Looking back on my Christmas List of 2013, I have to report that sadly nothing much has changed by ways of holiday stress. People in the mall are still cranky and cars still pull up right behind me as I try to back out of my parking spot. I spent last week frantically shopping online in order to meet the delivery deadline of December 24th. There are packages coming to my house every day, which make my living room look like an Amazon warehouse.
Winter break was a whole lot more fun when I was a kid. I grew up a Buddhist in Taiwan in the 70’s, so I was not even aware of the tradition of gift giving, nor the charity works of Saint Nicholas. I grew up celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year, and that usually fell in the month of February. Winter break in December was all about spending time with family, eating a bit too much and having a bit too much fun being a bit “too wild”, as my grandmother would chastise us with a smile. I still remember the moment I discovered St Nicholas: I was in 7th grade attending a Catholic all-girls boarding school. A friend of mine told me that a man named Santa Claus was going to visit us with gifts that afternoon. “Why? Why would he give us gifts?” I was 13 years old, and already a skeptic. “Why? He is just nice! He used to only give gifts to white people. But now he comes to Taiwan too!”, my friend who grew up Catholic said excitedly. “Whoa! That is so great!” I waited with her with great curiosity and admiration for a white-bearded man I have never met, or heard of.
Santa never did come to our school that afternoon. I was told that he had to go somewhere else. My fascination with him ended as abruptly as it had started.
When we moved to the States, winter break was still fun. We gathered around to have hot pot soup with glass noodle and udon, and ordered Peking duck for Christmas. Eventually we had a plastic Christmas tree and strung up lights around the window just like our neighbors. We educated and finally convinced our parents about Christmas gifts, and were eventually given one small gift each, and that was grand in our minds.
Ever since I have a family of my own, Christmas is celebrated with gusto. The first Christmas I spent at my mother-in-law’s house, I nearly choked on my cider when I rested my view on the living room: there were impressive mountains of gifts under a giant Christmas tree. Christmas villages, fake snow, lights, Santa, reindeer, Christmas stockings, cookies, pies, you name it, they were everywhere. I got reined in on the tradition and spirit of Christmas. There after, I dutifully bought Christmas decorations, ornaments, gifts. But instead of taking comfort in the knowledge of becoming more “American”, I became more and more stressed each year as Christmas approached.
Why should this be? I decided to put a stop to this. I shouldn’t let this external preconceived pressure dictate how I celebrate Christmas with my family. Growing up, Mom and Dad would start our winter break by taking us to an orphanage and gift the children small gifts like pencils and erasers, and gift the orphanage money. I remember playing with these orphans and appreciating having my own family. By the end of the trips, I was always relieved that my parents did not “accidentally” leave us there. More importantly, I understood the value of family.
This year, I decided to make our own tradition by incorporating “giving” into our holiday celebration. Not just giving money to charities, which we have always done; but “giving” of our time and effort. The monkey clan joined over 2,000 volunteers from the One Voice Holiday Program, and helped package foods for families in poverty. The night felt meaningful. In the giant aircraft hangar, there was music and people were excited to help in the spirit of giving. Plumster worked enthusiastically, picking and bagging oranges, tying knots and boxing them up. We worked systematically, taking comfort in the knowledge that someone will benefit directly from the fruits of our labor (no puns intended!). To me, this was way more fun than trips to the shopping mall.
Christmas was more fun when I was a kid with our four small gifts under one plastic tree. I have never made a Christmas list, but somehow my wishes have a way of coming true. Without being religious, our sentiment was similar to Christianity: charity, kindness, and being together. I am going back to these basics and letting go of the holiday nuances, hectic schedules, and preconceived notions. Plum somehow sensed this sentiment and did not have a Christmas list for Santa this year. She wanted Santa to focus his energy on children without toys or food. So she opted out. I was pleasantly surprised and supremely proud of her for doing that. She will still put out carrots, milk and cookies for Santa and his reindeer, because she has learned the lesson of giving.
Christmas was more fun when I was a kid without all the materialistic wanting, and now I think my kid will have just as much fun as I did. We will play host to our visiting family and spend time together eating a bit too much, having a bit too much fun, and playing a bit too wild. And that, to me, is how I want to celebrate in the spirit of Christmas.
Wish you all a very merry Christmas and happy holiday season!