwhelming 6 weeks filled with anxiety and stress.
The financial strain is exorbitant. From decorations to parties to gifts to shopping to fancy holiday wares, it’s estimated 25% of people will go into debt just to pay it off! I can’t help but wonder, “why?”.
I love the season. It’s a magical time when the country lights up figuratively and literally. When our better angels fight harder to overcome our devilish ones. “Please,” and “thank you,” rolls off our tongues quicker. We can cozy up to a warm fire and enjoy moments we’ll cherish forever. Toddlers giggle and play with wrappings instead of the expensive gifts received. Singing off-key isn’t just acceptable, it’s applauded and the smell of pine permeates the air. It’s a time when people focus less on getting than giving. Even when the gift received isn’t what was desired, it truly is the thought that counts. How many gifts have you re-gifted or returned? With all the pressure to buy gifts that are unique and special to that person, it can become overwhelming.
I remember after my parents passed away I was cleaning out their bathroom cupboards. In my father’s, I found dozens of cheap colognes and awful ties he never imagined wearing, but apparently couldn’t bear to toss because they were given with love. I’d like to think he was able to see the tears of joy I shed as an adult at his thoughtfulness. Giving is so much more than the reality of what’s received.
That’s what this time really means to me.
When I was a little girl it meant my Dad would be home from work, grandparents visited, and five siblings attempted to behave. The house was filled with holiday sights and sounds and smells. But more importantly, it was filled with love and family.
Years later, I wanted to create special memories for my daughter, so we started our own traditions.
We lit the Hanukah candles nightly while we exchanged hand-made gifts that said what we loved about each other. My favorite is still the tiny pieces of rolled up paper she put into a jar that expressed “things I am grateful for….” To this day, reading her words on those little scraps can bring a smile to my face.
Celebrating meant meeting friends to help to trim their trees, eat Christmas dinner and then play games around the dinner table. Followed by the annual carriage ride through Winterhaven as we bundled together under our blankets for warmth and sang a version of songs we thought we knew.
Large family gatherings always occurred at our house because we spent hours transforming it into a a wonderland. For weeks, it was filled with all the energy and excitement of the season. Each year we all put our busy schedules aside to join together and celebrate. But seeing the children rip into gift after gift that was later put on a shelf, never to be touched again, was frustrating. Finally, we all agreed things had to change. This could no longer be about the time, effort, and cost to find gifts that never satisfied. One gift to open was enough.
From then on, all the adults picked a child’s name at random so they had something to open and the cost was minimized. Not to be left out, every adult brought a crazy gift, either received or bought, and participated in a “white elephant” exchange.
It was a hoot.
Everyone picked a number out of a hat. Whoever had number 1 opened a gift from the pile. Then number 2 picked another one from the pile. If unhappy, they could exchange with number 1. Then number 3 had the option of all 3 and so and so on until the last participant had their choice of anything already opened. The gift was never the goal but rather the laughs that left lingering questions of why my niece liked the outdated fondue maker or my that my brother bath salts and candles! To this day, some of my most cherished memories and gifts are from those nights. They may be silly and unused, but they hold a special place in my closet waiting for the next white elephant party.
Later, all the kids got to make their very own potato latke- a special Hanukah treat that’s essentially hash browns. Trying to explain to a two-year old “that’s enough salt,” can be difficult, so more often than not, they ended up in the trash, not our mouths. But we never missed a year.
After all the food and fun, each family collected their donations of unopened, never used gifts or those they grew beyond, to give to a child who wasn’t as lucky. The holiday mantra became get a gift, donate a gift.
Sadly, as the kids grew up, grandparents passed on, people moved away and careers developed, the family commitment to sharing those times together dwindled. My daughter is a grow woman now, living in another state. When asked, it’s not the gifts she remembers. Instead, it’s those precious memories of loved ones now gone, laughter once shared and feeling a part of something bigger than herself. Those moments will stay in our hearts forever.
To everyone, I wish you a healthy and happy holiday season.