Saturday, December 05, 2015

Christmas: It's Not About the Stuff

I realized something a few years ago. When my mind drifts back to Christmases past, I don't remember the gifts. Really. I couldn't tell you who gave what to whom, even if my life depended on it. Instead, my memories take me back to family gatherings, beloved friends, holiday activities, and traditions.

I don't remember what toy or gadget Santa brought me when I was ten years old, but I remember the gifts were piled beautifully underneath a real Eastern Red Cedar tree my dad cut down with his bare hands, and I remember riding around town in the back seat of an old, green Oldsmobile Delta 88 looking at Christmas lights and occasionally commenting, "Oh, look at that house! Wow!"

I don't remember what my high school boyfriend gave me in twelfth grade, but I remember that several close friends and I went Christmas caroling all over town that year in the back of a pickup truck-and we had a blast. I also remember my family received dozens of Christmas cards, and we taped them to a door so we could admire them and vote for the prettiest cards.

I do remember a few gifts from 2010, but they are grossly overshadowed by the happy memory of my mother-in-law, frail and living with dementia, spending a day with us watching the animated movie, "Up," in front of a warm, cozy fire.

For years I've pondered the rampant commercialization of Christmas and other holidays. Somewhere along the way, we've all been brainwashed into thinking Christmas isn't Christmas without spending a small fortune on gifts. We've been bombarded with images of luxury vehicles parked in the driveway topped with gigantic bows and women opening small boxes revealing sparkling diamonds. Retailers want us to believe we cannot possibly find joy in the season without giving and receiving lots and lots of stuff.

I get it. It's about profits. It's about the economy. According to the National Retail Federation, the holiday season can account for anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of a retailer's annual sales. That's a big, crazy chunk of change. Indeed, if everyone chose not to purchase holiday gifts, it would probably throw the United States into a tailspin.

But for me, it turns my stomach to see retailers pushing the materialistic nature of Christmas so many weeks in advance. Last year, the Christmas decorations were out at big box stores before Halloween. That's just ridiculous.

I, for one, would like to see a Christmas renaissance where Christmas and the entire holiday season are celebrated in a simpler way with more emphasis on meaning, love, charity, and fellowship. I realize that this is a tall order to fill, especially for families with small children. Anyway, I would like to propose a few ideas for the holidays that don't cost a lot of money but are loaded with value.
  • READ A CHRISTMAS BOOK TO A CHILD. There are lots of great Christmas titles to share with children during the holidays. Check a few out from the local library or visit a book store and buy one or more. Practice reading, giving each character his or her own voice and pausing in places to add suspense. Consider The Polar Express, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Christmas Story, or Carl's Christmas. And if you can't read a book to a child in person, use your smartphone and video yourself reading the book. Post the video on YouTube or Facebook and give the link to your nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and the neighborhood kids.
  • HOST A SNOWFLAKE CONTEST. First, select an unbiased judge. Next, have each participant fold, cut, and unfold a sheet of white paper to make a unique snowflake. Display all the flakes on a table or on a large window and have the judge select a favorite. Announce the winner as "The 2014 Snowflake Queen" or "The 2014 Snowflake King." Consider giving the winner a small prize.
  • SKETCH THE FAMILY TREE. Family history and genealogy are always priceless gifts for family members. On a large sheet of paper, place your name on the far left. Draw lines branching off to the right and write your mother and father's names. Make sure that you record full names including maiden names, if you know them. Draw lines extending to the right of each of your parents' names and write each of their parents' names. Go as far as you can remember. If you have the time and motivation, make a few phone calls or research your family at the library or online and add to the tree. To add even more value to the tree, attach sheets documenting specifics about certain family members. For example, you might write, "My grandfather, Henry Herman Lanier, was a farmer who lived on and farmed land just east of Metter, Georgia. He also worked for the Fuller Brush Company and the railroad during his life. He was a tall man who smoked a pipe. Papa Lanier loved fishing and chocolate covered cherries, and he always had a bottle of whiskey hidden under his truck seat."
  • GO CHRISTMAS CAROLING. Make a few copies of six or seven Christmas carols. Get your group together and practice a little. Then, walk around the neighborhood or drive around town and stop at friends' homes to sing and spread merriment. Again, if you can't go out, use a smartphone and make a Christmas caroling video and post it on Facebook or YouTube.
  • VISIT YOUR SICK AND ELDERLY FRIENDS AND FAMILY. The gift of time outweighs any object you could ever purchase. Make some time and go. Consider taking photographs to share, a movie to watch, or other items that would spur conversations (old heirlooms or keepsakes). Consider taking shut-ins out for a cup of coffee, an ice cream cone, or to look at Christmas decorations. If someone is sick during the holidays, consider taking him a couple of cans of chicken noodle soup, some cough drops, and a box of tissue.
  • GIVE HANDCRAFTED GIFTS. Through the years, I've received wonderful homemade gifts from my mother. She's made pillows, blankets, pickles, jelly, barbecue sauce, cakes and pies. These gifts are more special than impersonal gift cards or money, and I am happy to know she didn't spend a fortune.
  • GIVE A KEEPSAKE OR HEIRLOOM. Consider passing along an heirloom and keepsake to a family member or friend. Do you have your great-grandmother's apron? Or your dad's pocketknife or fishing lure? Or a vase from Aunt Jenny's house? Or the first book you ever read to yourself? Maybe it's time to let go of one of your special possessions. And consider capturing your keepsake's origin and history on paper for the recipient.
String popcorn. Attend a church service together. Make hot chocolate from scratch. Find a live nativity scene in your community. Try to make divinity or fudge. Volunteer at a local nonprofit. Ring the bell in front of a Salvation Army kettle. Feed the hungry. Buy a coat for a homeless child. Take a name from an Angel Tree and provide a toy to a child who is less fortunate. Learn to play a favorite Christmas song on the piano and wow your holiday guests. Tell those closest to you how much you love them.

Instead of overspending this year, consider participating in the simple activities that enhance relationships and add meaning, and memories, to life. Think about it before you buy this year. It's really not about the stuff!

Amber Lanier Nagle has published hundreds of articles in national and regional magazines.

She is the brainchild behind Project Keepsake (, a published collection of nonfiction stories about the origins and histories of keepsakes-a pocket knife, a cake pan, a quilt, a milking stool, etc. She says, "Everyone has a keepsake, and every keepsake has a story to tell."

She's also published two eBooks titled "Southern Exposure" and "Have a Seat."

She facilitates writing workshops on freelance writing, writing family stories, writing about keepsakes, and other topics.

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