Chri$tma$ is here again! Shopping centres are full of decorations and bustling shoppers. Kids are finally enjoying school now that the pressure to be productive has diminished during end of year activities. Holidays are planned, camping gear or caravans are dusted off. A time where family members are drawn together often from around the country to catch up and build on memories that will last a lifetime.
Taking turns to host the dinner or lunch, with days spent in kitchens lovingly preparing old family favourites. Food that never gets a look in at any other time of year, Nana's pudding, Aunt Susan's turkey, Mum's potato salad that everyone loves with the secret ingredients passed from mother to daughter. Meeting and greeting, catching up with seldom seen friends and relatives, Uncle Bill's endless stories, non-stop chatter and laughter, silly smiles and wriggling kids as photo after photo is taken, the giving of cards and gifts. Socks again! But the thought does count. Wow! $20 from great Aunt Mabel in far off wherever. End of year parties in streets and offices where hair can be let down and even Dawn from accounts doesn't seem so bad when you get to know her. The world is full of the promise of peace and good will to all men. Christmas certainly can be a wonderful and happy time.
'Can be' however allows that for some Christmas may not be the happy celebration it seems on the surface. Having a 'good' Christmas is often measured by how many gifts we receive and how much food and alcohol we consume. The very things that draw some families together can be stressful and divisive in other households. Pressure to 'do' Christmas in a particular way, to have all the trimmings, putting on a brave face as family members with unresolved issues use the family get together as a cold war theatre, finding yourself once again on the merry go round of buying gifts that will impress people you don't particularly like or speak to all year are not conducive to an enjoyable festive season.
My own childhood experience of Christmas is not something I look upon fondly. As a child born in late December, Christmas was a thief, stealing away the anniversary of my place in the family. The expedient but always soul destroying combined Christmas and birthday present! Whoever thought of that? Birthdays were overshadowed by the lead up to the big day, days spent in hot kitchens, weeks spent in shopping centres, hours carefully wrapping presents and writing cards. Then to spend the fateful day, dressed in my Sunday best, in a room full of stressed and irritable grown ups. Family gatherings were not a pleasant occasion, rather filled with tension thick as Christmas cake, the adults all reliving past hurts but striving to keep a lid on things because, after all it was Christmas and we can't let the children get wind of things. Expensive presents bought to impress or to restore relationship where words could not. After years of repeating the same patterns things reaching a head when my younger brother and I walked out and refused to return. My mother confessed recently that she hated the whole thing as much as I did but felt compelled to put on the show, with turkey and all the trimmings. I suspect she is not alone.
Now facing Christmas with six children, three of my own, and three of my partner's, I am conscious of the need for Christmas to be both relevant and relaxed. There is no longer any 'should' involved. We don't do things because we should; we do things because we want to. Rather than the nerve-racking get together on the 25th, we visit family and friends throughout December, if there are people with whom we can't manage relationship all year, why pretend that Christmas will make everything ok? The relief at not having to accept every invite is liberating. It is all about connecting without stress, both emotionally and financially. Gifts and cards can be handmade or drawn, or other ways of giving can be explored. Often the most appreciated gift of all is time spent with someone you care about. It costs nothing, lasts forever and is the glue that holds us all together.
Christmas is a time that magnifies and distorts the best and the worst in us. Driven by retailers with ever sophisticated means of presenting their products Christmas has evolved from the celebration of the birth of Christ, relevant only to those who believed into a commercial frenzy relied on to boost revenue and keep traders afloat. The seasonal deluge of advertising with images of happy, healthy well behaved kids, picture perfect mums and dads in houses without mess or clutter are a far cry from reality for most of us. Yet that is the ideal, the vision we strive for, and secretly, creates the guilt when we feel we don't measure up.
What a contrast. How can the lonely, the hurting, the grief stricken, those in pain from separation or divorce, mothers and fathers who cannot spend Christmas with their children find themselves in these images of Christmas festivities? Where do they find real and authentic joy at this time of year? What is the community's response to the elderly, the sick, and the mentally ill? How comfortably do we sit with the knowledge that those who are on low incomes or unemployed will probably go into further debt to finance presents and a Christmas that won't disappoint their kids?
We all want the best for our families and ourselves, we need to pause and consider just what that might be. There are many ways to celebrate, to connect with family, to give gifts of affirmation and love. By buying into the vision of the retail giants we lose some of our sense of self, we become consuming units in a vast economic machine. Our Christmas experience becomes a homogenised one, pre-packaged food, presents, wrapping, and cards all without real variety or thought.
Whether we simplify Christmas or go all out the key is feeling that we have a choice. We can choose if, how and when we celebrate. Rather than Christmas being an event that just happens to us every year we can make a conscious decision regarding our level of engagement. As individuals, families and communities we need to seek authentic ways of celebrating that retain our integrity.
The gifts of Christmas are there for the taking, time to celebrate and enjoy good food while relaxing and nurturing relationships with family, friends, community, and creator, time to reflect spiritually, an opportunity to show and receive love with the giving of gifts. Give yourself and your family the gift of choice as you plan your Christmas experience this year. May peace love and joy be more than just words on a greeting card for you and those for whom you love and care.
Back to Library