Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I could give you a lot of reasons why, and maybe I can't share all of them here, but one of the major reasons is that it is not Christmas.
For most adults, the winter holiday season is one of stress, obligation and financial compromise. We think it's simple for kids, but it can be even more complicated, as I honestly recall some of my childhood experiences. I also see holidays becoming more difficult in the lives of a lot of kids, given what they are going through today. What lesson should we learn from all of this? There are plenty, but we have not been such great students of life on this matter.
I learned one lesson the Christmas when I was 11. For some reason, I earnestly wanted a tape recorder. I am not sure why. There is not a whole lot one can do with a tape recorder, but record sound, and I am still not ingenious enough to understand the art of (or reason for) identifying and capturing sounds. It is enough to say that the technology was not as common-place as it is today, though not terribly inaccessible.
That Christmas, I got the tape recorder. I found it under the tree, unwrapped it with appropriate haste and recklessness, and marveled for a moment, or two—or maybe three. What followed in the next several hours were a series of lessons unfolded that, to this day, mark my understanding of the Christmas holiday, myself, and how I prefer to celebrate—or not.
The first lesson I learned was one that I should have taken to in all the previous years of Christmases: that the shine and allure of just about any gift will lose its luster soon after opening—if not after a few days of play. After a few times of playing my voice back, I realized that even that odd phenomenon was not as exciting and compelling as the thrill of finding and opening gifts under the tree—which my other siblings were still doing.
You have to remember that back then, tape recorders were expensive. While my parents would indulge in the thrill of seeing their kids open gifts they wanted with glee on Christmas morning, they also were frugal enough to not overindulge their children, nor spend so much more on one child to the point that it would be financially compromising or even disadvantageous to grant so many wishes. I don't think we even need to mention the tendency to develop undesirable orientations toward materialistic priorities or the displacement of the most important focus of the holiday.
Tape recorders cost a lot back then. Besides the pajamas, socks and mittens, the tape recorder was all I received for Christmas. My eye darted from gift to gift under the tree until I realized that all of the presents had someone else's name on them. Was there nothing more?
I began to feel sorry from myself. I think I sat for a while, on one of the living room chairs, quiet with my long fingers lightly pressing the buttons of the tape recorder. Then, a moment of self-consciousness overcame me, and my pity turned to a shade of shame.
Somehow, my 11-year-old self came to realize in that instant the shallowness and selfishness of my attitude. I realized the total inappropriateness of my disposition and misplaced value on the season.
I realized that I had even misplaced the value of the fact that our family was there, at home, all together, warm with a fire in the fireplace, on a very cold mid-western December morning. I don't think I could articulated it so well then. I just knew there was something wrong, something about which I could feel some shame, something wrong with feeling that I was getting less when, by any decent set of values, I should have been counting my blessings.
I do not know what I asked for the next year. I do not think I looked at the JCPenny and Sears catalogs with as much the same allure. I was different for the experience.
I was different in other ways. I was in junior high, on the verge of my first real crush, living with uncertain footing, no longer being among the Big Men on Campus of the 6th grade. I gave up trick-or-treating. I was trying to convince the basketball coach that it was okay for me to play hockey as well—and miss basketball games in order to go to hockey practice.
Still, I have to say, the lesson took. I approach Christmas morning with the anticipation of seeing loved ones and sharing a wonderful dinner later in the day (and maybe a football game playing on the television in the background), much like Thanksgiving. I cannot say, even though I have not a lot of material wealth, I have been cured of materialistic tendencies. But I really do not care what is under the tree nearly as much as I care about who is gathered around it.
It was a lesson much harder learned but equally valuable as when my father told me the truth about Santa Claus. (More on that later, too.) When I finally convinced my mom that we should stop exchanging material presents (a rule that she likes to break), Christmas became a much more enjoyable holiday. (We still make sure kids get presents. Not sure what the impact of that is on them—a distraction from the Christ story, from the importance of family, the joy of having at least one day off—if not two weeks at the end of the year: A day or two week to not leave the house and admire those pajamas that grandma sent!)
So I am anticipating the days of Christmas. For only the second time in almost five decades, we will be missing one person around the tree from our six-member immediate family, which is quite a record. (Aunt/Sister Jennifer will be with in-laws.) We have been spared many of the realities of life beyond geography, in-laws and the burdens of each that make it difficult if not impossible for a lot of families to spend holidays together.
I will watch my child play with his cousins. I will see the contentment of my parents at having their grandchildren happy in their home. I will have a great meal (if my stomach decides to start cooperating by then). I will be around people I love. And maybe I will get a present: I think it will be socks. Thanks, mom and dad.