I don’t get to write often with 300 students, 2 kids, and a husband needing my time (sounds like a bad version of the 12 days of Christmas doesn’t it). So I’ve been kicking around what I would write about for quite some time and then as it usually goes, all of it went out the window with a Facebook post a friend wrote this morning. My friend wrote “This is the first time in years I have not been done with all of the Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving. Feeling the pressure this holiday brings. I still vote for a second Thanksgiving because the expectations and the stress that comes with Christmas are just not ok.”
This post surprised me, because she is very level headed and didn’t seem like one to get caught up in the Christmas present hype. And then I did some self-reflection. I used to be obsessed with gifts, what happened? Oh right, the African husband. I was raised with my mom constantly quizzing me on what I wanted starting in early November and she would talk about it all the way until Christmas. I was expected to really save and think of her gift as well. One year in high school I spent five more dollars on my friend’s secret Santa gift then on her present and she was furious for weeks.
. I still had the present fever when we first married. I remember our oldest’s first Christmas, we were broke, but I was determined she would have a good amount of gifts. My parents weren’t there, we spent Christmas with friends and I knew my gifts would be the only ones. As she refused to tear the wrapping paper and showed no interest in the toys, I realized how silly my gift obsession had been. Wole had tried to warn me. Gifts hadn’t really been much a part of his Christmas. You went to church and maybe, maybe you got something on Boxing Day. I wanted him to get me the perfect gift and to get him one as well, but over the years I finally realized that’s not the part of Christmas I really care about and he certainly doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong there are still gifts, but we as a family don’t harp on it. The girls tell me one doll they want, I get them a few surprises and that is it. The toys may or may not get played with, but I try and make the tradition and the day special.
As the years have passed what I remember from childhood Christmases aren’t the gifts but setting up the tree at our house, something I often did by myself while my parents were at work. I would carefully find a home for each ornament and remember where each one came from. The pull string Minnie Mouse from our Disney World trip when I was seven, the Cinderella mice dad had procured when he was a McDonald’s manager, the rolled paper Christmas tree that took me hours in 2nd grade to make, and many more. My parents have given me most of those ornaments, they don’t put up a tree anymore, and my daughters get just as excited as me with their own favorites. This is what I have tried to make special and important to the kids, time together and stories.
This year we did something we’ve never done before and it had a huge effect on me, as it hopefully did for the girls. I am sure you know this year has been a divisive one. Racial, political, and nativist tensions are high and I’ve felt that keenly. November 9th I became an activist for policies I believe in and started standing up to family members with viewpoints that thinly veil racism and xenophobia. At first I had planned to donate to refugee organizations and planned parenthood as their “gifts” for Christmas, but after listening to a compelling freakenomics podcast on isolationism (http://freakonomics.com/podcast/trust-me/) I had a less dickish idea. The girls and I printed out recipes, went to the store, invited friends over we hadn’t seen in a while and baked up the mother load of cookies and candies. The next night we went to a few carefully chosen neighbors with our goodie bags in hand.
At the first house we connected with a “young grandma” our oldest had bonded with on Halloween. Once she saw we were giving her treats, expecting nothing in return, she invited us in. My girls were quickly playing with her lonely grandson and she was talking us up about her house flipping business. Soon her husband came down and bonded with Wole over golf and plans were made to see each other again.
The next house I hadn’t wanted to visit, but my darling oldest was excited to and how could I let her down. It was the neighbors down the hill from our backyard, who had two yippy little dogs, two grown daughters, and they really kept to themselves. The door had a very ominous sign on it saying “No solicitors.” It took a long time after we knocked before anyone finally came to the door. They were probably hiding and hoping we’d go away, that’s my usual tactic. Finally one of their daughters yelled, “Who is it?” “It’s your neighbor from up the hill and we have treats for you.” Their other daughter opened the door and was grinning. “Mom, they brought us treats! We never get visitors. (Maybe because of the huge sign I thought sarcastically) Thank you so much!” Wole thinks I’m crazy, but that was my favorite house of the night.
Over the summer, I had fallen in love with the neighbors next to them. They are retired, the husband drives a motorcycle, they are often out at their firepit, and they have full conversations with my verbose children. When they answered the door they immediately ushered us in. The house was small, but beautifully decorated. My 5 year old, not being subtle, stated, “I want to see the place.” So while the wife led her on a tour, Joe showed us his music room and I discovered he was the trombone player I had heard playing sometimes. He seemed in disbelief when I told him I was a trombone player myself and gave the girls a cd of his jazz group.
Last but not least we visited the woman who was the knower of all in the neighborhood. She was the first one to welcome people when they moved to the area as she walked her dog and knew most of the neighborhood gossip. We quickly learned more about her and her husband then we had in the four years we’ve lived here. Again plans to see each other again were made.
As I reflected on the evening, I was amazed on how a small gesture of giving with nothing expected in return could turn strangers closer to a family. That’s what I want Christmas and hopefully other days to be for me and my family.