It is two days before Christmas, and I cannot help but feel like Christmas has been warped, and like I am warping it for my children. Everywhere I turn, the emphasis has shifted to commercial concerns, and away from the true ideals and magic which Christmas used to embody for me as a child, growing up. The timeless Christmas spirit has been supplanted by acquiring more STUFF, giving presents that no one actually needs, and portraying wealth or happiness on social media. As a mother of small children, I feel like all I do during the month of December is try to incentivize good behavior for one month out of the year via tools like the elf on the shelf, or Santa Claus “apps”. I feel like I am not teaching my children what Christmas is actually supposed to feel like.
To quote Cindy Lou Who from the Grinch (the Jim Carrey version):
“Where are you Christmas? Why can’t I find you? Why have you gone away?”
I think one of the reasons that true Christmas spirit seems so elusive to today’s families is that the time honored Christmas rituals which emphasized family time, giving, generosity, and holiness, have been increasingly replaced by social media inspired commercial traditions and the Christmas “commercial enterprise” (Black Friday, Cyber Monday), all facilitated by modern day technology.
I would give up anything to be able to recreate some of my childhood Christmases growing up in New York City, the child of divorced, middle-class parents. My mom (a single mom from when I was 6 years old until I graduated from high school), did a fabulous job of making Christmas warmly memorable and inspirational. Our Christmas ritual started with the purchase of our family Christmas tree. My younger brother, my mom and I would walk about a half a mile to 110th Street and Broadway’s Christmas tree “lot”, where a completely toothless woman named Molly from Vermont wearing cut-off gloves and severely calloused hands would show us her Christmas trees and ultimately sell us one. These New York City Christmas tree “lots” look a lot like this:
Molly would wrap the tree in twine, and we would lay it on its side on the concrete sidewalk. Then each of us would stick a gloved hand through the branches to grasp the trunk. We would carry it the half-mile home, through the blinding freezing New York City wind, like this:
Our doorman would meet us at the steps of our walk-up apartment, and help us get it in the elevator, leaving a trail of Christmas tree needles in the elevator and the hallway to our third story apartment.
Once inside, we would decorate our tree to the sound of Christmas music playing on the record player and make Christmas cookies. We would read the Polar Express on the living room couch (long after we stopped believing in Santa). A few days later, we would go to a beautiful Christmas choral service at our local church, St. John the Divine Cathedral. As a child I remember feeling a lump in my throat as I was moved to tears by the beauty of the choir’s Christmas carols, and the excitement of the season.
On Christmas morning, we would open presents. And a few years, my mom basically dragged us to a nursing home to sing Christmas carols to the elderly residents. I never wanted to do it – seeing the older people always made me feel uncomfortable and sad, and I distinctly recall glancing over at my mom’s tear-stained face mid-caroling session, knowing that she felt the same way. Still, the elderly residents, even those with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, somehow knew all the words to many of the famous Christmas carols. I guess the brain always remembers those timeless songs, even when it can no longer recall the face or identity of loved ones.
Now 34 years old, and a mother of three small children myself, I can hardly recall a single present I received for Christmas as a child. Yet I remember the Christmas rituals like they were yesterday, and I remember with startling vividness the caroling – the feeling that Christmas was not just about presents and receiving rewards. These are memories that seem indelibly burned into my brain, leaving imprints on my inner soul. I guess in reality my mom instilled in me the real “reason for the season” – gratitude, family, love, prayer, generosity, and that indescribably “magic” feeling.
Why then, am I so hard on myself about Christmas now that I am a mother of three small children of my own? I don’t think I’m alone. I have these expectations and they seem like they’re never met. I cannot help but feel like I’m somehow falling short every Christmas.
Christmas is full of distractions now. Everything is broadcast via social media. Christmas is no longer a private special experience among immediate close family – it’s shared with the world. Wherever you live, whether it be a small rural town, a suburb, or a large city, Christmas is different. There is just so much more that’s expected of parents and families to make Christmas Christmas that’s acceptable these days.
I’m sure my Christmas rituals were markedly different from most, being that we lived in such a huge city. However, they were OUR rituals. Nobody knew about them but us. We couldn’t post pictures, alerting the world to what we were doing via social media, seeing how many “likes” we would get. We couldn’t show off our Christmas to others. In that sense, our Christmases were authentic and privately ours.
With the advent of social media and technology, the uniqueness and personal nature of these Christmas traditions has been undeniably altered. As a mother, I actually find it stressful. I find myself constantly feeling like I’m falling short of the ideal Christmas. One would think it would make it easier, but I actually feel more pressure. In short, CHRISTMAS IS MAKING ME PSYCHO. And believe me, with three small children ages 5, 3 and 9 months, I don’t need much help in the psycho department as it is.
Let’s look at some of the things we, as parents, are now expected to do:
Pictures with Santa:
Oh my God. For some reason, I feel like a failure as a mom if I don’t take my kids to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap and get a picture of them. There is this ideal now also that kids have to actually meet Santa in person to believe that he’s real. Kids these days need to see things for themselves; technology has made it much harder for modern kids to just believe in the unbelievable.
I have taken my kids to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall every year since my oldest daughter was born – she is almost 6 years old, so that’s 6 straight years of standing in line at a hot mall, corralling my rambunctious children. Every year I have had to cajole them to smile or sit on the big guy’s lap via friendly incentives, angry whispering (“you better go sit on his lap or he will put you on the naughty list.”) to downright acting like a fool trying to get them to “SMILE FOR SANTA AND YOU’LL GET A SUCKER!” Inevitably, the pictures have generally fallen into one of these two categories:
Also known as (a/k/a) the small child gripped by separation anxiety who is utterly traumatized by being placed on the lap of a complete stranger with a white beard, and shrieked at to “smile” by workers creepily dressed as Christmas elves. Said child screams bloody murder and appears tortured in the picture regardless of bribes, and is typically carried off of Santa’s lap whimpering with fear.
Here is my middle daughter enduring this horror for the first time at age 11 months:
And here is my 9 month old son similarly experiencing this terrorizing event for the first time despite my best efforts to dress him in a festive Christmas-colored Chevron tie purchased on Etsy.
Still Worse, The Parent Picture:
Also known as (a/k/a) the undesirable event where your children quietly (or unquietly) refuse to sit anywhere near Santa (or his demonic Frosty the Snowman helper), without you in the picture as well.
Thankfully I was wearing a red shirt and, for the record, I too was haunted by Frosty’s evil-appearing smile and striking similarity to the clown in Stephen King’s It.
This Christmas ritual is now posted all over social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, leaving some mothers who lack time and patience to torture their children like this feeling “less than.”
The Elf on the Shelf:
I don’t know about you, but our Elf, Belle, is pretty uncreative. Lazy may be a better word for it. Or maybe I’m just lazy and uncreative.
Founded in 2005, the Elf on the Shelf has been delighting children near and far, with the premise that the Elf spies on children and reports back to Santa every night as to the child’s behavior – good or bad.
Implied in the title is that the elf sits on the Shelf. Nowhere does it mention that the elf will sit on a toilet seat and be seen pooping red and white Hershey’s kisses. The elf is supposed to sit on the damn shelf.
While some elves are toilet-papering Christmas trees and zip-lining through living rooms, our elf prefers a more cautious and subdued approach, hopping around to different house plants, wreaths, or (old faithful) the Christmas tree. How many times have I awoken at 1:00 a.m. in a cold sweat with a racing heart realizing I had forgotten to move the elf.
I know I’m not alone. The Elf on the Shelf is just another thing that makes moms like me psycho.
This Christmas tradition was kind of forced on me. My oldest daughter came home from daycare one day a few years ago asking why no elf cared about her enough to come watch her when all of her friends at daycare had elves. Worried I was emotionally scarring her with a feeling of low self-worth, I made the walk of shame to the nearest Target to buy the overpriced book and accompanying felt elf.
At first, most elves were as uncreative as our elf (remember, it’s supposed to be an elf on a shelf, not an elf on a toilet seat pooping Hershey’s kisses). Recently, however, elf positions and ideas have exploded on Pinterest and Facebook and similar social media sites. As if the pressure of Christmas wasn’t enough already, moms now have to worry about creatively displaying a little felt elf for approximately 25 straight days?!
I personally don’t even agree with the elf’s premise. I know I’m not the only mother who hopes beyond hope that her children might just want to be genuinely good – not just good one month out of the year because they greedily hope for presents. Prominent psychologists and researchers have expressly dismissed the idea that the elf on the shelf provides any lasting change in behavior amongst children. This has proven true for me. Year after year, I have watched in horror as my children display abhorrent behavior on Christmas day and the days directly following Christmas because the elf is no longer watching. And I know I’m not the only parent who has desperately threatened her children with the possibility that Santa’s sleigh will turn back around to reclaim presents wrongly given to now misbehaving children.
There are now even smartphone apps like Portable North Pole, which generate a unique video designed specifically for your child. The video features a real Santa Claus, ostensibly at the North Pole with real elves, who identifies the child, speaks to them by name, discloses personal details about them (age, where they go to school), and ultimately decrees in a very suspenseful manner whether the child is on the “nice,” “almost nice”, or “naughty” list. My children both received portable north pole videos this year. They were delighted to find out that they were currently on the “nice list” (seriously I don’t think I could have brought myself to put them on the naughty list).
My point is that Christmas is being slowly and steadily usurped by commercial behavior-modification products which attempt to incentivize good behavior among children with the promise of presents. We never had those distractions when I was growing up. Christmas was Christmas. I was never told that I was going to get a lump of coal. I was given a Sears Wishbook Catalogue and told to circle two toys. I would usually get one of those toys. That’s it. Maybe that’s why I have such fond and mystical memories of Christmas – the focus was so much less on presents and more on the magical feeling.
Personalized online Christmas and holiday photo cards is another thing that’s creating psycho-ness and pressure these days. When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, this pressure simply was not there. As far as I can remember, pictures weren’t digitally stored and available – let alone accessible from handheld devices and laptops and easily uploaded to card sites like TinyPrints. The smartphone with a built-in camera was still more than a decade away. Shutterfly (the idea of which originated in 1999, but which was not made public until 2006), was not even a distant thought. There may have been a year or two when my mom was on top of her game enough to buy a pack of holiday cards from the neighborhood drug store, develop some film at said drug store, and shove a picture or two of us in the card to send out to her nearest and dearest. But that’s it. It just was not expected.
I don’t know when it happened, but Christmas photo cards are just expected now. In my small Cajun Louisiana town of Marksville, Louisiana, population of approximately 5,000, I know many mothers who have stressed out about having appropriate holiday outfits – the smocked dresses and big bows; the holiday vests and charming collared shirts. And who have stressed out about Christmas cards.
I’ve talked to moms who have expressed dismay at their inability to find time to do Christmas cards because they worried that people would think something sinister was going on with their family – like maybe they were going through a hard time, an illness, a divorce, or something like that. How about they just don’t want to spend $150 or so on some cards at Tiny Prints or Shutterfly?! Or how about they don’t want to suffer through the ridiculous endeavor of dressing their children in festive holiday attire, dragging them outside to a special spot, and screaming at them for an hour to “SMILE AND YOU WILL GET ICE CREAM!”
“We didn’t even have time to do Christmas cards this year!” is a common mantra among exasperated moms as an example of how busy a family may have been in any given year.
I am in no way decrying Christmas cards as a beautiful way to spread Christmas cheer to loved ones. Despite having way too much to do, I’ve done Christmas cards for the past 4 years. I love to collect them – I love seeing pictures of other peoples’ children. And I think it is a great ritual and way of spreading good cheer. My point is more that there is already a lot of pressure on mothers to arrange for these things, and if that is the true reason and motivation for sending — to fulfill some sort of societal pressure on moms to portray a beautifully holiday-clad family, devoid of problems – then the spirit of Christmas is being lost. As a child, my Christmases were made magical by a mother who was always present emotionally – not stressed out and harried, screaming at us to smile because she was trying to get everyone in perfect poses for a flawless Christmas card.
What’s The Point?
The point is that we are slowly losing Christmas. If I could have one Christmas wish, it would be to teleport my own children back to the 1980s to experience what I experienced.
At the risk of sounding cheesy and cliché, history has proven time and time again that memorable Christmas experiences are more along the lines of the intangible – the moments that are magical simply because they embody the good cheer and familial love of our fellow man, and a recognition of the actual reason for Christmas – the birth of Jesus. There are a lot of distractions out there. And if a mom succumbs to taking these societal pressures and new norms too seriously, it may detract from her ability to be physically and emotionally present for the Christmas holidays. What children want most on Christmas is love; love and to feel a part of something greater; something Holy. That’s what Christmas is – it is a holy day which is supposed to be spent doing God’s will, loving our fellow mankind, and showing children that Christmas far exceeds tangible gifts, good behavior, or the naughty/nice list.
With the commercial turn that Christmas has taken in the past two decades or so, it is incumbent upon moms to try to save the spirit of Christmas. Take your kids to a local Christmas tradition festival. In Louisiana, Natchitoces has a historic Christmas festival which still embodies the spirit of old-time, small-town community Christmas tradition. My town, Marksville, has an annual “lighting of the Courthouse Square” where families gather to watch the local courthouse be lit for the first time in the season. Children need to see that local communities keep these traditions alive to promote a community spirit of conviviality and unity in a season that has become increasingly about individual gain.
Or even better, show your kids that their problems are, for lack of a better phrase, #firstworldproblems. Find a local family in need and give anonymously. We did that this year – my sisters in law and I got gifts together and a Christmas dinner and brought them to a local needy family. We brought our kids. It was a memorable experience and I can only hope that my kids saw on some sort of level just how blessed they are, and how little the “commercial” and “receiving” aspect of Christmas means as compared to the spirit of giving. Take your kids caroling at a nursing home. Take them, because if you don’t, they won’t know to pass these experiences on to the next generation.
Sing with them, even if you feel stupid singing with them. Let them decorate your Christmas tree even if it looks more like a tree that a clown decorated, and not one you decorated by the folks at Frontgate or Pottery Barn. Get them involved in the intangible goodness and excitement of the season. All children really want is your time.
My five year old daughter has been hounding me for an iPod since Thanksgiving. For the record, she will NOT be getting one – I told her she needs to save her money (and since she only has $29, it will be a while before she gets that). But I recently spent the day with her taking her to a local “Christmas Fete” in Alexandria, Louisiana. And what she said to me after we spent the day playing in fake snow and watching ice skaters brought tears to my eyes. She said “what I really want is for you to play with me like this.” Her innocent little voice was so powerful, and nothing could be more of the truth.
This Christmas season has seemed warped, and controlled by commercial concerns, threats and bribes for good behavior, and the promise of presents. It is probably always going to be a little bit about sending cards and keeping up with the Joneses. But I am making a pledge to my children (though they don’t know it yet), that in the future, Christmas will be different.