Open thread on surviving the holiday season

In my book, the holiday season is the best time of year to be Jewish. We celebrate Chanukah, but it is a minor Jewish holiday and doesn’t dominate a month of our lives. It is also not commercialized enough to drown out what we do as a family to mark the holiday.

Every year I see people feeling so much pressure to buy things and make things and decorate and create the perfect magical Christmas atmosphere, but they don’t have time to feel peaceful. At the moms’ groups people are always so stressed out.

It’s easy for me to explain to my kids that many people celebrate Christmas, while we celebrate Chanukah. I think it would be more difficult to try to teach children the true meaning of Christmas when your holiday is being used as a vehicle to push consumer spending.

Some conservatives get mad when store employees say “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” I don’t get the manufactured outrage about the alleged “war on Christmas.” Do they want everyone to think Christmas is all about jolly Santa and decorated trees and dancing reindeer?

This is an open thread for discussing anything you do to make the season meaningful, or at least reduce your stress level.

One friend has a ritual of going through the playroom with her kids before Christmas to pick toys to give away. No one gives away a treasured possession, but all the kids are expected to choose a few things no one plays with anymore, which can go to kids who need them.

Another friend is having a “clothing swap” party before Christmas to inspire us to finish cleaning out our closets. Women will bring clothes they don’t wear, or which don’t fit anymore. Other women can take them home if they like them. The extra clothes will go to charity after the party.

Another friend told me his family became inspired by the Hundred-Dollar Christmas idea a few years ago and now mostly exchanges hand-made or reused gifts.

Feel free also to discuss your favorite things about the holiday season or recommend your favorite holiday music. We mostly listen to Chanukah music, but I do enjoy the Klezmonauts’ Christmas album “Oy to the World”. Click the link to listen to samples of Christmas songs performed in the klezmer (“Jewish jazz”) style.  

  • Family giving

    I have a large, and by that I mean huge, family.  I’m the youngest of eight siblings, and my parents are the proud grandparents of 18 and great-grandparents of seven.  About ten years ago, we decided as a family that the madness of the family gift exchange was getting out of hand and becoming more stress than it was worth.  Instead, we now choose each year to contribute as a group to a worthy cause.  Because there are so many of us, our contribution usually ends up to be quite substantial.  Our choices vary with changing circumstances, but there are two aspects that remain constant: we always give anonymously and we include every member of the family in some way.  

    For the first few years, we adopted families through the local social service agency in my hometown.  We covered all the items on the families’ wish lists and provided additional gift certificates to the local grocery store and gas station.  Every family member found a way to contribute.  Even the youngest grandchildren were able to help pick out toys for the younger children’s wish lists or help bake cookies to include in a “goodie box” that we sent along with the purchased items.  My dad always tucked in a jar of his home-canned pickles for good measure and Mom sent along a loaf or two of home-baked bread.

    One year after the start of the war in Iraq, we adopted my niece’s husband’s combat unit.  We sent them three large care packages, gleaning ideas from websites dedicated to troop support.  My sons made cards and sent them to the soldiers in that unit for months after Christmas was over.

    The year my older brother survived a brain aneurysm, his CaringBridge website was a lifeline of information for so many who were far away but loved him and wanted to keep abreast of his recovery.  That Christmas, we sent a donation to help support websites for other families who found themselves in need of the same.  We were able to make a contribution that supported 32 future websites for critically ill patients and their families.

    Last year, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  At Christmas time, we focused our giving on the church they’ve attended for the last 40 years and where all eight of us received most of our sacraments.  It’s a church that has supported my family through our brightest and darkest days, and our contribution helped them make some much needed structural improvements.

    This year, we are turning our attention even closer to home.  My above-mentioned brother is having a really hard year.  He is unmarried and, since his aneurysm, has been unable to return to his previous professional field.  He lives independently and works a retail job for an hourly wage.  Lately, he has suffered horrendous headaches which his neurologist thinks are migraines and are severe enough that they’ve prevented him from working.  He has no health insurance and doesn’t qualify for public assistance since he’s not technically classified as disabled.  The only way he’s been able to receive medical care for his headaches is to show up at the emergency room.  Needless to say, he’s in bad shape financially, so at Christmas this year, my family will support one of our own.  His situation brings oh-so-close to home the passage in the New Testament where Jesus says, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”

    In our house, we talk with our boys about these gifts and the other charitable contributions we make during the holiday season and throughout the year not in terms of, “Oh, let’s help those poor people who can’t buy their own stuff,” but more as a means of basic human decency.  When someone is having a hard time, we do our best to help them out.  We might try to help the neighbor kid who lost his glove in the snow, or we might try to help a soldier who is lonely and a world away from home.  It could be a mom and dad who don’t have the money to give a little holiday fun to their children, or it might be their own uncle who has been sick and needs our support and prayers.  

    Does this all mean that we don’t sometimes get caught up in the shopping and baking and decorating and such?  Of course not.  But I think if you asked my kids about the most important things we do during the holidays, these “projects” would rank right up there after their letters to Santa.  Not bad in this hyper-materialistic world…not bad at all.

    Oh, and if you’re interested in seeing where the inspiration for my families’ instinct to do the right thing comes from, read this charmingly small town newspaper article about my parents and their recent “retirement.”  They truly are my heros.

    http://www.baudetteregion.com/…

    (I know this is obnoxiously long for a comment, but once I started I just couldn’t stop myself.  Great writing prompt!)

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