The Good and Bad of Christmas

I had a great Christmas this year, but it left me feeling sad.

Actually, there were plenty of things to be happy about this holiday season.

Family: My family lives on three continents, so I never expect to see them all for any one occasion. This year some of my husband’s family came from Brazil. It was wonderful having them here (and my mother-in-law will stay for 2 months). Add a couple days with my mom, her husband, and my grandma, and we had nice family time this holiday season.

Carmel Beach

My nephew, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law with my husband and kids on Carmel Beach

Travel: Five days on the Central California coast was a wonderful way for me to kick off my four weeks off from teaching. I love that area; plus, we had beautiful sunny weather, so there was even more to love this time.

My view of the Pacific from the hot tub– not bad!

Holiday atmosphere: We got into the spirit this year with a big natural tree, lights, decorations, wintery treats, stories about Santa… Having children makes this a lot more fun since the holiday traditions make them so excited and happy.

But, during the days leading up to Christmas, and especially when it was all over, I had this nagging feeling of guilt.

One word could describe the last week: excess. And that’s a word that doesn’t usually fit with my perspective.

Too much money spent.

Too many gifts.

Too many feelings of, “Well, I’ll have to cut back on this because I spent too much on/ate too much of/thought too much about that.”

Thinking about the people who don’t have enough food or money for gifts for their children or safety in their daily lives– but, sadly, I didn’t do much about it.

This is all coming from someone who really makes an effort not to go overboard, but I participated in the cycle of excess that really is out of control in the Western world, even if I didn’t indulge as much as the average person.

Even the fruit display, a Brazilian tradition, was part of the excess

Why can’t I say, “No gifts this year— please give money to a good charity instead”? Because I have a big family that likes to give presents to my kids, and because, to be honest, I like to get gifts, even if it’s cash to help offset that iPad I got in October.

How about encouraging everyone to scale back and give money to charity in addition to giving gifts? We do that in my family but have gotten a bit off track the last couple years.

How about asking everyone to give a present to a foster child? The Christmas Wish-Lists for foster children are easy to find– they caught my eye one morning at Starbuck’s.

How about asking my son to set aside things to give to the local crisis nursery? We could do this together every year. We have already taught him to only ask for what he needs and to give away things that he doesn’t use, but if we get organized, he and I could prepare a couple of boxes of gently-used items and deliver them together.

New mask, new shirt, new gloves: all fun, all unnecessary

So now that the season of excess is over, I realize that for me, avoiding the excess means planning ahead because once the rush of preparing for Christmas is on, it’s easy to let things get out of control. My intention for next year is fewer presents, even slimmer wish lists, less food, more charity, and more space for simple pleasures.

Raam Dev encouraged me once to write a post about raising children and sustainability. I have not done it because we are not a good example, but I realize now that writing about it will encourage me to take more action. Look for that and more related intentions soon.

Update: In an effort to address these concerns, I’ve added 10 Ways to Give Back for the Holidays and 10 Unique Holiday Gifts (that support artists and small businesses).

How did the holiday season leave you feeling? What do you do to keep the excess of the season under control?

30 Comments

  • So full of the meaning of Christmas my friend…the gift of giving…the best gift of all. Actually, I promised that if I received a credit gift card, that I would donate all the proceeds and that is precisely what I have done with my AMEX gift card. The SPCA and other wildlife organizations need the “excess” much more than I do.

    Thanks for this truly inspirational post and I hope it motivates others to give the gift of giving!!

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for your nice comment, Jeff! i like your commitment to give any gift cards away and your choice of the SPCA.

  • Cindy says:

    You have expressed many of my feelings in this post, Jenna! Now that Christmas has passed, I feel a bit hungover (and I don’t drink…) The excess surrounding the holidays becomes a slippery slope – and if we’re tired, it’s that much easier to slide down it.

    I had wanted to do something for others during this holiday season but decorating, buying presents, wrapping them, and cooking lots of food (and EATING it!) took all my time. We did do some charitable giving, but typing in credit card numbers seems like a cop-out.

    Of course, we don’t have to wait for next Christmas to reach out to other people. Thanks for helping me to think about this…

    • Jenna says:

      Very good point that we don’t have to wait until next year to give. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Gretchen says:

    So very true…it’s harder to institute some of that with little ones, as you say, but there are so many other ways to help others. I did the same—wanted to say take my gift and donate the money to Make A Wish, but there were 2 books I wanted, so I put those on my list instead 🙁

    Ugh, good food for thought. As Cindy said, it’s an opportunity that never really passes.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for sharing, Gretchen! I agree, the opportunity to think about these things never passes

  • Monica says:

    That made me smile Jenna. After years of excess at Christmas, I routinely ask for the gift of moderation. Since nobody listens to my requests, I set up a guideline – we have to give as much to charity as we spend on oursleves! So, we hook up with a couple of local charities and sponsor 10 kids for Christmas, and also throw a big Christmas party for our friends where the ticket in is a gift for the needy. We also did the Samaratain Gift Shoebox and just received the notification that 10 kids in Jordan just received our gift boxes.

    I also agree that having lists really helps. I keep a notebook at christmas that I carry in my purse where I jot down every time I purchase a Christmas gift. Seeing them all in writting helps control the mad spending spree…

    Cant’ wait to hear how it goes next year…

  • AMEN!!! Anyone who knows me knows that I rant a lot about this. I am very passionate about this and have a strong opinion – to the point it gets under the skin of some people. But we have too much crap. We give our kids too much crap! They just don’t need it. Some of the best times I’ve had with my family is with silly moments and spending time together. That means far more to them than any toys or gifts. Teach them the gift of quality time with people they love and it’s a gift that will keep on giving. Teach to expect a lot of toys and that is what will consume them. Then they will be people that seek to take and consume.

    I hate the video games, TV, and gadgets for kids. Call me old fashioned but I think the quality of life was much better before all of those things. People spent time together and did things together and connected rather that played with toys, phones, and “being connected” all the time. It’s too much. I refuse to load up my kids with stuff and be consumed with materialism and gadgets.

    If anything, I think the time you had with your family and the blessings of a few days away reminded you what really matters. May have been the best gift you received! 🙂

    • Jenna says:

      I agree, we have too much crap and I dislike a lot of the stuff kids have these days. I try to create a balance because I know my kids will rebel against me if I am too extreme. It’s a good reminder for us to think about not getting wrapped up in the materialism of the holidays. Thanks for your comments!

  • oh jenna, this post hits me right in the heart.

    i’m so not a fan of the holidays for so many reasons: the excess, the non-connection, the traffic, the expectations, the traditional food i can no longer eat, family being out of state and the list goes on and on.

    so yes, sad.

    i also suffer from the dreaded “second arrow” in that i feel bad for not wanting/liking traditional holiday “stuff”. so much work to do on this.

    in mad’s yoga for holiday stress workshop and series we talk a lot about redefining the holidays to better feed our souls. making new traditions which make us happy instead of draining our resources at the most depleted time of year. working through out the year to change is probably key.

    • Jenna says:

      Glad this post resonated for you, Tami. There is so much feeling around the holidays, and we have to find ways to balance, including being honest to ourselves while also giving others our attention and love.

  • Amanda says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, Jenna. My partner and I talked about his a lot this year and come to some agreements to help reign in the excess (and like you, we strive hard to live without excess in general). All we can do is change our behavior and hope that others will catch on in their own time. We agreed to really keep the gifts to a minimum amongst the four of us; make as much as we can for each other and others on our list; and accept what other people need right now to make the holidays what they need (per Michelle’s class today). It’s a start.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for your comment, Amanda. You said something that is so true– we can only set a good example for others. I hint to my family that my kids don’t need a lot of toys, but in the end, it’s their decision how they want to give gifts or celebrate the season. I also like your idea of making things for each other. Great way to spend time together and give something from your heart.

  • Really enjoyed this one. It’s hard to be completely happy during the holidays when your family is all scattered around. Wishing you a happy new year 🙂

  • I completely agree that the feeling of just giving each other a bunch of gifts that most of the time we don’t really even need can be depressing. I wish my family would vote to just give money to charity instead. We have a lot of young kids in the family though, so I do think they should still get gifts. Just maybe not as many. Do they really need all those toys?

    • Jenna says:

      I agree, the kids really don’t need all those gifts. My son asked for 4 things from Santa, which we thought was reasonable, but then with all the other stuff he got from family, it ended up feeling excessive.

  • Emiel says:

    Very honest post Jenna! It’s that time of year to think this all over and you are so right when you say we live in excess. That’s what I like about the current economic climate (call it depression or crisis, I don’t know exactly) as it forces people to spend less and to think about the stuff they really need.
    We are guilty as well, I don’t have to hide that. We buy stuff and it sometimes feels like just treating yourself with gifts. But inspired by lots of traveling / nomadic families, we will start this year with a new way of traveling and you know all about that. What I like about this is that it forces us to take only the most necessary and yes, maybe this will have an impact on us after our return.
    You are perfectly right to think this over. Do continue to write that post as writing helps you to get the ideas out there.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for your support, Emiel. I am sure that your trip this year will have an impact on how you see your material possessions. One thing that is so true is that the excess of our modern life gets amplified with kids. I never realized how much stuff goes along with children and how much stuff they would want.

  • Angela says:

    I agree with you Jenna, in fact this Christmas I bought very few gifts, actually only 2. No excess food-wise, we had a Christmas lunch that was pretty much like every Sunday family gathering and that’s it. It’s good to celebrate Christmas and the other holidays, but there’s really no need to go crazy…

    • Jenna says:

      True. We try to do something similar on Thanksgiving– no huge meal, just a nice lunch and time together.

  • ML Awanohara says:

    Hi, Jenna. I found your post interesting because your thoughts corresponded in many ways with my own once I came back to the U.S. after living in Japan for quite a few years, where they celebrate New Year’s, not Christmas. I was feeling “bah humbug!” about the material excesses of the American holiday season (I found the US even worse than Scrooge’s England, where I’d lived as a student). And I fantasized about starting a movement to boycott Christmas and turn it into a holiday more like Thanksgiving (which I really loved celebrating again) — ie, a nice meal with family and friends.

    But then I read the essay that a Third Culture Kid (she’s been suspended among three English-speaking cultures for much of her life) wrote for The Displaced Nation, the collective blog that I now write for, called “I may be a Third Culture Kid, but bring me the (gluten-free) figgy pudding!”

    In essence, she — her name is Charlotte– argues that we humans need (and have always needed — Christmas is actually built upon a pagan holiday) a festival every so often where we can overindulge our senses. After reading it, I breathed a huge sign of relief and, for the first time in a long time, started feeling less guilty and a little more joyful.

    Charlotte’s main message is, as long as we couple overindulgence with generosity, we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves! I hope you’ll take a look and let me know what you think. In any event, I’d like to add it to the stew of comments on your very thoughtful post.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for the interesting perspective. You make a good point, that if we practice generosity, some overindulgence is ok. Some food for thought… and I will check out your link in more detail soon. Third culture kids is a topic that interests me.

  • Andrew says:

    Ali and I haven’t done decorations or gifts for the two Christmas’s we have been together. We have chosen to travel. We were in New Zealand for Christmas this year. And while it isn’t at all toward the charity/generosity end of things, it is nice to not have the stress of finding a gift for others and finding storage for the gifts you get. I quite like cards and pictures and messages for Christmas, to know that I am thought of without the need to store the stuff I get.

    There is a great book called the “5 Languages of Love”. He talks about how humans perceive the feeling of being cared for. One of the “languages” is gift giving, but the rest are things like spending time with others or talking or just physical closeness. I’m definitely not a gift person and felt far more loved just sitting on the beach with my wife than if she had bought and wrapped something for me.

    • Jenna says:

      I like the idea of traveling over the holidays, but now with two children, I wonder how they would react to it… The older one is SO into all the traditions. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  • I could not agree more Jenna. The first thing I am trying to practice is the “no gifts” you mentioned in your post. And there´s another BIG question regarding all this “too much”…. Christmas is about Jesus, about pleasing him, doing things that would give glory to GOD not to us. That´s the challenge for me and my family, have a Xmas time that really and truly would be around HIM and not around food and gifts…

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