Post Holiday Reflections

I enjoyed the holidays this year, but I am glad they are over. The tree is no longer shedding needles in our living room, and the few lights and garlands we hung have been taken down. We celebrated a simple Christmas here, with very few decorations other than the nativities and the tree.  We exchanged few gifts. We are trying to teach our children to be thoughtful and discriminating in what they choose to give each other rather than buying every single thing they think (rightly) that their siblings would enjoy.
I remember a Christmas ten years ago. We were staying in our graduate student apartment for the holidays because I was too pregnant to travel. It would be our first Christmas alone with our little toddler, and I was so excited. We made origami and crocheted ornaments for our little tree and I sewed and stuffed a nativity set for our son to play with. We picked out two gifts to give him–one book and one toy.

A few days before Christmas, our Relief Society president called and asked if she could drop off something for us. I was shocked when she started unloading the back of her SUV, which was filled with food from the Bishop’s Storehouse, diapers, detergent, and wrapped gifts. I protested that surely, this must be a mistake, there are other families who need this more than we did. I was hurt at the thought that others deemed us needy when I felt that we were doing well; we had little income and a tight budget, but we were making it work.  It was a very humbling experience.

Years later, when I was helping sisters fill out food orders as a member of our branch Relief Society presidency, I was grateful we’d received that assistance. The first hand experience  I had with the receiving that aid helped me serve those families.

But after we’d been given those extra gifts, I avoided telling other people how little we planned to give our kids for Christmas. While we were poor, they always assumed that was out of necessity that we only gave our kids two or three presents, when our motivation was to allow our children to enjoy the gifts they have instead of drowning them in a glut of underappreciated stuff.

Our kids enjoyed their gifts this year. Mostly books, some family games, a few horse figurines and toy cars. We hiked and read and played together during the break and were content.

But our kids have gone back to school now. My oldest told me, in tones of resignation, that every single kid in his class got more for Christmas than he did. I told him I believed it. (He got two books about poisonous plants and a couple of decks of Magic cards.) I asked him if he was happy with what he got before he went back to school. He was.

When he was choosing his gift for his sister, he wanted to get everything for her that he knew she liked. This was a big improvement from the days when getting a gift for someone meant buying what he most wanted to have and then feeling slightly resentful that that the other person got to have it. We had a discussion then about the law of diminishing returns that I revived this week to ease his comparative discontent.

Why do we, as Americans, feel the need to give (and get) so many gifts at Christmastime? Do we believe that if some is good, more is better? Or are we trying to create a world of magical realism, a snow-flocked sparkly refuge from the hardness of our disappointing lives? We collectively tell our children stories we know to be false (Santa Claus) because we want them to believe in Christmas miracles. We attribute feelings of benevolence to the holiday season itself, even as we strip it of astronomical or religious significance. Because we know these stories are hollow, we prop them up with the ornaments and gifts we buy every year. When we return to the simple nativity story, most of the trappings of the season reveal themselves to be unnecessary clutter.

I’m glad the holidays are done and past. I am grateful for the gifts I have received, especially the meals and conversations shared with family and friends. And this year, like every year, I am humbled by how much I have been given. It is more than enough.

41 comments for “Post Holiday Reflections

  1. I have roughly the same reaction to this post as I did to your bread one: I wish you could talk about what works for your family without implying a moral superiority to people who choose to do things differently, especially where you ascribe impure motives to them. Some people just like to celebrate. With presents. And decorations. Let them, and try to recognize that it just might be a positive experience for their families.

  2. To add a bit to Julie, I take issue with the Santa-is-a-lie feeling. I want my daughters to have childhood and live in a magical world. What advantage, then, to telling them there aren’t fairies, that the Snow White they hugged at Disneyland is an actress, or that there is no Hogwarts? They’ll figure it out at some point, but for now, I can allow them magic.

    And in our house, we debate the appropriate balance between our secular and religious celebration of Christmas, but (a) both are important, IMHO, and (b) there’s no inherent reason that the secular side takes away from the religious (or vice versa). For bedtime almost every night in December, one daughter asked me to sing Rudolph and the other Away in a Manger. And they stand together pretty well.

  3. Presents and decorations are a great part of celebrating. But taken to excess, they overshadow the cause of celebration. As a society, we care more about the stuff than the story. We feel this is wrong, and Christains among us plaintively cry to restore Christ to Christmas, but fail because excessive trappings leave no room for substance.

    The moral superiority of excess is taken for granted in our consumer-driven culture. It is the status quo we live in. Any advocation for simplicity will necessarily question that assumption. And if your holiday traditions are meaningful and positive for your family, what threat are my musings to your festivities? None at all.

  4. The Santa Claus phenomenon is interesting to me. I think we tell the stories because we no longer believe them, and because we want to see the purity and excitement of realized belief in our children. It is a way of remembering our own hope and excitement. I love the idea of making magic real.

    The current version of Santa in the US is an interesting modern invention. Our public school children are able to discuss him in schools because is known to not be real, but we want to believe in him anyway, unlike Christ, belief in whom is both deeply held by some parties and and hotly disputed by others. Santa becomes a safe way to talk about good will and generosity during the holidays without offending the impious. But shouldn’t too much emphasis on Santa offend the pious? I think the Santa story can be used in conjunction with the Nativity (in our family, we attribute the stocking gifts to Santa), but I fear that Santa’s gifts are too easily used to justify crass materialism.

  5. Great thoughts as always, Rachel. It’s easy to get caught up in the consumerism of the season. I always struggle with this issue, so it’s helpful to see thoughtful analysis.

    p.s. I hope your son got some pretty cool cards. :)

  6. I can’t do justice to your thoughts as I’m away from home without a computer, but essentially, I don’t see a world that considers excess consumption to be morally superior, or that (at least within the world of believing Christians) can’t see the story for the trappings. Maybe, when I get home, I’ll be able to flesh out these ideas.

  7. Re: Santa and public schools: my daughter’s public school actually broadly addresses religious holidays. Any parent can go in to discuss an upcoming religious celebration. I know she learned about an Indian religious celebration. She learned about St. Nicholas Day (which we ended up celebrating) , Hannakah, and Kwaanza. She probably also had a presentation on Christmas though, since that’s not new to her, she didn’t tell us about it.

    And I know not every public school is like this, but my experience isn’t one where Santa substitutes for Jesus on public schools.

    The way to really catch a vision of the non-religious celebratory nature of the season, it seems to me, is to celebrate in a major city. Christmas in NY is stunning, and in Chicago, it’s pretty much as good. (We saw a Klezmer band at the Art Institute of Chicago on the second day of Hannakah. And it was very cool, and both sincere and inclusive. And I don’t see a reason why we can’t combine our religious celebration with a celebratory style that invites people who aren’t practicing Christians to join us.)

  8. One member of my family loves to give an excessive number of gifts because, for for this person, it expresses love and thought. This generous giver thoughtfully selects various treasures year round, and eagerly looks forward to the delight of those to whom the gifts are given.

    Do I really need or want such a large volume of “stuff”? No. Would I think to ask for half of it? No. But do I see the genuine love and understanding of my personality and preferences in each? Definitely, and for that I’m grateful.

  9. (I am quickly coming to hate discussions of moral superiority.) If I say that simplicity is good, and call for us to recognize the excesses of our society in one particular area, such as Christmas presents, I am condemned for taking a morally superior attitude (which I associate with being called proud, ignorant, and wrong). That condemnation has implicit the assumption that what I advocate is no more moral that what I criticize, and therefore what I am criticizing is morally justified.
    So make the argument to justify an overabundance of gifts. Talk about the magic and camaraderie and joy of the season that you feel would be threatened by an overemphasis on simplicity. There is a valid argument to be made. But moral superiority dodge is a fallacy that robs all of us of the opportunity to have a good discussion.

    Sam-Your daughter’s school sounds great. I miss living in NY and being able to celebrate Hanukkah with my friends. What do you think about the greater point of a pretended belief in Santa filling in for a genuine belief in God in our secular society (of which public schools is just an example)?

  10. We do things differently with our kids. Instead of individual gifts wo only do family gifts from Mom and Dad. We talk to our kids and tell them “in this family we share” and so all gifts are for everybody. If friends or grandparents want to give gifts to individuals that is okay and they obviously get to keep them. My wife and I make sure we get at least one gift that every child will enjoy. So we got a Wii game, some boards games, a gymnastics mat, some magic cards, some hair brushes/new clips & such. Because they are family gifts every child got to go to school and say that they got a game, cards, gym mat, and board games, and the girls (4 of them) got new hair stuff. None of them felt like they didn’t get much even though there weren’t many presents under the tree – only 1 per kid – because they all have ownership.

    To help our kids think about Christmas in terms other than how many gifts the recieve my wife and I talk to them change our language about it. We don’t ask “what did you get for Christmas”, we ask “what did you give for Christmas”. We ask others to make this change when talking to our kids and encourage the kids to talk to others this way as well. We also encourage and help the kids, even the youngest ones, to think about their siblings and what they could give to them.

    We also don’t talk about Santa. We don’t tell our kids that he is a lie, but when we talk about where gifts come from I ask them ‘Where do all good gifts come from?” To which they all know that answer is God/Christ/heaven. The older ones have caught on that there is no Santa but the younger ones still believe. We don’t correct them but we also don’t put presents under the tree from him either. We let them believe and enjoy the magic for as long their minds want to.

    We often run into problems with grandparents who, like Julie in #1, think that we think of ourselves as morally superior just because we choose to do things differently than they do. Both my wife and I were raised in families that did Santa and lots of gifts (what in my mind is the typical Christmas) and so I suppose it is natural when we make a concious rejection of those traditions for our parents think we think ourselves as superior – that our way is better than their way. Because what other reason could their be, right? Well, we do think our way is better. But not that we are morally superior. We don’t view those traditions as a moral failing. Just like there are multiple ways to tie a pair of shoes and none of them are “wrong” or “immoral” – there are others way to celebrate Christmas that aren’t “superior” – just different.

  11. I do acknowledge there’s a struggle – especially on a child’s level – between the religious and commercial aspects of the holiday.

    When I was a child the way my parents battled it was to always make certain that religious observances were foremost to the commercialism. Christmas Eve in particular was our time for reflecting on the Savior and a great many traditions which bonded us as a family. I think this was because on Christmas Morning there was no way to divert our attention from the presents.

    On my own level I try to spend more of the month of December focusing on the joy of the season and remembering the significance of the Savior’s birth. My husband-of-two-years and I haven’t yet really evolved our own, joint philosophy of the holiday yet nor do we yet have children to hasten those decisions.

  12. Sam, and Rachel, you might be interested in Brad Gregory’s new book, The Unintended Reformation (Harvard, 2012), which argues exactly that in a multicultural America what has replaced arguing over theology is shopping, consuming: it is THE universal good, the one thing an ovewhelming majority can agree upon. It’s a phenomenal book, put much more subtly than I’ve done her, but sure to garner a lot of attention (already scheduled for a review, I know, in the NY Review of Books).

  13. Thank you for this. When I encounter these sort of accusations while trying to explain my minimalist Christmas preferences to others, I wish I had Hugh Nibley’s ghost there to translate my feelings into eloquent argument. Or maybe his “Enough is enough” would be enough? We all agree that our eye should always be toward guarding against any substitution of materialism for religious worship, in whatever season. And where that line is is of course different for different people (when I was growing up, each child got a ~$30 Santa gift and a ~$30 gift from the parents, so that’s my own standard of a “normal,” fully materialistic Christmas and people who grew up with more or less than that would have a different standard of normal), but if we and our children don’t feel much marring of our own wants in tending to the real and urgent needs of others during a season meant for the worship of Christ, I think we can safely say we’re missing any worthwhile point.

    I admire Rachel for admitting her son’s discontent after seeing the gifts of his classmates–some who preach minimalism try to claim that they have trained their children to be so happy with hula hoops and jacks that they don’t at all covet video game consoles and Barbie yachts. Even if that were possible, I don’t think it would be desirable: it’s good for us to get something, but not nearly everything, we want, and learn to count our blessings.

    There is a person in my family like the person Janell described in #8. She has struggled with the family’s attempts to downsize Christmas as she loves giving grand gifts–sometimes expensive, sometimes created lovingly with huge quantities of her scarce time. Whether or not I really love the gift itself, I can rarely help but feel the feeling behind it, and I admire that quality in her as a giver. However, her child, on the receiving end of all that joyful giving, is spoiled and entitled and ungrateful for most of her gifts. Frequently I will give her a gift and she will, immediately upon unwrapping it, set it aside without a “thank you” and reach immediately for the next unopened gift. Another member of my family and his wife are trying very hard to keep their lives free of clutter and raise their kids to be unspoiled and easily contented materially, and they have repeatedly asked us to be very conservative in our gifts to them and the children (though family obedience on this point is not always stellar). This year they asked their train-obsessed three-year-old son to give one of his beloved train sets away for Christmas. He struggled to be generous, but they explained why it was necessary and that he needed to give the whole set (not just a train car or two) so that the less fortunate child who received it would have as much fun with it as he had had. After handing his train to a homeless family, the little boy told me solemnly, “Some people don’t have houses. I gave them my train.” I was so touched and impressed. He got gifts for Christmas that he absolutely loved, but by asking a real sacrifice of this small child, his parents have made him a delight to give to. He is easily enthralled by even simple gifts and is generally a joy to be around. So while that giving impulse is a good one (and one that I need more of), it should be used with care, especially with children who are still figuring out how the world works, their place in it, and the real needs that exist and could be eased by their own sacrifices.

    As to the religious dimension of the season, I will say that our family’s downsizing of Christmas in the last three years has made for the three most spiritual Christmases of my life. Lots of time to ponder and enjoy and self-assess and attend musical performances and visit with friends and family, and I can spend my extra money on more worthwhile causes that require no shopping. I hate shopping. (Dang! It’s selfish after all!)

  14. Thanks for the conversation, everyone. Craig, I will definitely check out that book. Jax, I like the family gifts idea. After all, the games are no good unless we play them together. Marie-I love Nibley, and I am uncomfortably aware of how materialistic and spiritually lazy I am each time I read him. And I’m all for avoiding holiday shopping (or worse, post-holiday returns lines). I laughed when I read your last comment, because I’m that selfish too.

  15. Rachel,

    I heartily agree with the thrust of your post. I have long felt that too many gifts leads to diminishing marginal joy. My fondest memories are of receiving (or giving) a single important gift-usually something that could be held in one hand. E.g.,a pocket knife, watch, BB gun (O.K., I’m a guy).

    My opinions in this area are vetoed by my wife, but I still try to find one meaningful or sentimental gift for each of my children and my wife for birthdays and Christmas.

    I don’t necessarily feel everyone has to do it this way, and yes, sharing these opinions runs the risk of being seen as snooty, but I sometimes wish that Christmas gifts were limited to something you could fit in a realistic sized stocking (or even one of the ubiquitous unrealistic-sized ones).

    But I do disagree about Santa…I believe his Spirit is real. Didn’t President Faust speak about Santa at one of the First Presidency Christmas Devotionals some years ago?).

  16. Rachel, I don’t think anyone will argue that gobs of expensive-but-cheap plastic crap help us better celebrate the birth of the Savior. What I am arguing instead is that you seem to think that whatever metric (number of gifts, money spent, need, % organic content, number of poor Peruvian women employed, whatever) that you use to determine the amount of stuff to buy your kids is The Only True and Living Metric, and that the rest of us are a bunch of immoral consumers because we’ve chosen a different metric. People who set their bars lower, higher, or just differently from you are not bad or wrong.

  17. Julie, Umm. . . really? You feel that ANY metric in the the categories you stated is acceptable? Perhaps they are not ‘bad or wrong’ but could they be at least misguided, unenlightened, or something?

  18. Thanks for telling me that I believe that I have The Only True and Living Metric and that everyone else is bad or wrong. That’s much simpler and less nuanced than what I thought my views were, and now I don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks or does. Right? Wrong. Come on, Julie. I’m getting the feeling that you just want to disagree with me for the fun of it. (I have to say, The Only True and Living Metric is a fun phrase. I’m still chuckling.)

    Crick, I’m not sure about Faust and Santa. I’ll have to do some research. It is convenient to use the idea of Santa to embody all the ideas of magic, hope, and generosity that we can experience during the holidays. In that sense, the spirit of Santa is real.

  19. Rachel I love this. But tell me if I’m wrong, and maybe I’m just misreading you, but it seems like you are suggesting, hinting perhaps, that Santa is not real?

  20. Wow–I certainly don’t see anything wrong with Rachel’s post, and I think she goes out of her way to be polite and understanding despite some people–in normal circumstances, perfectly reasonable people–going ballistic on her. She’s merely showing us her perspective, and inviting us to consider it. Her #19 is the first time I’ve ever seen her react like that–a real reaction to some unreasonable remarks made here.

    Relax, people. Disagree without being disagreeable.

  21. Rachel (9), the Santa-as-God is an interesting idea; I’m not sold on it, though. Santa is fun, and that’s how I see him used. For most people I know, he’s fun, but not serious. That is, I don’t see him filling a hole for anybody, or even (in our multicultural world) as being an acceptable substitute for God (because he excludes Jewish, Muslim, Hindi, and others).

  22. “You feel that ANY metric in the the categories you stated is acceptable?”

    I don’t recall saying that. I would suggest that we are terribly ill-equipped to judge whether someone else’s celebration is right or wrong. I’m calling out Rachel for being judgmental of the motives and practices of people who choose to celebrate differently than she does. For example, our house doesn’t ‘do’ Santa, but I find it inappropriate to link families who do the Santa thing to liars trying to fake miracles.

    “I’m getting the feeling that you just want to disagree with me for the fun of it.”

    No, I genuinely think that your tendency (in this post and the bread post) of criticizing those who make different choices than you do is too judgmental, too short-sighted, too narrow. I think you have the potential to write marvelous posts that might inspire some of our readers to choose a simpler, less consumeristic lifestyle, [I’m a huge fan of home-baked bread, home canning, simple Christmases, etc.!] but I’m afraid they won’t be able to hear you because your dismissal of other people’s choices makes people defensive. And I think there can be merit, in different ways, to the things you criticize in some cases.

  23. Judging by the reactions, I think my (perhaps pathetic) efforts at humor, esp. in #17, have been misread. Let me try again.

    In a great Christmas talk, Elder Holland said this, “Maybe the purchasing and the making and the wrapping and the decorating—those delightfully generous and important expressions of our love at Christmas—should be separated, if only slightly, from the more quiet, personal moments when we consider the meaning of the Baby (and his birth) who prompts the giving of such gifts.”

    And I think he nailed it–gift giving and decorating can be a “delightfully generous and important expression of love.”

    Everyone is going to have a different opinion as to what would be “excessive” in that regard. To the extent that this post read as an attempt to mandate Rachel’s personal definition of excess on other people, I think she mis-stepped. To the extent that the post read as an effort to ascribe motives of spiritual sterility to people who do Christmas in excess (whatever that might mean), I think she mis-stepped. To the extent that she hadn’t considered the positive virtues potentially associated with what she might define as excess, I think she mis-stepped.

  24. SteveP, If you believe Santa is real, then he is. Don’t let anything I hint dissuade you. Sam-I’m not sure I buy it myself, but it’s an idea I’ve been kicking around lately. I am just curious if anyone else had similar thoughts.

    Julie, I thought your 17 was very funny, and tried to respond in kind. Maybe it’s not that we’re not pathetic, but that our humor is not well suited to the medium.

    The idea of mandating standards of simplicity or excess is interesting. Obviously, such a mandate coming from me will be ineffective outside of the confines of my household. But when we were poor, and tried to accept necessary simplicity gracefully, we were pitied and given things that were useful and well-intentioned, but were not asked for. Even though I knew that we were, by American standards, poor, I was hurt to realize that 1) I was considered an object of charity and 2) others thought my best efforts (with which I was pleased) were not sufficient. I felt the insult all the more keenly because I knew no insult was intended; in other words, I felt guilty about feeling insulted.
    If my preference for simplicity, and the reasons I have found to justify it, have hurt you in a similar way, I am sorry. I believe excess, by definition, is wrong, but I concede that what is considered excessive is relative. At least neither of us likes expensive-but-cheap plastic crap.

  25. I like analogies, imperfect as they are.

    When LDS parents teach their children to obey the Word of Wisdom, or not to take the Lord’s name in vain, or to dress modestly (whatever that means to them), and that they won’t date until they’re 16, it matters how they talk about those standards to people who have other standards. If they say “this is what we do in our family” or “this works for us” or “we think these standards create the atmosphere we want in our home” or something like that, no harm done. But if they say “Why do we as Americans feel the need to wear short shorts?” or “People who curse are seeking a refuge from the hardness of their disappointed lives” or “Because we know that alcohol creates hollow pleasure, we prop its use up with the glamor of advertising and the pretense of sophistication” — then of course it’s going to sound like the speaker is claiming moral superiority. She is.

    All those statements talk about other people’s perceived failures, rather than promote an appreciation for the supposed better lifestyle. Discussion of why our preferences lead to happiness and [fill in the blank] would be a lot more pleasant and persuasive than asking rhetorical questions about other people’s behavior.

    But I agree with one statement: I’m glad the holidays are done and past.

  26. Thanks, Ardis. If I drop the penultimate paragraph, then I meet the standard you outlined. But, and here is where I’ll probably get into trouble again, our family works within, and sometimes against, the larger society of which we are a part. The commercialization of Christmas does affect us. Is there no way to ask why we feel the need to give and get so many gifts?

  27. I don’t think there is, Rachel, because although you’re functioning within the larger society, you’re not participating in the part of it that you object to. At least, I don’t think there’s any way to do it diplomatically and without sending condemning. Another analogy: When some non-Mormon questions “Why do you Mormons feel the need to have an old man in Salt Lake tell you how to live your lives?” or “Mormons who give 10% of their income to their church must be trying to buy their way into heaven,” most Mormons will bristle a little because someone is passing judgment about something that is none of her business. She can live her life just fine without questioning my religious motives, which are really none of her business. Even if you think you can’t live your life just fine when so many Americans are wasting your share of resources and polluting your world and leading your children to wish for more stuff, you still can’t call anyone on it without sounding smug.

    It’s a little different if you want to bring it up with the in-laws or whoever might be giving you all those unwanted gifts, but as long as I’m not giving you an unwanted gift you don’t have much standing to question what I might give to someone else. If you do, I’m going to tell you that it’s none of your business, because it isn’t.

    Of course, I neither gave nor received any gifts this Christmas, so I’m morally superior to allaya all.

    (What’s 8 plus 5? I wish the Capcha stayed with math I could do on my fingers.)

  28. It’s a little different if you want to bring it up with the in-laws or whoever might be giving you all those unwanted gifts, but as long as I’m not giving you an unwanted gift you don’t have much standing to question what I might give to someone else. If you do, I’m going to tell you that it’s none of your business, because it isn’t.

    But if you are going to visit blogs where it is an expectation that bloggers will post their thoughts, feelings, reactions to day to day living and events, then bristling with anger when such a question gets asked is a poor reaction. In as much as she didn’t ask anyone personally, but just asked it rhetorically into cyberspace, perhaps the feeling of personal attack and the ensuing “it’s none of your business” responses are a bit of an overreaction.

  29. Rachel – What a beautiful reflection! As much as I love seeing many presents under a beautiful Christmas tree, your description of your family’s Christmas is very inspiring.
    It’s funny how different people can read the same thing and interpret it in such dramatically different ways. This is the first time I’ve gone to this blog and the posted comments even prompted me to then look up the offensive “bread post.” It was also beautifully written with wonderful sentiments. I really cannot see why Julie is interpreting your sweet musings so negatively. While my life is nothing like yours, I am grateful that families such as yours still exist.

  30. I never read posts by those of us who love everything about the season. The carols, the emphasis on the “story of Christ’s birth”, the manger scenes, Santa, decorations, yard scenes, too much delicious food, exhausting gift buying, wrapping, mailing, awesome parties with our children, grandchildren, the looks of awe on little ones faces, and the excitment of waiting for Santa etc. etc! I love everything about it, even resting after all the excitement! No one who feels like I do seems to feel the need to explain why they do the things they do to celebrate. I’ll tell you why I do. Because I loved it as a child and I like recreating it for my children and grandchildren. And none of them seem to mix up the celebration and religious meaning of the Season.

  31. honey-Thank you for sharing your excitement about the holidays. I enjoy everything you listed, except the mailing part. That’s enjoyable only if I have my act together enough to get it done early in December and don’t have to bring a preschooler with me for a long wait in the post office line.

    Ardis-I’ll accept the label smug if that’s the price of having the conversation. I love reading about how others approach the holidays and using their insight to improve my own actions and experience. I’ve known people who wrap everything possible and put it under the tree so that there will be more gifts to open because they loved the feeling excitement and abundance. The gift opening itself was a central feature of the holiday that was full of tradition and warm feelings. I also know someone who wouldn’t allow her family to enjoy any of their gifts because of too much self-deprecation. She constantly apologized that there wasn’t enough, that nothing was good enough, that she should have gotten more, to the point that it was really hard to feel grateful and content, even if you got something you really liked.

    I think gift giving and receiving is good for our children. The care and consideration required to select or make a good gift for another person is a wonderful way to practice sympathy, imagination, and other skills. Receiving a gift graciously is another important life skill.

    In our family, fewer gifts work better. If it were up to my husband, there would be even less, up to my kids, there would be more. I am the balancing agent. And while I found a level that works well within our family, I feel that I’m holding that line against tremendous pressure from outside (sometimes from extended family, some from my kids’ classmates, a lot from advertisers) to buy more, to give more. And that is why I asked the rhetorical question “Why do we, as Americans, feel the need to give (and get) so many gifts at Christmastime?” Is it because of family traditions? A sense of long-past deprivation that must be overcome by an annual display of so many neatly wrapped packages? Because both of those answers make sense to me. But if it is just because we succumb to the wiles of advertisement circulars and the desire to keep up with the Joneses, then that’s a less noble motivation. And it’s never going to be clear cut, one reason or the other. But if we recognize how much of our desire is generated through those machinations of discontent, then we are in a position to limit it in ways that are healthier for us, our budgets, and our sense of gratitude and well-being.

  32. Goodness. Rachel, I really liked this post. I love Christmas and look forward to December more than absolutely any other time of the year. I don’t, however, love every single thing about the way America celebrates Christmas. I also don’t love that people can’t express their feelings about a special holiday without others being offended. And I think it’s strange that, because Rachel has been perceived by some as thinking herself morally superior, it’s now acceptable for everyone else to judge her. I don’t understand what the objective is with it. What’s the point?

    I’m not glad the holidays are over, because they’re my favorite part of the year, and this year’s were relatively un-stressful for me. Except for my anniversary in May, I don’t get excited about anything all year long until September, and then I’m giddy all the way until Christmas. I love autumn and the holidays that come around that time. I love giving gifts that will be special to people. I don’t think it matters how we approach Santa–if he’s important to parents, then it’s great, and if he’s not important to them, then their kids will think Christmas is magical for different reasons. Kids can get lots of presents and still be appreciative, and kids can stand to be a little envious of their friends’ gifts while understanding that the quantity isn’t important. People can lament the consumerism and not be condemning everyone who likes to buy gifts. None of this needs to be about anyone’s morals.

  33. I wonder if it’s possible for me to agree with “allaya all” (or most of you at any rate). Good points are being made. The bloggernacle’s a nice agonistic space where people with not only worthwhile (Mormon, etc.) experience but also the generally competent ability to articulate and defend various claims about that experience can express themselves and engage.

    So my question is, why’s moral superiority so out of fashion here? On the one hand, there are clearly better and worse – more and less tactful, diplomatic, most importantly effective, etc. – ways of communicating one’s thoughts, opinions, claims, etc. I suspect that this is the biggest concern of those with concerns about Rachel’s post. Ardis’s analogies start to get at this (or at least imply it). No one’s going to dispute that, right? But why isn’t anyone standing up for moral superiority?

    One reason, I think, is that certain kinds of collective goods – particularly those arising out of or sustaining a robust culture with its various norms – are a casualty in our rather awkward multiculturalism. On the one hand, we (i.e., us round here in the bloggernacle) are all pretty ok with truth claims like “Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah,” and the more amorphous or less pragmatic the claims, the easier it is to take them. Claims on the lines of “These specific collective practices have problems,” or “these specific practices are a better way of doing things than these other ones” seem to go over . . . well, rougher. And I don’t mean that in the sense of lots of people are bound to argue with them. I mean in the sense that it’s less acceptable to make those kinds of claims, period – whether or not those responding agree.

    I’m quite happy to have Rachel stand up and say “(appropriate) simplicity is a virtue while (inappropriate) excess is a vice; I see our contemporary American culture not only leaning toward excess, but also and inevitably making it very difficult for those of us who want to practice simplicity. I think we’d be better off collectively if we reversed the positions.” I didn’t find her way of putting it particularly obnoxious. I’m also quite happy to have Julie, et al, attack Rachel’s claims (though Julie’s later comments are surely less obnoxious (i.e., more effective) than her initial response).

    At any rate, here’s to the superiority of moral superiority, and the superiority of arguing over what is in fact superior, as opposed to the pusillanimous whimperings of a watered down relativism.

  34. I don’t have a problem with either moral superiority or making judgments when they are warranted. I have a problem when they are not.

    If Rachel had posted on the importance of using a car seat for your infant, I wouldn’t accuse her of acting morally superior or judging people–she would be doing both, but both are justified in that case. But for reasons that Ardis did a much better job of articulating (see #26) than I have and as Elder Holland explains, those things are not justified in this case.

  35. Julie: seems we’re in agreement then. And, as I hopefully made clear, I don’t have a problem with you arguing that Rachel’s claims were unjustified (it also seems clear that Rachel doesn’t mind that either).

  36. Rachel, I love the gist of your post. But I have a question for you: you mentioned in your comment above that you are holding the gift-giving to a minimum DESPITE the pressure you receive from your neighbors, friends, family, the telly, etc.

    I’m of the mindset of when you need something you buy it, so when Christmas comes, my wife and I have a standing rule: the kids get a present from Santa, from mom and dad, and then smaller stuff to fill the stocking. That’s it. Then they get what they get from Grandma and the extended family clan. It works great for us, giving such few gifts. And guess what? I don’t feel any pressure from anything or anyone to give my kids more. So who/what exactly is giving you this pressure? You are really going to claim the teevee is giving you grief? I’m surprised you feel that way. I would assume someone living the simple life would not watch TV enough to even notice the onslaught of holiday commercials. So what is it exactly giving you angst? I don’t get it. But then, my kids are four and two so maybe the outside pressure is missing for us still.

    I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here, but would love to understand your source of struggle with Christmas commercialism.

    In closing, I really appreciate Ardis’s comments above. I know I could definitely use more tact in these kinds of discussions of sharing my views without sounding pious and I like the advice, so thank you.

  37. honey #32

    I never read posts by those of us who love everything about the season.

    honey, I am a full-blown all-about-it Christmas lover and wrote a post about What December Means to Me in 2009.

    Rachel OP:

    This was a big improvement from the days when getting a gift for someone meant buying what he most wanted to have and then feeling slightly resentful that that the other person got to have it.

    I laughed long at that sentence. I loved the whole post except — again — for the penultimate paragraph. Those are the ones that seem to get you into trouble, eh? ;) I’m scanning through the comments to see if anyone pointed out my problem, and Ardis did (again — scooped so many times).

    A friend of mine wrote a post this Christmas that was a long the same lines of having a more simply Christmas and I loved it. Check out her Christmas Peace if you like.

    I love Christmas. I love the religious part and the secular parts and I see no need to remove the latter. FUN! But I’ll answer your specific question.

    Why do we, as Americans, feel the need to give (and get) so many gifts at Christmastime?

    Need? I don’t know who thinks it’s a need. I just think it’s great fun.

    My husband and I are pretty tough on our kids. We expect a lot. Good grades, good behavior, clean rooms (even when they are teenagers), hard work. They do lots of chores from the time they are young. When our kids turn eight they begin buying all their own clothes, most activities, extracurricular stuff. We provide ways to earn it at first and they are expected to learn to make money elsewhere. Never, ever, ever do our kids get cars unless they buy them. We give our kids a small amount each year toward college (half of BYU’s tuition rate) and they pay ALL the rest. (We now have one daughter in grad school and the next two are undergrads. Three to go.)

    But there are some circumstances in which we do the opposite. We often have great vacations (nothing terribly exotic) and we go all out at Christmas. We set a budget for each kid and spend months looking for ways to get the biggest bang for the buck. It is simply great fun. It has nothing to do with need.

    Do we believe that if some is good, more is better?

    I guess this would depend on what we’re talking about. More Christmas? Yes, better. :)

    Or are we trying to create a world of magical realism, a snow-flocked sparkly refuge from the hardness of our disappointing lives?

    Yikes. Double yikes. How about just because it’s freakishly fun to GIVE??? When I was a kid I LOVED Christmas. And then it became, well, still fun, but not magical and awesome. And then I had kids. And having kids at Christmas is better than BEING a kid at Christmas. I get SO excited, *I* can’t go to sleep!

    We collectively tell our children stories we know to be false (Santa Claus) because we want them to believe in Christmas miracles.

    Blah blah blah. Or we tell them stories because they are awesome. I totally believe in Santa.

    We attribute feelings of benevolence to the holiday season itself, even as we strip it of astronomical or religious significance.

    Maybe I just have more room in my Christmas stocking? ;)

    Because we know these stories are hollow, we prop them up with the ornaments and gifts we buy every year.

    Another yikes statement. I tried to write a response but it just got rude. I’ll just say I disagree and think you’re off in the hinterlands.

    When we return to the simple nativity story, most of the trappings of the season reveal themselves to be unnecessary clutter.

    You don’t have to LEAVE the nativity story (simple? no way!) to have FUN. FUN, Rachel. It’s FUN!

    Birthday cake is unnecessary. Wedding dresses are unnecessary. Hair is unnecessary. Trips to the beach are unnecessary. Colored cloth is unnecessary. Roller coasters are unnecessary. Chocolate is unnecessary. Central heating is unnecessary. Spices are unnecessary. Lawn is unnecessary.

    God gave us some things that are just fun.

  38. Chadwick-I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. It’s not current TV watching (we don’t have one), but it think it may be in part from media images of my childhood. There is also some normal Mormon mom pressure to do everything just right and present a perfect home and family to the world. I’ll have to do more self examination.

    James, way to stand up for the moral high ground. I may well have internalized watered-down relativism too much to assert moral authority. And honestly, I hadn’t conceived this post in moral terms: I thought of it as more pragmatic, seeing how the actions I take affect my spirituality. I do like your statement of the position I could have (or should have) taken.

    Julie-Fair enough. Although I’m now itching to have a tangential car seat discussion, I’ll refrain.

    Crick, thanks for the link. It is a good talk.

    Alison-I love your response. I think FUN is a good reason. And, indirectly, you’ve hit on my real problem: I’m just not that much fun. I’ve always been somewhat earnest and serious (or uptight and boring, based on how well you know me and how much you happen to like me). Because I’m not a very fun person, I have a different point at which the work to put on the holidays feels worth the effort to me. That is an excellent thing to realize about myself, and it moves the emphasis away from culture, where I had tried to place it, back to myself. Thank you.
    Penultimate paragraphs are my Achilles heel. The question now is, will this self knowledge allow me to change for the better, or is this an essential character flaw that will haunt me despite my best efforts?

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