Monday, December 26, 2011

Getting Ready for Christmas Day....

In past years - even up till last year, honestly -  I carried on the holiday pattern I was raised with.  Christmas was a pageant, with the common areas of the house resembling a Christmas gift shop - tchotkes and decorations covering every surface, on the tree, even on the walls.  Huge secrets and plotting, deep cleaning of the entire house, the major events of hunting for a tree, getting the tree into the house, wrapping, and the cooking and serving of an elaborate family meal, then the cleanup of masses of dishes while my grandfather showed his family film reels and dessert was served, which was the culmination of a day when our house was nearly bursting with people -

I remember there being a lot of stress, a lot of yelling, a lot of extra chores, and a lot less patience.  I remember threats, and the guilt of realizing that I didn't believe in Santa Claus anymore, and knowing that my mother wanted and expected me to....

There were sweet memories.  The scratchy old stereo record player spinning Bing Crosby's White Christmas album, or the radio playing country Christmas songs....I sat on the floor, ear against the speaker, singing along, and loving Jingle Bell Dogs and The Christmas Guest, especially.  My father would open the center cabinet, and the seldom-used bar would be revealed, and the annual ritual of washing all the glasses and bottles -  and once or twice, a trip to the fascinatingly just-for-grownups world of the liquor  store - and hearing the stories, touching the labels, smelling, watching the light shine through the splatter-painted, oddly shaped glass mother making eggnog, and my father leaving Santa a beer....the times my mother read the story of Jesus's birth from her Bible, which she's had since she was a girl.  Christmas specials watched all together, as the tree twinkled and spread green magic through our home.

Christmas  - all holidays, really - were productions.  Showmanship ruled the day.  The house must be perfect, the tree must be bigger, fatter, and more filled with ornaments than anyone else's was, the gifts must stun, and there must be far more food, in quantity and variety and quality, than we had on regular days.

And the family would be invited, no matter the tensions or animosities between specific members, no matter how quickly our home filled up with people and noise and volatile energy.  There were always passive-aggressive interactions, and sometimes open hostility broke out.

It was always too much for me, at some point.  I would have gorged on the crackers, cheeses, fruits, breads, soda, and sweets we seldom had, else, and little besides them.  I would have been surrounded by people, some of whom I honestly didn't like very much.  I would begin to feel a little sick, a little trapped, and fully overwhelmed.  I was looking for magic, and fun, and calm spaces, but I had no words to give to these alien concepts, at the, though, I have images that express it more fully than words ever could....

When I was younger, I would go hide in the bathroom, or, when I got desperate for space and quiet, and could manage it, to my bed to read or sleep or pretend to be somewhere else.  As I got older, I went for long walks out in the cold air, or I would  write - and I could close the door, and shut out some of the noise and energy.

I expect that my Christmases were not much different from those of many people reading this.  I didn't think much about it at the time.  I come from a highly reactive family, and, absorbing that through every pore and within every experience, I was too busy reacting to wonder why the holidays always carried with them this air of discomfort and unease and the need to be particularly matter how lovely the lights and ornaments I wasn't allowed to touch; no matter the deliciousness of the rare treats, which I was once punished for squirreling away in my room to enjoy on some day that wasn't a holiday; no matter how much I loved and sought the affection of the assembled adults, who could become unkind or angry without warning; no matter how much I enjoyed the company of other children, who could also become unkind or angry without warning, who sometimes bossed and teased and bullied, and treated my things like their own....

And, when I grew up, not knowing the source of that unease, I carried those patterns forward into my own life.  When I married a man who doesn't like a Christmas crowded with lights, decorations, carols, shopping,   gifts, and bills, I thought that there was something fundamentally wrong with his attitude and preferences, and that, of course, he would change his wrong thinking when he saw what I did with Christmas.  And so I threw myself wholeheartedly into convincing him, decorated nearly every square inch of  the small (21 foot) travel trailer that was our home....

And I overwhelmed and disrespected his preferences in the process.  This led to frustration, and arguments, and hurt feelings, and our relationship was being damaged every year, as I overdecorated, overscheduled, overscripted, and overspent.

I thought I was making the perfect Christmas, just as my parents had, before me.  I thought that was what I was supposed to do, for my children.

I couldn't see that I wasn't doing it for Jeremiah or Annalise.  I certainly wasn't doing it for Jim - although I denied it for years, I knew that much early on.

I wasn't even doing it for myself - because what I wanted, all along, deep inside, felt a lot more like this...the freedom to choose my own place, to touch, to decorate as I pleased, to be without obligation...
I was doing it for Them.  Because I thought I was Supposed To.  That, if I didn't do Christmas the Right Way - with mountains of decorations, presents, food, obligations and bills - it somehow Didn't Count.

Another part of the paradigm shift that came with unschooling, for me, was a huge change in the way I saw holidays, and the part I and my family played in the celebrations....

And then it occurred to me that that was the problem.  I had assigned us all roles in a staged production, very much the way I had been assigned a role in my mother's staged productions.  Just as families and individuals all over the country assign themselves and their loved ones a role in the production of their holiday....

It's obvious in the ads urging us to hurry-up-and-shop-the time-is-running-out-it's-our-biggest-sale-on-all-the-must-have-items-pay-later-with-our-handy-layawy-or store-credit-card-buy-NOW-to-make-it-a-merry-Christmas-and-outwit-Santa-Claus.

Slowly, though, I began to reclaim Christmas, for us, in a way that was meaningful and magical, to us.

First, we stepped away from most of the family gatherings, and gifts purchased only out of a sense of duty or obligation, to have something to offer.  We prefer instead to offer ourselves and gifts up sincerely, and not to pretend feelings that we don't have, or to spend money we don't have, either.

We began saying yes to more of the children's requests throughout the year.  Now, in our third Christmas of unschooling, both children know that, although we have never had a lot in the way of discretionary income, if we can find a way for our budget to provide something they desire, we will.  They are willing to own many items purchased at thrift stores, garage sales, or used on Ebay, and to have older models of most things.  Jeremiah has been willing to work odd jobs to earn money for a major purpose our budget couldn't support.  Both children have saved their allowances for months in order to use that money on a large purchase they'd been planning for....things like games systems and fancy Halloween costumes with all the props.

We had intended, by doing this, to fill them up with the certainty of our positive regard, to help balance the gulf of ability to get things for yourself that exists between adults and children.  In the same way that they are welcome to help themselves to whatever foods they want, to use whatever electronic media they wish, to sleep when and where they choose, we were giving them power in their own lives, and letting them know that we believe in their ability to choose for themselves.

As a by-product of our increased generosity, there seems to be a lessening, every year, of the focus on what they will receive, as well as an increased understanding of what is involved in fulfilling their wishes.  Jeremiah was very helpful, this year, by sending me links to the specific items he wanted.  He knew what things cost and what was a good deal, and he expressed concern about the fact that his list amounted to more money than he was personally comfortable with (although we have spent more, every other year, even with the few surprises we added this year).

Annalise was willing, this year, to wait a month or two for a very special gift she decided she wanted only a few weeks before Christmas.  She made a detailed list of what she would like, but didn't expect to get everything on that list.

This year, Jeremiah is 10, and Annalise is 7.

And our Christmas is truly about them, and us, and spreading love and kindness outward into the world, and about acknowledging our personal passions and gifts, and sharing them, giving them back to the world freely and joyfully.  It's about magic - not magic defined by expectation or obligation, but by us.

I've realized that, with two minimalists in the family, less is definitely more, for us.  Too many things to look at and listen to, for all of us, are disquieting.  A few choice items, carefully placed, with space between, allow room to enjoy the holiday flavor, or the comfort of everyday life.  Everyone can be part of the decorating, or not, as they wish.

We like our holidays simple and without fuss.  We love spending time with friends, like during our trip to New Jersey to celebrate with our friends, the Woodman family.  Cookie decorating parties and ice skating, and even a bit of thrift store holiday shopping for me.  Coffee, kitchen floor art, Nerf battles,conversation, and easy companionship for all ; or when our friends Mary, Elsie (10), and Christopher (8) came to visit.  Mary indulged her passion for gift-wrapping, and we chatted while she helped me cross something off my to-do list, and the four children played, read together, and even made a smoothie.

Rather than exerting ourselves in a deep cleaning, we aim for an acceptable-for-all-of-us degree of tidy, with ongoing deep-cleaning projects throughout the winter months.  So our tree was lovingly set up and adorned upon a bare plywood floor - reflooring is slated to begin within the next few weeks, when the proper combination of time and creative impulse strikes me.  The floor was clean, and we laid an Asian-style runner carpet diagonally across it, but didn't fuss about the floor.....largely because we no longer invite the type of guest who would judge our home on its unfinished and imperfect bits rather than its atmosphere of love, learning, joy, and peaceful coexistence.

The tree and the decorations become a canvas for all of us to play with, or not, as we wish.  I'm one of four people who live here; I have one of four opinions here of what looks beautiful.  Learning to make room for the other three opinions to be expressed hasn't been easy, especially with my just-so holiday upbringing, and it's meant that. sometimes, I sit back and just let things happen; just let them be, without any attempt to control or direct them.

By reclaiming our holidays, by making them truly what we want them to be, we've given them a luster and life they didn't have, in those Supposed-To days.  Instead of all those rushing-around errands, going to places where the energy and dynamics are more disturbing than joyous, by living all through the year sharing our gifts with one another and the wider world, we simply do as we feel, each of us moving through the weeks before Christmas in our own way, at our own pace, yet together, too.

This isn't intended to say that anyone else should live their holidays the way we do.  We are ourselves; no one else is.  What is perfectly suited to us might be wholly unworkable, or downright unpleasant, for others.  Many people, some of whom we love dearly, do not celebrate Christmas at all.  None of these specifics apply to their lives.

What I am suggesting is that if Christmas celebrations (or any other aspect of your life, really), causes a ratcheting-up of tension, perhaps that's a sign that your idea of what that part of your living is Supposed To be has gotten in the way of living that part of life in a way that's meaningful and fulfilling to you.

I wish everyone - whether I know you or not; whether we get along or not, a joyous Everyday. =D


Tracy said...

Simply beautiful!

Dharmamama said...

Shan - I am in tears reading this post! I couldn't understand WHY I've been *so tense* for the past few weeks. I am rarely tense - I couldn't figure it out! I thought I had looked at Christmas stuff and prioritized, taking care of my recently-very-overwhelmed self, making sure I had what was important to the boys, while not putting too much on my own plate.
Your post helped me see I was prioritizing - but I was prioritizing someone else's priorities!! I've been secretly beating myself up for not having more decorations, not making cookies, not "keeping Christmas" as I thought I should.
I've been reading people's facebook posts, about opening gifts over several days, or opening gifts at home a few days before or after Christmas, and I just recently had the thought, "We could do that!"
We do OK on the gift front - I support what the guys want through the year, so they don't have to count on just Christmas to have their wants taken seriously.
But I've been prioritizing and choosing what I'll do from a template never fully chosen by us!
Seriously, I'm feeling such relief now. I have been cranky (NOT at all like me!) and short-tempered (certainly not like me!) and I could NOT figure out why!
You've provided a key!
I'm so grateful to you for writing this.
Merry Christmas!

Shan Jeniah Burton said...

Dharmamama, it makes me so happy that it helped you shine a light on what was troubling you.

It's still a work in progress, for me, getting rid of that old template, which, as you said, was never truly ours. For instance, Jim and I didn't exchange gifts this year - rather, we shared promised to help each other get things we've been putting off (new boots, chef's pants, and a motorcycle battery for him, a chill pad, underthings, and pants for me), and to be more attentive to each others' feelings and needs.

That little change from buying each other gifts and filling each other's stockings out of a sense of obligation and duty made a tremendous difference. Together, we lovingly filled the kids' stockings and placed their gifts in and beneath the tree (DS games slip perfectly into the branches, btw!).

And, on Christmas morning, the focus was on Jeremiah and Annalise, and their reactions to their treasures. Both declared it the best Christmas ever, and both thanked us more than once, and Miah isn't even that anxious about the gift being shipped from England that won't likely get here for days yet.

Merry, merry after-Christmas to you and your guys! =D