My children and I went on a special grocery shopping trip this week. We were shopping for a family we didn't know, Family No. 20, as part of the local Christmas program to help to those in need have a happy holiday. I asked my children to think about what they would most want to have in their fridge over the holidays.
For my son, it was all about breakfast — pancakes and bacon. My daughter thought of sweets — a chocolate pie was her top pick. We polled friends we met in the store and were told not to forget the gravy (how could we?) and the cranberry sauce (of course!). For me, it was the best oranges I could find — a treat found in the toe of every childhood stocking on Christmas morning — the thick-skinned kind that is easy to peel and separate. We left the store with our pocketbook a bit thinner and our hearts a bit happier. It's my favorite part about Christmas, this antidote to the holiday gimmies — long lists of expectations not only limited to the children in the house.
I do enjoy buying gifts for my children, and imagining my son's expression when he sees the Katy Perry-cancelling headphones he's getting or my daughter opening the wrapping on her new doll. But it's an interesting thing, relating happiness to stuff. Because with a very few exceptions, I don't remember many gifts I got as a child. I got a bed once that my dad made for me, right after we moved into the huge house he built to replace the tiny cabin we had lived in for 10 years. I remember seeing the house lit up with real electric lights instead of kerosene lamps and having a real bed, not a mattress on the floor. It was an amazing feeling of wealth and space and comfort. But, for the most part, gifts are not the memories that stand out.
Instead, I remember the traditions, traditions that we all enjoyed, like cutting the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and decorating it as the spruce scent wafted through the house, mixed with the wonderful aroma of my mother's cooking. I remember lighting real candles on that tree and signing carols together as a family. And we always opened one present, from my great aunt Alice, who always sent a beautiful ornament. One of those ornaments is on my tree now, a little bruised from time, but there quietly speaking of the past.
When I ventured out on my own and had these two children, I had to decide how to do Christmas. We are not religious, although if there was ever a time I would feel comfortable in a church it would be now. I decided the holidays should be a time to spread peace. And I wanted to teach my children a bit about that. Peace was not going to come from a bigger pile of gifts under the tree for two children who already celebrate the holiday at two homes and had generous relatives. No, more peace would surely come from giving.
So every year, we deliberately give away half our Christmas. I split the budget cleanly in two and try my very best to stick to that. When we go over, it's almost always because my son advocates for a gift not for himself but for the young boy he's shopping for — who, like him — loves "Star Wars" Legos. And on Christmas Day, after the present frenzy is over, we sit together for a minute and imagine our family, gathered by their tree, surrounded by pancakes and chocolate pie and the best oranges in town. It never ceases to touch me deeply, the gratitude I feel for being able to give, for making the choice to help my children give, and for choosing the happiness that comes from the whole experience once again. Happy holidays to all, especially Family No. 20.
Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.
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