When Christmas is Too Much

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I love the rhythms of seasons and holidays; I love the anticipation and the “setting aside.” But I’m trying to figure out the tension between making Advent a special time–a unique season– and keeping it simple.

Everything starts out all positive on December 1. I love the Christmas music on the radio. I get excited about the decorations and the lights. But now we’re at December 5, and I’m already tired of all the “Special Holiday Offers” in my inbox.

This time of year, there is always so much to spend money and time on. Presents factor in, but I’m also thinking of a new strand of lights, fancy food for hosting get-togethers, gas to travel far away, and coming up with an ever-lengthening list of holiday traditions.

Do you remember that scene from Christmas with the Kranks where Luther Krank is totaling up all the money they spent on Christmas the previous year?  No matter how well we budget our time and money, that’s how Christmas can become. We end up with absurd-seeming categories like “ornament repair,” and we have no idea how. And we just want a break from it. As kids, it took forever for Christmas to arrive, but now it’s here again before we finished sweeping last year’s Christmas tree needles from the floor (True story: this actually happened for us even though we moved this summer. Don’t ask me how).

Some of this spending (both time and money) is good, but I’ve been thinking more and more about the centrality of stuff to my life and to my celebrations. Since we have a chance to start fresh with our own family, I’m thinking a lot about what adds to a Christmas celebration and what doesn’t.

One of the key examples is gifts. While gifts aren’t my love language, I really do enjoy receiving gifts and finding and giving someone that perfect gift. But it can become stressful, overwhelming, and quite expensive. And when it’s just spending money to preserve feelings or a tradition, it’s too much for me.

Decorations are another example. Sometimes I think that if I spend money on that perfect advent tree or a new ornament, I will feel more fulfilled in some way. I imagine the traditions that can continue in my family if I buy the perfect Christmas plates for us to use during the holiday season. We’ll have the holiday party no one will want to miss, and it will start with those beautiful plates.

Even traditions can become cumbersome. I see this as I look around at people my own age. Some traditions their families had they look back on fondly (and often continue to observe). But some they find ridiculous and cumbersome; they are glad to leave them behind.  A 24 day long list of traditions seems like it will create a loving family and a joyous, meaningful season (not to mention a great Facebook album).

But none of this is true. One more trip to Starbucks to get a red cup or one more holiday cookbook is not necessary to make this season better.

I watch my son. He would be just as happy if we didn’t have a Christmas tree. He will smile at the gift of a new stuffed animal or a fancy toy, but it doesn’t hold his attention for too long. But I do love hearing his little gasp as he sees the lit Christmas tree again after a nap or in the morning. I love how excited he is to go on chilly walks. I love how he listened to me as I told him stories about the ornaments I was working on for our Jesse tree today. I remind myself of his simple joys whenever I begin to focus on the stuff or stress of Christmas.

He’s still a baby and hasn’t even lived through one Christmas yet, so I think back even to my childhood, to what stands out about Christmas. Yes, I remember the presents and the good food. But I was also so excited about seeing my godparents on Christmas Day. I loved seeing my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents on Christmas Eve. I loved the movies we watched on ABC Family year after year lying on the floor of our playroom.Usually it wasn’t about spending lots of money and time, it was about the things that organically happened in our family as we celebrated year after year.

It’s not bad to spend money or time. Just this year, I spent money on a childhood “dream”: monogrammed stockings (I know it sounds strange, but as a child I spent so much time looking through those Christmas editions of catalogues like Pottery Barn imagining what stockings I would buy when I had a family of my own).  I love our new stockings. And we’ll  start to create traditions with our own family over time.

But I also say no to things. I remind myself that more holiday decor just means finding more storage 11 months of the year. I try to enjoy what we have rather than always coming up with a list of wants. Too often, that’s what Christmas becomes for me–a list of wants and expectations. I don’t like being let down. Not everything has to be a tradition; some things can be repeated for a year or two or maybe not at all. We don’t have to focus on creating memories; they will happen and will often be unexpected. After all, life changes and traditions must be flexible and focused on people.

This isn’t something I’ve figured out. Right now, I’m trying to decide whether or not we should buy a beautiful nativity set for our son as his first Christmas gift. I keep envisioning our children playing with it down the road, telling the story over and over. And I’m asking myself, “Is this a good thing to buy? Is it a good thing to buy now? Will it add to the celebration of Christmas in a meaningful way? Does it bring us joy?”

Mostly we need time to anticipate, to wonder, and to delight. I’m learning to dig deep when doing/buying something to get at my underlying expectation and hope–to find out whether it is enhancing or attempting to replace the joy of Christ’s coming.

My next post will explore the other side of this–how gifts and Santa affected me as a child.

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