Christmas, Consumerism and Custody

Even in a normal year I am a great hater of secular American Christmas and am at best confused about why – as a non-Christian – Christmas always has to be omnipresent. That sounds aggressive, but I think “confused” is the best way to categorize my feelings about a religious holiday that has been coopted by capitalists to obligate every person to show love and create magic by buying stuff.  I don’t understand why Christmas isn’t like Yom Kippur or Eid al-Adha or even Epiphany: something that is real but only a holiday if you are of that religion.

I mean, this is mostly a rhetorical device. I do understand why Christmas is a secular American holiday, I’m just probably the only non-Christian who wants Christ back in Christmas [and out of my face]. If I were a devout Christian I would be really upset that other people were out there making one of my biggest religious holidays a secular buying bonanza that overlooks the miracle of the child who was born to save the world. Some Christians do feel this way, but I think most of them are also pretty swept up in the secular observance of the holiday and never really stopped to think about what sacrilege it is [or they stop themselves from thinking about what sacrilege it is]. Also, secular American Christmas, like Saturnalia before it, is a BLAST in kind of the most vulgar and id-fueled way.

Secular American Christmas is an awesome display of the values of post-modernity. It has everything. An imperative to buy as many things as you possibly can [even for people that you don’t like] to demonstrate your love and affection for them without consequence – if you talk about the consequences prepare to be ostracized. Excess of eating, drinking, partying, and entertainment. The erasure of the work of women who do the majority of the buying, cooking, and cleaning of Christmas by giving all the credit to jolly [male] elf who does it with magic [this is a totally realistic standard for women]. The continued abuse and marginalization of people of color and lower socio-economic class who work primarily in the service economy and cannot have a true holiday or the means to achieve one to standard. Cherubic while children having their every whim catered to as a testament to their privilege and entitlement.

Yeah, I know: I’m a grinch. Bah Humbug. [Interestingly, I really like both the Grinch and a Christmas Carol because in the first one the Grinch takes all the Who’s shit and they realize they don’t need it to celebrate the holiday. And in the second one a miserable miser realizes he should be obligated to take care of the working class because he can’t take it with him and wealth has not made him happy].

Mythology is really interesting. The myth that undergirds secular American Christmas is a truly post-war, midcentury American dream of limitless consumption and unexamined greed with some Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men advertising slapped on the top [brought to you by Coco-Cola] so no one has to consider the sinister meaning of our collective behavior. And having said all of that: I do not hate the season. I love the music, the traditions related to ingathering with family and friends, the flannel PJs, holiday movies, eggnog, the smell of evergreen, and getting new wool socks. The parts that are good about Christmas are buried in all the BS, and for those of us not inclined to the religious message of Christmas there are plenty of syncretic observances that get the job done. But Christmas trumps everything. It is the United States of Holidays. And woe unto you if you dare to suggest it’s maybe a bit overdone, not for you, or the perfect metaphor for the destructive force of late capitalism, American Exceptionalism and the pervasive myth of the meritocracy.

When I was 4, I discovered the Christmas wrapping paper that my parents had used in the closet of their bathroom. My deductive reasoning was pretty on point. I knew then that this was sloppy practice on the part of Santa and the elves. Why would they leave the wrapping paper in my parents’ bathroom closet when they would have needed it to wrap presents for all the other kids? Because Santa was my mom. And my suspicions were confirmed the next year when, thrifty person that she was, my mother used what was left of the roll to wrap some of our presents again. Occam’s Razor led me to conclude that there was no Santa at all. 

This is not a tidy narrative about how the magic of Christmas was ruined for me as a child and therefore I grew up to be a bitter shrew who just needed a magical Christmas in the country and romantic love to understand the true meaning of Christmas. Like everything, this is more complicated.

No one wants to tell a 4 year old that there is no Santa Claus. This is smack in the middle of the prime Santa Claus time for all children. Generally it is the precocious 7 year old who starts asking the tough questions like “but how does he get to everyone’s house in one night,” or “but what about kids who don’t have chimneys?” But they can usually be put off until about 10. When you are 4, everyone thinks you can be distracted out of this line of inquiry if it even does come up, and I think no one expected the direct forthrightness of my interrogations. So of course, they all lied straight to my face. “Of course there is a Santa Claus, kid. Be sure to deny all your instincts about this because you are small and stupid and adults are big and smart.”

If anything, this is a cautionary tale about the inborn skepticism of children that should be honored if you don’t want them to distrust all authority, but also I feel grateful about these lies exposing some real truths to my young self, so I am willing to keep this experience as a cherished memory of the real spirit of Christmas.

I kept after the truth for several more years, but adults need children to believe this nonsense. I knew something was fishy, but everyone I asked at church or school or in my family got that knowing twinkle in their eye and repeated the party line about an enchanted elf who constantly observes and judges my behavior, breaks into my house, and leaves gifts for me that were the exact same as the ones at Toys R Us. In discussions with my younger brother about this, he was more pragmatic, and went in for the Pascal’s Wager of believing in Santa Claus [this is my daughter’s preferred rationalization as well]. If Santa does exist then he is watching you so you better not let him know you think he’s bunk because you’ll get coal, which no one wants. And if he’s really just your mother you will get presents anyway. No harm no foul.

Then you turn 10, everyone gives you the nod about Santa, lets you know you were correct, reminds you to perpetuate the lie for younger children because of their innocence or whatever, and acts like you shouldn’t be wary of what else they might have lied to you about. Jesus, kid, stop making everything a thing: adults lie to kids all the time. Do you want the presents or not?

No, I didn’t really want the presents either. Let’s be clear, I desperately wanted a Popple because the other girls had them, but I knew I was not getting one as I did not get most things I desperately wanted. This was not to say I didn’t have many nice things, I did, but they were almost exclusively purchased by my grandmother and then only if she also deemed them to be excellent toys. Popples were ugly [and not Barbies or American Girl dolls] and therefore, along with CareBears, Trolls and Cabbage Patch dolls, understood to be bad toys. In defense of my grandmother I would not buy a Popple for my kids either, but for other reasons. And I never asked my parents for a Popple.

My childhood bedroom shared a wall with my parents’ room. My unhappily married parents, who were always broke, spent many an evening arguing about the cost of presents [the costs of lots of things]. Once I realized that my parents were really Santa Claus, the idea of this magical charade had real world implications. I could do math: toys are expensive. During the darker times, before my family relocated to North Carolina, I remember my birthday being almost a non-event for my parents. They didn’t get me anything, or they got me something that probably cost less than $5 and left the rest up to my grandparents. My birthday is in March, so it was between the blowout of Christmas and tax refunds. I knew that my brother’s birthday [it’s in November] was always a bigger deal than mine because it came after the fat times of summer seasonal contract work for my dad and before we had to spend all our money on winter coats, Christmas and heat. Kids notice these things.

By the time I was a preteen, and this whole magic of Christmas business was solidly in the past, when my parents would ask me what I wanted for Christmas I knew to not ask for anything they could not afford. I started collecting two things entirely because they were a reasonable price point for a Christmas present: music boxes and socks. I led my parents to believe that I loved music boxes [the mid-tier music box at the SanFrancisco Music Box Co in the mall was $29.99] and eccentric socks [generally less than $15]. Bam, Christmas gifts solved every year until I was 15. You’re welcome, mom and dad. I still really do like socks, but the music boxes were a compromise present. Sure I might like them but what I really wanted was the ability to go to a real summer camp, or take ice skating lessons, or a have a car that did not regularly break down, or have any vacation ever to anywhere even like Colonial Williamsburg. So knowing that there was something my parents could buy me every year that communicated to me that I knew they loved me as much as they could afford to was almost as good as those things because it was achievable and allowed them to continue to have some damn pride.

Even to myself, who lived through this whole thing, it sounds like my childhood Christmases were a grim affair. They weren’t really. My favorite things about Christmas involved the Christmas choir concert at school [I still get chills every time I heard O Holy Night] and helping my dad check the lights for burnt out bulbs while singing along with Sinatra Christmas and drinking eggnog. We all know that this is really the good stuff.

As a parent I wanted only the good stuff about Christmas and none of the shit, but this is something one barely has control over. The world of other adults ruins one’s attempts to have control over what Christmas means to your own kids [and lots of other things]. This is meant kindly, but many other adults are definitely overstepping assholes incapable of considering that anyone else’s decisions and traditions have value. I refused to tell my kids about Santa Claus. My ex-husband [who grew up pretty rich] heard tales of my childhood Christmases and wanted to be supportive enough to honor my experience of being financially insecure and lied to by all adults I cared about, but not really enough to express my wishes to his family [or be honest about his own wishes to me]. There is no blame here about this: we’re divorced so this struggle is largely resolved in that neither of us has to pretend to care about the other’s feelings.

I think that our extended family could have been ok with the no Santa business but they were pretty blind-sided by the no gifts business. No gifts had to become “gifts from this list, please” because they couldn’t get NOTHING [even though all of my family are Jewish and this is not their holiday] and almost a decade of arguments with baby boomers about why I will not allow them to show my children love with things that they do not really want. Because of all of the above childhood experiences related to things and money, I discovered that when you have money you can be lazy and let things stand in for love, but that if you don’t have money you need something else to be love or else risk your people thinking that you don’t love them enough because you didn’t buy them stuff. I mostly experience gifts as fake love and laziness, as a barrier to expressions of real love.

You know what is real love is? Listening to your son talk about Dungeons & Dragons monsters and taking the time to ask real questions about the various merits of using which weapons to defeat them. Helping your grandmother login to the family zoom because you know she is nervous about technology. Shoveling your neighbor’s sidewalk. Real love is just time and space. When family is far away and time can’t really be shared we use the time-equals-money equation to translate the love of time spent together into gifts, but the exchange rate is bogus, especially if you’re not rich.

I love many people at the rate of all-expense-paid-trip-to-Hawaii or brand-new-house-of-your-dreams but I will never be able to buy that for all of them. I don’t want my children to accept things as love before they can examine the calculus of that exchange rate. Most Christmases I achieve love per close family member at the rate of one half iPad per person. This isn’t because I could not afford a whole iPad, only that I know my love for them is worth more than all the iPads and therefore more than I can afford. I knew my parents loved me more than a $29.99 music box and a pair of $15 socks, and I would like to be able to give them back those hundreds of dollars they spent trying to show me that even poor people can love their children [because I already knew].

Joint custody has given me the opportunity to show my children that I love them without stuff. In general, at my house we are pretty low stuff. Being divorced has allowed my ex-husband to feel righteous about gifts from Santa under his Christmas tree, and allowed me to feel no sense of guilt or remorse about generally skipping the entire gift giving fiasco. I never have my children for Christmas in our parenting plan and though it makes me sad to never have Sinatra Christmas or sing my kids O Holy Night before bed, I don’t miss anything else about the season. They get a sharp distinction between the secular American Christmas of their father’s house [and like everyone else’s house – it’s not really a dig at him] and this quiet objection to the commodification of love at mine. I am at base a person who requires that the things I do be genuine instead of hollow and obligatory and that is what I want to teach my children.

I have been learning that sometimes – very rarely – things can be love. I really enjoy a handwritten card – really anything handmade [the time is built in even if the cost is minimal]. But by and large the excesses of Christmas and the pressure to buy something for everyone from your kid’s homeroom teacher to your barista feels like a bribe or the Gift of the Magi. It makes no sense in our real world. “Well kids, I wanted to get you a life free of pain and suffering and full of love and joy, but because of my addiction to stuff I got you a house full of cheap plastic crap from China, a lifetime of student debt and an unliveable planet because the cost of that other stuff was just too high.”

Merry Christmas. I didn’t get you anything so you know I love you.

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