By Carolyn Fahey
It was getting close to Christmas, about ten years ago, and I found myself sitting at my desk pouring over my so-called budget for the coming holiday season. My question to myself was, “How in the world am I going to reproduce the ritualistic pile of presents under the tree for the kids this year?” That is, without abusing that little plastic card in my wallet.
I have three children, two sons and a daughter, and am divorced. For the past dozen years or so, we all gathered for Christmas Breakfast and Dinner at my condo in NJ. My financial quandary was the result of my plan for next year to move from NJ to NC, and as a consequence cut my salary in half, so I was preparing myself financially, as well as emotionally, for this big move. But to the practical issue of the expense of Christmas presents, I set my mind on finding a solution. It’s not as if they were little kids anymore hungering for gifts.
At the time of my tale, my older son was working his way through law school, my second son was studying for his PhD under an intern program, as was his wife, and my daughter had only recently graduated from college and moved into an apartment with a couple of roommates. They were all eating a lot of mac and cheese those days, so the time seemed right to follow the trend/philosophy adopted by many people in reducing the emphasis on pricy gifts and focusing on the true meaning of Christmas and Family. Maybe I could convince them that we could begin a new ritual —let’s see—I’ll call it the “Christmas of Love,” which would eliminate the need for each of us to buy big gifts for everyone else. I thought the title would give it some gravitas, making the persuasion a bit simpler. Although my daughter loved the ritual — in our family, from the time of my own childhood, Christmas presents were always a big deal.
I must admit that I overindulged a bit, which was a habit I began when they were very young, and I just loved buying them gifts and seeing their excitement as they tore open their presents. They, literally, tore open their presents, unlike most civilized people who actually open their gifts one person at a time in a manner conducive to what my Mother would have called “good taste.” But it’s way too late for that for this family.
Now that they were adults (and poor ones), I instinctively knew they would go along with my idea. Sure enough, just days later, all I had to do was mention the idea to them, and that was it. They embraced it immediately and we set out to come up with the “Christmas of Love” conditions. We agreed that we could each spend up to $10 on one another, with the caveat that it had to be a thoughtful gift, not just a bar of candy or a pair of socks (although sometimes one of them really did need a new pair of socks and then it would be OK). We moved forward enthusiastically.
To our surprise, our “Christmas of Love” was met with not a little bit of criticism and mockery by certain family members and friends. We got some quizzical looks and not very nice accusations that we were “just being cheap.” I’ll give them that it may have sounded a bit disingenuous and I have to admit that we joked about it among ourselves in a self-deprecating way, but that’s our style, and we stuck to our defense to the outside world— “We aren’t cheap —it’s the ‘Christmas of Love,’ and you’re just jealous.”
The benefits became clear immediately and it turned out to be such a liberation for each of us—we didn’t have to do much Christmas shopping! We were free to spend our time doing things we loved to do, like going to parties, and, oh yes, coming up with creative, thoughtful, comforting, ten dollar gifts for each other. And that would be the fun part.
I found that it was pretty easy for me that first year. Since I am such a book person, everyone would get a book which I felt they would enjoy — along with a hand-crocheted scarf by yours truly. Instead of running through malls, I spent my pre-Christmas Day time focusing on the menu for the day, decorating my condo and looking forward to having all of my kids together. Done and done.
When Christmas Day arrived, it turned out that the weather was crisp and cold with no snow to keep anyone from making it to New Jersey. We all enjoyed our annual French Toast Breakfast, and then the big moment arrived. It was gift time.
Life often brings its surprises, many times with the people we love and with their responses to our efforts. Our family’s first “Christmas of Love” was one of those times. The gifts that year truly went from the ridiculous to the sublime. (Ridiculous on the part of the two males in the family, and sublime from the female side.) My sons brought an aspect to our new venture that I could never have expected or guessed.
But, first, some history about these two characters which may enlighten. When they were teenagers, I discovered that they entered into a competition for who could gain the most weight from Thanksgiving dinner. Each weighed himself in the presence of the other before dinner, then they made the notations, and would repeat this exercise after dessert. Whoever had gained the most weight was “the winner.” I don’t know if the winner actually was awarded a prize, but he certainly gained the unrestrained admiration of the other. Occasionally, there would be other cousins (always male) in on this little competition, and they would join in the celebration of the victor.
I don’t think I knew about this until the ritual had ended years later, but I certainly would not have been happy with the unabashedly gluttonous behavior of my two precious sons. At the time of my current story, they were in their mid- to late twenties, and continued to enjoy what I assume is a typical brotherly type relationship—to this day, when they are together, they never stop talking to each other, and many times I have no idea what they are talking about. They have their own language and their own particular sense of humor. Thus, it should not have been a surprise that they grabbed hold of the “Christmas of Love” event as an opportunity to be as creatively absurd and bizarre with their gifts to each other as they could possibly imagine. It turned out to be a competition to be crazier than the other guy. Their presents to each other proved to be more than ridiculous, they were insane.
Son number one began with his gift to his brother of a hot sauce called, “Heinie Hurtin’ Hot Sauce,” procured from Suzy Hot Sauce in Pennsylvania. Son number two was ecstatic. You can just imagine what that scene was like as they tasted it and then fled to the sink for cold water on their hands, tongues and other body parts, laughing with tears running down their faces.
Son number two gave his brother his very own beard hair trimmings in a small baggie that had a Christmas tree hook attached to it for decorative purposes. His brother swears that he hangs it on his Christmas tree every year to this day. Pretty disgusting I would say. I remember gasping at that one. But we certainly had a lot of laughs.
Before it could become the “Christmas of the Ludicrous,” we moved on to the gifts from the three women in the family, and the moment turned to the sublime.
The first gift I opened that day was from my daughter-in-law. Can you imagine being excited about a recycling bag? It brought a tear to my eye because the bag was emblazoned with the logo of my favorite food store in the town I was moving to in North Carolina, where my son and daughter-in-law lived. It touched me so much because it made my highly anticipated journey the following year seem more real than ever, much more than the dream I had been carrying around for the last couple of years. My kids believe that if you make Mom cry with your gift, you score. They’re right, and she scored.
Next up was my daughter’s gift, which was a beautiful photo of her when she was studying for a semester in London. It’s one of my favorites — she is peeking out from inside a bright red London telephone booth with a big grin on her face. I have it still. She also gave me a story which she had written about her childhood that was both funny and touching, as well as completely unexpected. I loved it — both the story and her obvious talent. I guess that brought a little tear, also. Score again.
We then opened the rest of our gifts. Each of them proved to be a thoughtful present and the recipients were all appreciative—much to our delight, the gentlemen dug into their hearts for their gifts to us gals. It appeared that our new focus at our Christmas celebration certainly made us more jubilant that day. I don’t think we ever had so many laughs on Christmas morning. We talked and talked and toasted each other with my homemade eggnog.
I am certain that many people, old and young, have realized the beauty of the “Christmas of Love” way before we did. It took some time and the right moment to make it work, but we found it and we’re keeping our new tradition, including the part about going from the ridiculous to the sublime. Over the years, there have been Chia Pets, a pair of sunglasses with the reflector mirrors on the inside (so you can see behind yourself), a jar of wart cream, calf brains in milk, a Partridge in a Can, with an actual bird in the can. Yes, my sons continue to make me cringe with their gifts to each other. And I love it.
The sublime gifts not only continue but are now in abundance because of the three little creatures who are now among us, my three grandchildren. I have received framed photographs engraved to Nana (that’s me), drawings, poems, Christmas tree ornaments, and painted bird houses. I must confess that I do stray from the monetary restrictions from time to time with regard to the three grandchildren. I still can’t resist the joy of watching kids tear open their gifts with paper and ribbons flying, squealing with excitement.
As we celebrate the “Christmas of Love” each year, no matter where we are, all of us are grateful that we reawakened the true spirit of Christmas in our family, and we look forward to doing so again this year.
Carolyn Fahey lives and writes in Weaverville, NC. (email@example.com)