How Christmas Reminds Me To Be Present
Here we are.
Another Christmas has come and gone. I’m glad to see another one. I didn’t have great anticipation for Christmas this year. I knew the work involved. Setting up the trees. Cleaning the house. Preparing for guests. Buying gifts. Being there, the morning my kids opened their gifts.
When I was a young boy, I began to develop anticipation and expectations for Christmas. My parents would ask me what I wanted for Christmas, and usually, I got it. I unwrapped gifts not knowing for sure what I was getting. I can remember feeling disappointed with clothing, and I always knew who got it for me. I can remember opening toys and how happy I was to get them. I can remember that feeling, but I can hardly remember the actual things I got.
I know that I got this car once, that would do wheelies. They didn’t have wireless remote control then so it was limited, but I was only 4 or 5 then. Later I got a Radio Shack stereo once with a turntable. I started asking for music on vinyl LPs then, too. One Christmas my dad got this gasoline-powered miniature jeep. It was loud, messy and stinky, but it was fun to watch. It only needed a few drops of fuel to run, and it was not radio-controlled. I’ve had some great memories of Christmas.
I can also recall the anticipation I had for Christmas. I loved how the lights twinkled at random on the tree. I loved how the wires shone through the clear colored glass of the bulbs. I loved how the ornaments reflected the light, and I loved the colored patterns of light that the tree threw at the walls.
I loved how the stockings were hung on the fireplace and how they were filled with small gifts and candy. I can recall coming into the living room, the fireplace still warm from burning embers, and feeling the warmth in the air. I loved the smell of the pine tree. I loved the sight of a pile of presents under the tree. I loved the sound of the four of us opening our presents and the shouts of glee for what we received.
I remember the melancholy I’d feel the day after Christmas. The gifts all gone, the lights still shining. And then sometime after the new year, we’d take the tree down. We’d burn it in the fireplace or drag it out to the street to be picked up later. I don’t have any of the gifts I got as a kid from my parents anymore. Except for maybe that book, Cosmos, by Carl Sagan.
For much of my adult life, all of that was an echo in my mind. I didn’t celebrate Christmas in all of the places I called home. I lived in apartments and rented rooms, and I lived alone. I would visit my Mom’s house for Christmas to be with my siblings and their kids. That was how I celebrated Christmas for much of my life.
Then I got married. I started to celebrate Christmas in my home again. I can’t even remember how we did that early on. Most of my memories of celebrating Christmas as an adult come from the time that we had kids. They come from the time that my kids realized what Christmas was, and then they began to have anticipation for it. They began to realize that they received gifts at Christmas, and that anticipation for Christmas was a part of the excitement of the holiday.
And so it was like that, this year. My wife bought their gifts. I paid for them. I’m just not that into giving gifts, so I don’t ask what people want for Christmas. I try to pay attention, but for some reason, what people want for Christmas tends to elude me. So one day, a few weeks ago, I was in Costco with my kids, and my wife wasn’t there, and my kids requested two different toys. One was an art kit. The other, a remote-controlled car. $20 each? OK, I can do that, and I bought them for my kids for Christmas. No surprises, but they got what they wanted.
Then I asked my wife what she wanted for Christmas. She said, in so many words, not to worry about it. It seemed like she had already bought what she wanted, anyway.
And I wasn’t worried about getting what I wanted for Christmas, either. This year, I have already received so many gifts so long before Christmas, that I did not concern myself with the packages under the tree. I was even a little relieved that there was only one from my aunt. I had enough already before Christmas Day.
And then during the time that my girls were opening their presents, I was just there. I was just happy to be there. There were no disappointments. There were presents to unwrap, and my girls went through them. There weren’t very many and that’s OK. There was enough. And they were happy with their gifts. We were content.
I know that gifts will have their novelty for a little while and then the novelty will wear away. The toys, like so many other toys, will find a home in a box or a cloth bag of forgotten toys, just like Toy Story. Our brains are wired for change so that the new toys we received today become part of our routine, or they fade away from our routine until we are reminded again of their existence. Our consciousness can only hold so much in attention, and then it has to make room for the next task for our survival.
Later that day, we took the tree down. It had already been up since before Thanksgiving and we had had enough. Our living room now looks like Christmas never really happened. But we have the memories. And I think that is all we can really expect from Christmas. That is all we can carry, for the toys can only hold our interest for so long. The gadgets, the candy, and the knickknacks can only last so long. And even if we get what wanted, and we have fond memories of Christmas, we must still make a decision to be happy with what we got.
After the gifts were unwrapped, we took selfies of all of us together. We were happy. We had enough. We were present at the moment of Christmas. We were not concerned with next Christmas. At least, I know I wasn’t.
I just realized that as an older, middle-aged man, I can be totally and completely present for Christmas. I was able to just watch, observe and be of service in the weeks leading up to and for that day. It was kind of a remarkable thing for me. No drama, no worries, no envy, no jealousy. Inside of me, throughout the day, there was nothing but a sense of contentment.
In a world of so much suffering, I am glad that for at least one day each year, all of us can take a break and just be together, in peace, with no expectations. I really had no expectations about Christmas. I didn’t worry about money, gifts, food, or winning arguments with my relatives. We’re not like that. Somehow, we just spend time together, like we always do, and we get along.
I’ve noticed now that I can enjoy Christmas without anticipation. I think I’ve discovered that it’s difficult to be in the moment when I’m filled with anticipation for something else. I can now experience Christmas without anticipation and that I can be fully present for the event, and the people in my life.