As a child, I loved everything about Christmas. Especially the presents.
In fact, the quality and quantity of presents I received were, to me, an indication of how much I was loved. The more gifts Santa gave me, the more Santa loved me. And he must have loved me more than my friends because he gave me more gifts than he gave them.
That was important. Getting more. Getting the most. Presents made me feel loved. Because every other day of the year, I felt completely unloved.
Those feelings began early in life – at the age of two – when my birth father was incarcerated and our relationship ended. Unable to support two children on her own, my mother quickly remarried. And when she wasn’t working to develop that relationship, she was tending to my sister, who was suffering from a chronic medical condition.
There simply wasn’t time for me. So presents replaced presence.
Christmastime was the one time of year I felt truly loved, however. Not just because of the mountain of gifts under our tree on Christmas morning, but because my mother and I decorated together. Just the two of us.
We carried the boxes of ornaments up from the basement, listening to Christmas carols on the record player. We assembled the artificial tree, pulling the limbs of each prickly branch apart as they scratched our arms. We replaced burnt bulbs and untangled the strands of colorful lights, and then wrapped them around the tree. And we hung the ornaments, recalling the story behind each one’s origin.
Of all the presents I received though, her presence was my favorite.
We continued that tradition for years. Even after I learned the truth about Santa, which forced me to reconcile the loss of his love with my mother’s lack of time to express her’s.
Feeling unloved for the majority of the year left me feeling unloved for the majority of my life, especially during my teenage years. In fact, by the time I was in high school, my family and I were barely speaking to each other. Yet my mother and I continued to decorate with each other each and every year.
That remained to be true until my senior year of high school when I came home to a completely decorated house, done completely without my help. In my anger, I called my mother some nasty names, which prompted my stepfather and I to get physical. The force of one of his blows knocked me into the tree, causing it to fall over.
Before the end of the following year, I moved out of my parents’ home and began making holiday traditions of my own. Many of which involved a bottle of wine or three as I decorated my own tree.
Now, as the mother of two young children, I’ve struggled to build Christmas up knowing there are so many things (like learning the truth about Santa) that will eventually cause them to feel down.
Recognizing the importance of celebrating the significance behind Christmas, however, I’m making intentional efforts to limit the number of presents my children receive and offer them my presence instead. Here are a few ways we’re planning to spend quality time together throughout the holiday season:
- Decorating the house together, inside and out
- Stuffing Christmas card envelopes and affixing stamps
- Baking cookies for our neighbors, friends and family
- Wrapping presents together, asking the kids to add the bows and make the cards
- Practicing Christmas songs and going caroling at a nearby nursing home
- Making patterned strings of popcorn and cranberries
- Watching Christmas-themed movies together, like It’s a Wonderful Life
- Writing “Thank You!” cards to family members who sent gifts
- Going sledding and ice skating
- Building snowmen and snow forts
- Cutting out paper snowflakes
- Driving around to look at Christmas lights, pretending it’s a Scavenger Hunt (like finding blow up snowmen, stars on rooftops, a house with only blue lights, etc.)
- Having a Christmas music dance party
- Acting out the Nativity scene together
- Donating outgrown clothes and toys
- Volunteering together at the Awaited Christmas show
If Christmastime is tough for you too, I’ve also found stopping (or modifying) old traditions, along with starting some new ones, has helped me refocus on the Truth and less on the lies, bringing me back to the real reason for the season. For more tips on making Christmas more about Jesus and less about Santa, try:
- Taking a moment to consider Jesus’ perspective on Santa.
- Reconsidering forcing children to sit on Santa’s lap.
- Writing a Santa a different kind of letter.
- Playing with the elf, together.
- Helping your children experience what Jesus meant when he said, “It’s better to give than to receive“ all year long (not just during the holidays).
Beth Nowak is a believer, dreamer, wife and mother, former Kindergarten teacher, and founder of GivingFamilies.com where she helps parents and children (ages 4+) “make memories while making a difference.” She’s also a mental health activist, TEDx presenter and inspirational speaker promoting civic engagement as a holistic approach to healing. For more information on the many topics she presents on, please click here.