Holiday Giving: The Magic of Christmas Part I





The Tradition


Though the tradition of holiday giving is as old as humanity, my experience of Christmas is the story of a boy growing up in a good-sized, middle-class family.  My parents tried to instill a strong sense of Christian values within me, which meant a good part of my tradition took on religious overtones. I heard the story of Christ to the point of tedium, since we regularly attended church.  I have two brothers and a sister so it was also inevitable that one or more of us would be asked to play a role in the annual church pageant.  This could involve singing in front of the church congregation or playing a role in the story of Jesus.  I honestly don’t remember the roles I played, although I’m sure my sister would tell you that pageant or not I was always a wise guy!


A Time of Magic


For me, Christmas was a time of laughter, lights and the songs of the season.  Mom had a terrific singing voice and she would often lead us in a rousing chorus of Christmas carols.  One of my favorites was Silent Night and as I grew up and learned to play piano I delighted in being able to play and sing, though I would never admit to it at the time.


All The Special Things


There were other wonders: My mother and grandmother spent hours baking cookies and candies.  One of my old favorites is Grandmom’s Nutmeg Logs (see the recipe below if you’re not afraid of butter). Also, Dad would inevitably bring home a freshly cut, pine-scented Christmas tree.  Mom kept boxes and boxes of decorations on the shelves “down in the furnace room”.  There were special ornaments dating back to her childhood as well as all the ones she treasured because they were made by me or my siblings.


Nutmeg Log Recipe




As a young boy, there was also that crazy, ever-growing sense of anticipation as Christmas day approached.  Waiting to open presents became harder by the hour.  Mom and Dad had many friends and relatives so the pile under the tree would inevitably grow and spread across a good portion of the living room.   In retrospect, I’m not sure how Mom managed to keep us grounded in those days.  Time moves so slowly as a kid and that made waiting even harder.  I do recall a couple things she did to keep us occupied:  There were craft projects.  We made “ice” candles out of wax, resin paperweights, tile decorated pencil holders or ashtrays.  We also made those construction paper chains where each link represented a day, and the length of the chain was therefore determined by the number of days left in our countdown toward Christmas.  Oh, and we were often put to work frosting all those cookies.


When Santa was real.

My son on Santa’s lap.



As a kid, growing up in a loving, middle class family, Christmas was nothing less than magic.  If I wanted a toy, my parents did their best to find it and were happy to credit Santa Claus for the effort.  I believed in Santa.  Part of me still does.  Santa was about everything good, and being joyful and happy.  He brought me cool things and sometimes even surprises I didn’t realize I wanted, but turned out to be better than the things I asked for.


Dad Taught Me


My experience has taught me to value certain traditions in life.  When it comes to the tradition of giving gifts, I know I learned a lot from my parents.  Dad worked hard for a living and was often absent, but he cared deeply about his family.  When we got a little older he would typically resort to giving us money.  I doubt this was only a matter of convenience for him.  Growing up during the depression, Dad came from a background of poverty so his ability to give his kids money and a better lifestyle meant everything.  To Dad, a gift was the ultimate expression of his love, and sometimes the only expression as he wasn’t the best about saying, “I love you.”  Don’t get me wrong, he said it a lot, but I think it was often far easier for him to express it with money, or perhaps by fixing me a huge bowl of ice-cream or piling on extra pancakes.


Mom Taught Me


Mom taught me the value in a good hug.  She taught me how steady, honest effort pays off.  Her gifts for Christmas or otherwise were as often as not practical as fun—a good shirt or new pair of pants might be combined with a toy.  Mom expressed her love verbally and she reinforced it by taking care of the bumps along the way.  She bandaged our bruises.  She made our lunches until we were old enough to learn to make them ourselves.  She made sure dinner was ready at 6, even if Dad wasn’t done with work and ready to sit down and share it with us.  She fixed the holes in our jeans.  She drove us to our lessons.  She helped us with our homework.   She instilled a strong sense of family values.  Like Dad, Mom also used food as an expression of love.  She delighted in cooking for us, was happy to take requests and always made sure there was ample at the table, which was no easy task with four hungry mouths to feed.


Church window.Giving ‘Till It Hurts


I’ve come to believe that some people think you should give until it hurts—somehow it isn’t a complete expression of love until some measure of pain is involved.  It’s not unlike the story of Jesus, in that he “gave his life” as the ultimate act of his love for humanity. Whether this has objective validity or not is beside the point:  You can’t argue with a person’s faith—this is how they feel. Yet even those who don’t feel some sort of religious connection may feel a powerful and urgent need to give in order to express their love.  However valuable their own life may be to them, it pales in comparison to the love they feel for special friends or family members—if ever the need arose, they might willingly die for them. For all these people, Christmas giving is not a shallow exercise based on commercialism and waste as we are so often told it is—it holds a deep and profound significance in their lives.



What’s Changed For Me?


Christmas is not as it once was for me, and I’m not entirely sure why.  Maybe it’s the natural progression of growing older in this crazy mixed up world of ours, but these days it’s hard not to feel jaded about the holiday.  When I was a boy, everything was still new to me.  Even as a young dad, I got to rediscover some of that lost innocence I felt as a child.  In a way, I suppose watching my kids diving into a pile of presents was a little like watching a smaller version of myself.  Yet those days are already long past, and the only way I can envision recapturing them is if my kids decide to have kids of their own—not that I want them to rush into that until they’re ready.


Buy more than you can afford.To a certain degree, I think I’ve come to resent the perceived obligation I feel for giving certain gifts on a preset day of the year. I’m sure that pushing my way through throngs of holiday shoppers, or being blasted by endless messages to buy doesn’t help.  I’ve gotten better about budgeting for the holidays than I used to be, but the bottom line is holiday giving is hard on my wallet.  I hope you don’t take this the wrong way.  I do like giving and I especially like giving if I know the recipient really needs or wants my gift.


When it comes down to it, I still believe in the magic of the season and care deeply about people who I’ve come to call my family and friends.  What I struggle with now is the focus some people or companies seem to place on the material side of the equation.  I resent those who would prey on my kids with messages to spend beyond their means.  I also resent the express and implied obligations they would have me buy into, and wish I could find better ways to let go of those, so I was freer to experience the same joy I felt as a child.


It’s Different For Everyone


Every person is going to have a different set of holiday memories—some good and some unpleasant.  Even in the best economic times there are many people struggling to survive.  I read stories of families living in cars or on the street—stories that really move me.  For people in such dire straits a holiday must seem like some rich man’s fantasy.  Even if a person is slightly better off as an adult than they were as a kid, it might be hard to imagine a season filled with a tradition of bounteous food or the exchange of gifts.  I also recognize many people aren’t religious, or they may come from a completely different religious background.  That’s bound to impact their experience or feelings about the holiday season.  When I wrote this post, I didn’t mean to imply my experience was better or somehow more meaningful than your own.  I recognize we’re different, but I think it’s the differences between us that provide the greatest opportunities to learn from one another.  That’s why I hope you’ll consider sharing some of your memories or thoughts in the comments below.


No matter where you come from, or where you’re going, I would like to wish you all the best this holiday season.


If you’re looking for some practical ideas for spending less on your gifts this year, please see Part II of this series:  Holiday Giving: Getting Real Part II.


If you’d like to help those in need during the holidays there are many great organizations that lend a hand.  Here’s a few direct links to the donation pages at these sites:

Salvation Army

Marine Toys For Tots Foundation

Make A Wish Foundation Of America

American Red Cross

One Response to Holiday Giving: The Magic of Christmas Part I

  • connie says:

    Excellent essay. Having opted out of ‘traditional’ Christmas observances many years ago, I have had a lot of practice at ignoring the pressures from all sides. However, winter-time, and especially the Christmas season, is for me the perfect time to do for others who are less fortunate.

    The animal shelter, women’s shelter, homeless shelter, and food banks always need help, but especially during the winter.

    Thank you for this timely reminder of what truly matters.


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