Christmas presents mean different things to different people. Some are into piles of big, fancy gifts; some are comfortable with small, personal, sentimental gifts. And the giving doesn’t actually have as much to do with income as people might expect (or justify)–we all view it in a different way.
I grew up in borderline poverty (my mother would probably protest that it was just working-class…but there was a lot less money than that) and Christmas was always a pretty simple affair. If there was any kind of exciting present under the tree for me, it was probably something from my maternal grandmother. As the eldest child of four, and the one most aware of the reality of our world, I hoped for one nice thing a year and was grateful for anything. In the early years, we still got presents from our maternal grandparents (with many, many grandchildren, they eventually stopped) and I suspect that my mother might have made suggestions to the grandmothers. One year I got nighties from both; the next, the lovely fake fur hats just like those all my friends had.
I have memories of the year Santa brought me a beading kit–those giant boxes you still see today full of many colours of bright plastic beads, with clasps and strings. I’m not sure I even made that many necklaces–just spent much of my time admiring all the colours and placing beads in piles and imagining.
One year, my grandmother gave me an Easy-Bake oven. I was ecstatic–an oven, and tons and tons of mixes. Given the lack of money in our house, the mixes were a dream come true as that meant–snacks! The mixes didn’t last long as I quickly worked my way through them and made treats for me and the boys. It’s funny, but in recent years, I’ve become aware of how much of my childhood memories revolve around the idea of food–not the sentimental tv movie of families gathering for a holiday meal, but just the everyday reality of there being food for supper, or something in my lunch box. These days I understand that my constant thought of food was not greed, but hunger…something I understand more when I see pictures of me at 5’6″ and barely 100 pounds.
All of this is a long-winded introduction to the idea that I hate gift-giving with a passion and it makes me miserably uncomfortable. Even if we have the money at Christmas with which to buy gifts, it makes me feel awkward as I hate the idea of anything not useful or practical. I get frantic at the idea of buying the kids something just because they love it at that moment, and have put it on a list at that moment–and as the pragmatic one of the family, I know how long it will sit on a shelf unopened.
It is especially awkward when one is dealing with different families and wildly differing incomes. Most of my husband’s family members are much better off than I, and some of them very much so. Ty and I often joke that we’re a mixed marriage–I grew up in relative poverty, he with well-to-do parents. (There’s also the fact that he’s show-biz, and I’m a civilian; and I’m oldest child, he’s youngest–honestly, how did we ever find each other?) And the truth is that we have never been able to match any of them in gift-giving.
Some people will argue ye old “it’s the thought that counts” but we all know that we can have whatever thought we want–it doesn’t mean the recipient feels the same way! There are those who cherish homemade presents as much as purchased–and there are those who won’t give those presents a second glance, sometimes even barely managing to finish taking the wrapping paper off before flinging them aside.
It’s also hard because for those who link gift-giving with income, the rules are never hard and fast. One year, there was no gift-giving for the adults as some family members were in difficulty; I thought that was a decision for all time, and was thrown to find gifts being given to adults the next year. At the same time, the reality is that not all people are able to do homemade gifts–not everyone has time, talent, ability or interest. I, and others, can’t assume that a person who buys all their presents is any less a generous, thoughtful person than the person scrambling through their craft supplies.
In my second family (life is complicated! Don’t ask!), our matriarch long ago expressed discomfort with the Christmas giftgiving. With lots of children and grandchildren, it was quite a pile under the tree at Christmas. She had read an article in The Star that summer which noted that 40% of children were living in poverty, in Toronto*. We talked about it at length, as she wanted to make it a family rule that we didn’t do any presents for adults, only children, and that we all as individual families give money to a charity for Christmas. One sister was unhappy with the general vote, and when we talked later, I remembered her story that they had all been taught as children to always give each other a present even if it was only a pencil or a hand-drawn picture; something that said they had taken a moment out of their life and thought of that person. With that idea in mind, we re-voted and agreed that purchased presents for the youngest generation were acceptable (but not mandatory) and that presents for adults were to be as low-key and low-stress as possible.
Now, obviously, that can create it’s own levels of stress! Several of us are crafters, but not all. Some years we all have the time and energy for creative endeavours; other years we’re all tired and busy. Some years, one of us still makes ourself sick with worry at not having money for any sort of presents; while others have a year with extra income and cheerfully spend it. It is always about the thought–never about the perceived equality of reciprocity. Meaning–no one is tallying the cost of your present and deciding you came up short.
It’s not a perfect system, and many of us do still stress. But over the years, we’ve received and cherished homemade truffles, soaps, sleep pants and napkins. The matriarch would carefully comb bookstores through the year and give out a combination of new purchases, and prized finds of secondhand books (in a family of booklovers and serious readers, no book is unprized, truly). There was the year one sibling was too busy dealing with family crises on her partner’s side, and had a last minute scramble getting to town to join us for Christmas. She was feeling down and crushed that her presents for the children were “only” decorated paper bags with dollar store notebooks (covered with fake fur!), fancy pencils, crayons and a few other things purchased at Giant Tiger. Those bags were, honestly, the biggest hit of the Christmas. My children loved and cherished the contents and used them until the notebooks were tattered, and the pencils but stubs.
This year, I’m almost too worn out to worry about Christmas. It has been a really bad two years for us…two years ago, we found out that the father of my second family probably had lung cancer. Christmas 2007 was spent trying not to talk about it in front of the grandchildren, who didn’t know, and trying not to think about the biopsy he had to have in the New Year. The biopsy eventually turned out to be positive, and he was scheduled for surgery after Easter (which was strangely early that year–in late March). While he was in the hospital, recovering from his surgery, my father-in-law was admitted to hospital. They were trying to get him stabilized and off his blood thinners so they could do a biopsy on what doctors suspected was liver cancer. My father-in-law died April 10, 2008 with much of his family gathered around him.
I tried to comfort our childrenwho were desperately worried about their other grandfather, by reassuring them that he was sick, not dying. In fact, he called me that weekend furious that his doctor wouldn’t give him a day pass for my father-in-law’s funeral!
Unfortunately, the very next evening, I was called to the hospital with other family members. He died the next morning before they were even able to diagnose his unexpected complications (a blood infection).
My second son, who has an anxiety disorder, developed OCD…in a constant panic that he would catch germs that could kill him (given that his grandfather had died from being in a hospital) he would wash his hands constantly. With his anxiety disorder, he would not see a doctor or take any medicine. So, we spent months trying to deal with his OCD on our own, and helping him to achieve some level of control.
Ty and I were geographically the closest to both mothers, and found ourselves often running over to do chores, or errands or having some contact (although, not for some months at first for me–one of the sisters chose to stay with mother to help her adjust). By August, Ty was worn down, exhausted and ended up very sick for the month. So, no one was surprised when I got sick in September, just after the kids started their new school year. After two weeks, it was quite clear that I had a serious virus, seemingly flu. After three weeks, it was clear that I wasn’t getting better.
Unfortunately, we had been struggling financially all year. Ty had lost quite a bit of work time with the deaths and funerals, dealing with family…and I had planned to start some sort of job in September to contribute to the income. Instead, I was flat on my back in bed, unable to stay awake, barely able to walk.
Luckily, I had enough of an awareness of what my symptoms might mean, that I went to a doctor quicker than I might have otherwise (given that I kept telling everyone that one can feel exhausted for up to six weeks after severe flu). So, by November, I was pretty sure of my diagnosis although I didn’t receive an official one until February: rheumatoid arthritis. Many tests, many prescription costs.
Then, because the gods hadn’t jerked us around enough–for reasons that aren’t completely clear, our son’s OCD became severe. He was washing his hands forty times a day, and was barely able to function. At one point, he stopped eating because he couldn’t figure out how to eat without touching his food in any way. Eventually, the Acute Psychiatric Care team at Sick Kid’s debated for an hour as to whether to hospitalize him for his own good. Given that he’s a teenager, they decided that it had the potential to make things worse so they sent us home to wait for a psychiatric appointment which took six weeks. It was months before things were somewhat calmer in our house.
So, all this is to say…it’s been a long haul. And we’re pretty worn out. I’m happy these days to care enough to get out of bed. I am not currently filled with the Christmas spirit…although I’m trying to find some enthusiasm. Perhaps that’s why I decided to start posting Christmas decoration inspiration each day…something simple and cheap and pretty to add a little brightness to each day.
So…this year, I’m determined not to panic or worry. I’ve announced repeatedly that Christmas will be low-key. I’ve warned my husband not to spend more than $40 on a present for me. If I can keep him down to $20, I’ll probably be happier! But, I’ll also try and realize that it’s my issue…
I’m getting small items for all the kids. I’m going to embrace my mother-in-law’s idea of lower-cost presents for Christmas, when it’s such a number to buy and keep the bigger items on their sishlist for their birthdays (maybe!). I’ll make something for some of the older ones…and above all I will try really hard not to worry or stress (luckily, Prozac is cheap! That’s my real present to everyone). I will try really hard to enjoy everyone’s thoughtfulness and generosity to my children. And most of all, I will try very hard to cling to the idea that Christmas is a time for the family to gather and be together. To try and have moments of contact with everyone…to have it actually be about a season of love and peace.
And, quietly, away from it all, I will send money to our local shelter…so that others might have the joy of an unexpected present, an unexpected meal.
*see a recent article on www.canada.com, “637.000 Canadian children live in poverty”