When I was in college, I mentioned at the cafeteria dinner table that I just didn’t feel that Christmas spirit anymore. Maybe it had to do with writing ten-page papers and studying for finals (ya think?), but I didn’t feel the same zest, the same joy as I remembered from being a kid. My friends nodded, and some may have agreed. But no one could manage to find something to say to convince me otherwise.
The following week, I started getting small gifts outside my dorm room door. They were tiny, probably from the dollar store, decorated with Christmas paper and little rhymes. They were signed “Santa’s Elf.” I had a feeling who it was—my friend Sara, who had a hard time hiding her grin when I saw her in the halls. At the end of the week, before we all went home to our families, I made her fess up.
“What made you think to do this?” I asked her, flattered that she had thought of me and put so much time into each small gift.
“It started with my dad,” she said. “Each year, he’d fine someone who didn’t feel the Christmas spirit, and he’d give them a gift. We started to do it as a family, with our neighbors. So this year, I decided it should be you.”
It was a kind gesture, perhaps most joyful for the elf. The secret of Christmas, I think, is in making it not about yourself, but about others. Part of the reason I don’t want to emphasize Santa in my house is because it sets children up for future disappointment; if they learn early on that Christmas is all about the big man coming and delivering them gifts, they don’t get the chance to participate in the magic of giving, which is a much more sustaining, and happiness-building, lesson. While I haven’t become an elf myself in these past years, I have become a mother. And buying gifts for the kids, making cookies, hosting movie nights with hot chocolate, using this time of year as a marker of all that has come and gone and changed and stayed the same, have given me the the feeling of Christmas more than anything else.
Christmas can be sad, though, a time of disappointment or stress. So often, we get bogged down by what we’re “supposed” to feel. We think that getting people a lot of gifts, or the most expensive gifts, is what makes Christmas special. We think we have to do a lot, perhaps more than any other time of year, even though our bodies are ready to go into hibernation mode. But for me, the most special time is before Christmas, feeling the kids’ excitement, and after Christmas, enjoying the gifts and books and toys and silence that settles over the house as we physically and mentally prepare for winter. Mostly, I like spending time with my family. (The sibling fighting, I can definitely do without.)
I’ve started to see Christmas as one of the only traditions my family celebrates yearly (aside from birthdays) as a marker that helps us honor and reflect on the past. I hope that when my kids grow up, they remember Christmas not as a time of getting lots of gifts, but a time of rest and comfort with family, in the safety of their home, with plenty of love and cookies. And I hope that by that time, they’ve learned that the most fun is in the giving, not the getting. It’s in the message of love, despite the darkness and cold.
Image: “derivativeofcourse” by L via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.