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Can You Buy Happiness?

How We Navigate Christmas Commercialism

Barb: Maybe because I was the oldest of four kids, or Dad held tight to the financial strings, but as a child I never knew the degree of consumerism that exists now. We got one gift, along with a new outfit to wear to church on Christmas. The stockings were the best part: we were allowed to open those before our parents got up. Each one filled with walnuts, a mandarin orange, melted ripple candy, and a small toy from the 5 & 10 store. I still have my hand knitted stocking - a treasure in spite of the moth holes.

Here we are in perhaps the worst Christmas picture ever. Tina in her little chair, facing the bricks, looks like she's in a "time out."

December 1957

Vicky: Wow! You all look serious - this is unintentionally funny. I had a completely different experience, as an adoptee and only child. I got one unwrapped present from Santa, and the rest from parents, friends and family. My parents loved seeing my happy face on Christmas morning. I was expected to ask Santa for one thing, just like you did, but I always received much more, gifts were my mother’s love language.

Barb: When I was three I asked for, “A Rocking Chair that plays Rockabye Baby in the Treetop” and still remember my thrill that Santa brought it. I LOVED that rocking chair.

Vicky: How sweet! Dad built me a doll cradle for my second Christmas - I kept it my entire life. Here are two photos of the ‘big reveal’:

You can see my parents were also big on non-gendered toys, I vaguely recall the Mighty Mike truck. Apparently “Santa” brought two items that year. Which makes sense, the year before I was still too young to fully appreciate toys.

Barb: Wow! Two presents! Ours were definitely more gender specific. I remember a Tiny Tears doll - she drank from a little bottle and got wet. I cared for her faithfully. Later I had a bride doll, shaped like a Barbie, and one Christmas Mother sewed some glamorous clothes for her - and she had new hair. That’s my favorite memory - because Mother made it herself..

Then, I discovered wrapped boxes from Santa under the tree before Christmas, verifying my skepticism. I kept it to myself: didn’t want to disappoint my siblings.

Vicky: Oh Barb - I am sorry to hear that. My parents and I honored the Santa tradition every year they were alive, although Santa did start wrapping and signing his gifts for clarity, and stuffed the stockings. Mom cross stitched one for her grandchild, and before that for the granddog! One of my favorite memories was the year I realized Mom always filled the stockings, even her own. I spent my meager allowance and Late Christmas Eve after she was sleeping I crammed her stocking full. I will always remember her shy smile; my face quivered, and I had to look away.

Barb: So sweet and generous of you. I did get to be Santa the year my parents separated. I had worked all summer and loved being able to give nice gifts to my brothers and sister. The only time I remember desperately wanting something, and being disappointed was when I was 13 and asked for a ten speed bicycle. When I got a basic used bike (no hand brakes or gears) on Christmas morning, I hid my disappointment, desperate not to cry. Maybe they thought I didn’t deserve it, or a 10-speed was just too expensive.

Vicky: Wow. Such a painful memory.

Barb: After that, I lowered my expectations around Christmas, slowly becoming aware of Mother’s agitation, the burden of her expectations: Christmas cards, baking, shopping for gifts, giving and attending parties. She felt compelled to do all this, in spite of the musical performances she was responsible for: at Church, recitals for her students, and attending our school programs. She got so worked up it frightened me, a crash was inevitable.

Vicky: Being raised by a closet hoarder…I can relate, spending years as an adult drowning in the perfectionism pool. Thankfully I got some therapy. But that was in my thirties after a decade of nearly killing myself to create the perfect Christmas, rather than feel the sorrow and disappointment. My first bitter Christmas was the year Grandma died, Mom was back in Michigan and I was filled with longing for those idealized childhood holidays. I think that’s why the holidays will always be a mixed bag for me - now that Mom and Dad are gone.

Barb: How sad to have a loss so close to Christmas. I’m sorry. It’s a mixed bag for me as well. I love the carol singing, the colorful lights, and decorations. I was thrilled with a little snow on Christmas Eve or Christmas Morning. I probably focused too much on the food: cookies, fudge and nuts at parties. These treats only came once a year, but I suspect they helped me navigate the hazards. I was in my late twenties when I recognized my habitual January depression. Each December brought magic, stories of human kindness, hope for world peace, and I was let down every time.

Vicky: Yes, I relate. All that food is hard to resist. We used to have a table in the hospital full of food from grateful families. I would resist 90% of the time…but always caved. Then when I became a mother I fell into Christmas commercialism, trying to recreate that early magic for my own baby. The second year I even stuck my toe in the Black Friday water, waking at 4:00 am to save money at the local toy store. I parked in a nearly empty lot at the mall, feeling proud I was 15 mins early until I heard it: the buzz of a hundred people waiting in front of the store. Behind the silver chain gate terrified employees organized the store and I almost left. Can you believe I bought so much that I left that Family Farm Play Set behind after paying? I ran back from the car once I realized, but they’d sold mine (and all the others) to someone else. A few days later more arrived and I got my purchase. They even threw in a Tickle-Me-Elmo for FREE.

Barb: Wow! I missed all that. What pressure. Who wouldn't try to give their child a perfect Christmas, especially when it's for sale at the toy store.

Vicky: Ten years later I discovered What Would Jesus Buy? Billed as a comedy-documentary, it was heavy handed but delivered a one-two punch of shame and truth. I recognized my attempts to recreate a fantasy, trying to purchase feelings. I started giving more thoughtful gifts and became more mindful of holiday traditions that held meaning and those just trying to fill a void.

Barb: What a great reassessment of values and how far we’ve strayed.

Vicky: One of my favorites from the Dalai Lama:

“People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved, and people are being used.”

This says it all for me. And I love you, Barb. More than all my things…

Barb: I love you too, Vicky. More than more. To infinity and beyond!

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