Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Scrooge Report. Don't read this if you love Christmas. Or do. Whatever.

Christmas was a success. Everyone is happy. What more can I ask?

I was blessed to inherit from one (or both?) of my parents a very practical mind. That, combined with the physical disabilities involved in fibromyalgia, has led me to a life of looking at every situation and saying, "What is the purpose of this? What are we trying to accomplish? Is that valid? What SHOULD we be trying to accomplish? And how can we do it faster, cheaper, easier, and more effectively?"

That actually is a blessing in most situations. For example, I can teach a whole Relief Society lesson without feeling guilty that I failed to make cute handouts for the sisters (because it takes a LOT of time on my end and they just throw it away or clutter their houses with it at theirs, and it doesn't increase the spirit or the remembering of the lesson, so...what's the point?). I get along really well with teenagers because I'm willing to see the stupidities adults impose on them and also explain what's going on, why, what they can do to make things go more their way, and why sometimes they just need to go along.  I can look at a non-performing nursery or family home evening and improve things for next time.

Sometimes, though, it's a curse.

Christmas is one of those times.

It's not that I don't see the value of tradition. I LOVE tradition. I think it is incredibly valuable in building family and community unity and helping us understand and remember truths. It's not that I don't see the value of building good memories for your children. It's not that I don't see the value of doing things together. I can even see the value of making things festive.

It's just that I think Christmas is a) over the top, b) WAY too focused on Stuff and appearance, c) the cultural expectation is too expensive, d) Santa might be fun (and I did love believing in him and magic as a child), but to perpetuate the tradition, we outright lie to our children and d) we tied Christ's name to all of this.

Honestly consider this question with Christmas as it stands in America today in mind:

Is THIS how Jesus would want to spend his birthday?

Consequently, it's hard for me to really get into it.

What Christmas is to me is a whole lot of work and a whole lot of expense for an end that doesn't justify itself. Christ wouldn't want us to break his commandments (like by going into debt or teaching our children to focus on things--getting or giving, it's still focused on things--or by spending two or three weeks lying to our children or by spending a lot of time eating unhealthy food) to celebrate his birthday.

So a couple of years ago, I sat down and thought about it. What is the good about Christmas? All the family stuff. Anything you do with your family is fun, and family fun is IMPORTANT. Decorating the house and the tree....making candy houses together...caroling...visiting friends....making zillions of treats and even more good and getting gifts (it's fun. I admit that. It's actually a bonding time for families. It's a fun memory)...seeing cousins and grandparents....Christmas music....sending updates to everyone you know....connecting and re-connecting with people...having time off from work and school to be together....and yes, spending some serious time thinking about Christ.

Being me, I had to think through things and decide how to best accomplish the GOOD things. And how to avoid the bad things (commercialism, moneymoneymoney stuffstuffstuff IwantIwantIwant, lying, mixing Christ with decided un-Christian things).

First, I realized I was not capable of making Christmas the kind of day I think Christ would like his birthday to be and still go along with all the Christmassy stuff. So, to get the chance to spend some serious time thinking about Christ, worshiping, celebrating His birth, and teaching our children about him, we added a holiday to the year. Logically, we ought to celebrate Christ's birth on his birthday, so we hold April 6 as "White Cake Day"--it's a day we spend all day doing things we think Christ would want us to do to celebrate his birth, we have a little party for Him (the same way we have birthday parties for our kids, using the same traditions). We make a favorite cake, symbolically red and white, and talk about why Christ was born. It has turned into a very sacred day for us. Very VERY Christ-centered. Very much a time to spend some serious time thinking about Christ and celebrating (and being grateful for) his birth, life, and death.

That was a good thing. Unfortunately, it had an unintended consequence for me. Since I now already have a day of the year that I celebrate Christ, Christmas has begun to feel more like Halloween does--someone else's sacred holiday that is more about fun family memories than about Christ for me personally. I don't want you to think I on purpose sat down and took Christ out of Christmas. It wasn't on purpose. And we still do the nativity and talk about Christ and let the kids tell us why we use a star atop the Christmas tree (except I have an ornament of Jesus in the Garden atop my Christmas tree....). We do forget a lot of the pseudo-religious crap (sorry) that people use to try to justify the trappings of Christmas and the reality of Christ's birth (the candy cane....the glass balls on the tree....killing a live tree and watching it die in your living room.....).

Still, I try really hard to focus on the good of Christmas. I sat down and thought, "What am I trying to accomplish?" If the "end" we are aiming for is not a full understanding of Christ, but rather to build family unity, good memories, and a sense of belonging in our ward, community, and family, the the means should point to that end. So I work really hard on that.

And I've learned a few things about that. First is that tradition counts. Nobody remembers every single individual Christmas. In fact, the only individual Christmases that people remember are usually the sad ones. BUT we do remember Christmas as a kind of conglomerate of fun and family joy. SO we've followed traditions. But not just randomly. We pick traditions that further the end we have in mind--we make candy houses together out of graham crackers, candy, and frosting. We do gifts under the Christmas tree. We very carefully don't lie to the children, but let them believe in Santa if they want (my official story is this: Santa is real. He is Daddy. No magic. But, since I really loved believing in Santa, I let my kids believe as much as they want, not telling or refuting the stories, but always answering questions as honestly as I can).  We trade names and buy something for someone else in the family. We wrap presents together. We have a Christmas tree and we decorate it (but entirely by the children with what we have on hand--nothing fancy or elaborate or themed or tied to tradition because I can't handle maintaining it with my disabilities). We do a very haphazard job of decorating the house--all kid-organized--because I see it as just more messes I have to clean up. So that part is up to them. We drive around and look at Christmas lights. We put on Christmas music--but mostly only on Christmas day because (you might be surprised to discover) we don't really play music much at our house (with 5 kids making noise in the same room as me all day every day and music coming up from Tim's studio in the basement many days, I can't handle the extra layer of noise it adds--fibro leaves me noise-sensitive). We make treats, drink eggnog, make rocky road "fudge", eat "eggnog bread." So we do those things that we can do, taking our disabilities into account and focusing on things that build good memories and good times with family (which implies, I might note, family interaction. We ALL make candy houses together at the same time, for example). And we do them every year. And it is INCREDIBLY satisfying.

Second is that presents on Christmas morning matter, but if you follow a few rules, you don't have to spend a lot of money (we spend less than $200 for everyone, all 7 of us). First is you have to unwrap something to do on Christmas day. This year, the big hit present was balloons (I got one bag for $1.50 and divided them up into everyone's stockings). They have been batting balloons around all day. Second is that there has to be enough stuff to open that you feel like you got to open something. It doesn't have to be fancy or cool. I wrapped water bottles for everyone this year. They have been drinking water all day now. Not fancy. But something to unwrap is important.  In fact, a largish pile of dollar store (or party favor section items, where you get 4-8 items for less than $3) somethings is more satisfying to kids than a small pile of expensive gifts. Third is there has to be a treat to eat. Big candy bars, handful of leftover halloween candies, fruit snacks....just something sweet. Fourth is that big kids need to be able to answer the question, "What did you get?" without being embarrassed. Nobody wants to say, "new underwear and a bunch of books." Again, this thing doesn't have to be expensive. It just has to SOUND cool ("I got a bike!" Who cares if it was second-hand? or "I got a cat purse"--a very faddish item for 6 year old girls this year--doesn't matter if it cost $1 at DI). Fifth is that the "present pile" has to be visually balanced--2 or three big things (Anda got a huge bag of wild birdseed--which she is very satisfied with) and a handful of smaller things, plus an overfilled stocking, which is mostly padding anyway. The final rule is that EVERYONE (even me) needs at least ONE thing to unwrap that is a surprise.

If you follow those rules, everyone's happy. Notice that nowhere in there is any mention of spending a lot of money on new things. Or having dozens of presents. Or getting expensive presents. Or any kind of fancy wrapping or elaborate set-up.

Finally, the thing I realized is that "if momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." And, since Christmas is, like all holidays, a WHOLE LOT OF WORK for mommy, we try to minimize the "hit." What that means around here (taking my disabilities into account) is no Christmas dinner. I can't figure out who thought it was okay to make mom (and Dad, in some households) find, wrap, hide, and set out (and set up) presents all night, wake early with kids, and then produce ANOTHER Thanksgiving dinner! Obviously NOT the woman's idea. So we don't do that. Soup and sandwiches, cold cereal, or crock pot meal is what you get around here.  We had beef stew today because my crock pot is in storage and I had stew meat. Nothing fancy or work-intensive.  Christmas dinner is one of those things that I can't see that the end result justifies it. So we just don't do that.

Oh, and we have to work everything around Tim's performing schedule. Christmas is traditionally a REALLY busy time for performers, so NOTHING we do as a family for Christmas is tied to the calendar. It's all loosey-goosey in that respect so that we can do things with Tim (since, after all, the REASON for the traditions is to build family unity--so why would we want to do something without Tim there just because it's a tradition to do it at a certain time?).

Because of all this, I like to do Christmas at home. No waking early. No stuff emphasis. No trying to fit into someone else's schedule. No visiting on Christmas day except by phone. No having someone else's kids' expectation of what Christmas is imposed on my kids. And you know what, we all have fun.

We had a GREAT Christmas.

Christmas Eve some of our favorite people here in Colorado invited us over and we had SO much fun being with them. Then we made candy houses together, and the kids watched Ratatouille while I wrapped presents. We told the Christmas story at bedtime (and the whole reason I have separated "Christmas" and "Christ's birthday" was very apparent--Anda and Caleb were alternating telling the story of Luke 2--but not reading it--and I was keeping it all within the bounds of what the scriptures actually tell us, and finally Anda looked at me and said, "Mom. Stop that. I'm telling the story. I can tell it however I want!" You see the problem? We've made Christmas into a fantasy land of ice and snow and wishes and dreams--all that "magic of Christmas" stuff. Anda correctly, if unconsciously, identified it as a fantasy time and grouped all of Christmas into that, including Christ. If it's all about magic and elves and Santa and Christ, why can't she just tell the story the way she wants to this time, with gifts of lambs, and all the elaboration she wants? And how am I to say, "Well, the magic of Christmas is good and all, but Christ is real, even though Santa isn't" and have her believe me?)

Anyway, Tim and I both wrapped presents well into the dawn hours (not so bad as it sounds, considering we plopped the kids into bed at 5:00 am and considering we'd gotten out of bed at 4:00 pm on the 24th). Then Tim cleaned the living room and I filled stockings and stocked the tree, and then off to bed. Dan woke at noon, opened his stocking, and then was willing to be sent back to bed and to sleep until the rest of us woke up.

We got up at about 5:00 pm, and woke the kids, "Santa came!" and Caleb groaned, "We know," and rolled over and went back to sleep. Eventually everyone drifted out and we opened presents, ate candy. Ate more candy. Opened more presents. Nathanael kind of got it. Benji still doesn't understand opening presents and couldn't be coerced to do it. (This is another of those things I don't buy into. It's REALLY hard to wrap presents that I know are going to get unwrapped again in a couple of hours. I do it for kids that care, but we didn't for kids that don't--not wrapping all of my, Ben's, or Nathanael's gifts because, really, what's the point?). And it was FUN.

Everyone had something to do all day. Everyone had something to play with. Thanks to a friend answering my prayers, every single kid had something under the Christmas tree (we got paid, after 6 months of almost no income, on the 22nd. The 23rd, Tim had the car. The 24th in Longmont, everything was closed. And at 11:00 pm Benji and Dan still had 2 presents between them (vs the 4 or 6 I needed). And then Laura called at 11:00 pm and filled the boys' present lists and our stockings. What a blessing!) The kids had good memories, good fun, and good times.

Oh, and Grandma--they LOVED the karaoke machine. Benji sang and danced for hours today, and Nathanael had a lot of fun pushing all the buttons.

So there's the Christmas Report. We had it. We had fun. I'm glad we did it. Nobody cried.

And I'm glad I survived.

So it was a success, right?

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