Hating Christmas began in 1976, when my mom broke the news that Santa Claus wasn't real. An imaginative child, immersed in Pippi Longstocking and Narnia, doubting the existence of magic had never occurred to me. Having that belief shattered embittered me toward myths throughout my adolescence. Make-believe is for suckers, Virgina, miracles on 34th Street included.
When I found myself a mother at 20, I fought to keep the Santa Claus story from pervading our home. Because my husband had much fonder memories -- dozens of cousins gathered on Christmas Eve to await Santa's appearance were never disappointed, thanks to the well-disguised efforts of a certain jolly townsman -- he hoped to recreate the magic for our own children. I attempted an end run around the whole damn holiday, pointing out that since we weren't raising our children as Christian or mainstream, why even do Christmas? Let's more appropriately honor the earth, the seasons. Winter Solstice, baby!
Well, unless you're living on your own private island or way, way up in the hills, keeping your children away from Christmas is impossible. It's everywhere. And with well-intentioned folks constantly asking "What's Santa bringing you this year?", one either has to assume the mantle of humorless curmudgeon or eventually acquiesce and hope for minimal harm. Besides, once the children hit school age, Santa became the least of my Christmas concerns. Just having to pull off the holiday at all sent me into a panic -- I never had enough money to live up to expectations.
I know, "Christmas isn't about money!" At least, that's what the people who have it tell me. Yes, of course Christmas -- or, if you're of another faith, the corresponding winter holiday -- is not about money. At least not completely. Just enough to pain you.
For those of us with school age children, an unpleasant dichotomy emerges. We hope to instill higher values -- gratitude, kindness, thoughtfulness towards others and the world we live in -- and yet what financially impoverished parent hasn't felt the stabbing guilt when, within moments, all presents are opened and the look on their child's face says, "Is that all?"
Oh, I can hear the knee-jerk responses about how children don't need presents, they need love, growing up unspoiled by material goods is better in the long run, blah blah blah. Yes. I get it. We all get it. But the thing is, as a parent, you want to give to your child. And when the holidays are involved, giving takes the form of new possessions in colorful wrapping. When you can't provide that, avoiding a sense of failure is more than most of us can manage.
My dream was always to skip town mid-November, spend six weeks on a secluded tropical island, then return for New Year's -- a much more egalitarian holiday. Instead I managed to find creative (some would say, "desperate") ways to make Christmas work.
For example: a person can underpay all her December utility bills by one-third. Typically, nothing will get shut off if that much has been paid (emphasis on "typically.") Let's say, just for discussion, I have $180 worth of utility bills. With this method, I now have $60 for gifts. Of course, a person would have to be very, very responsible in January to make up for it. (A column I'll write in December.)
Hypothetically, a credit card can also be used to one's advantage. If a person owes $40 on said credit card, and has a $30 internet bill and a $100 phone bill, she can pay all $170 to the credit card company, then use the now-available credit to pay the other bills, coming out $40 ahead -- and if she also only pays part of the utility bills, she'll now have about $80 more. Clearly, a dangerous game (as my credit report indicates). I advise against it. Don't do it. (Unless you have to.)
More constructively, skip the TV and the mall and anything else that might dangle child-directed advertising at your little darlings. The less they know they want, the better for you. Cultivate an appreciation for books and art. You can find all sorts of decent used children's books at Booklegger and Tin Can Mailman, and a sketchbook plus colored pencils doesn't cost much at all.
If your relatives long to dote on your child, let them. If pride keeps you from allowing this, get over it. The more people looking out for your kids, the better. If their taste runs extremely counter to yours, preempt with a list of specifics: "Hi! Hope you're well! We're doing great! Looking forward to the holidays and figured you'd want Janie's 'Santa' list ..."
Likewise, if you have a trusted and generous friend who gets your situation and proffers to help, accept. Some day you may be in a position to repay the favor; in the meantime, be an active listener, offer to babysit, do what you can to embody a good friend. The holidays are about giving: let them give.
If you have similarly cash-challenged friends, spend the holiday together. Pool resources, get crafty, bake cookies. While the whole presents thing truly is a Christmas problem to solve, the best memories revolve around food and family, including that family we choose ourselves. No matter what your financial status, you do have the power to create joy by being a loving, kind and positive person.
Keep noting Solstice. Nature is important. Resist the temptation to apologize for being broke. You can be just as gracious a hostess serving a $4 bottle of wine as a $20 bottle. Buy what you can for your children, but if you can't ante up for the latest iPod or coolest cell phone, well, that's the breaks. Curtail whining by having the kids donate clothes or canned foods. Ask them to write down all the things they're lucky to have (a home, a bed, no cavities, a nice mom, whatever). Put down a dollar for each thing they list. Go together to buy a gift for Toys for Tots. When they go to bed, make your own list. Some people have nothing; some have lost more than money can fix. If that's not you, be grateful. Remind yourself, the holidays aren't about money. Not completely.
I've even learned to love Christmas.