We as a family have been celebrating the tradition of Advent every year as part of the run-up to Christmas. It’s because of my having had a childhood. With pretty idyllic memories. And wanting to pass that on.
(I suspect the haloes around the candles are due to a sadly neglected lens of an overused phone.)
Advent starts 4 Sundays before Christmas, and is commemorated with 1 added candle per Sunday on the Advent Wreath. We lit the second one tonight. The time is also marked by preparation for Christmas. This included baking (usually with my sister who is now in a country far far away), family get-togethers (ditto), some chocolate-munching, finding new songs to sing for Christmas or preparing other musical pieces (a family tradition that goes back to my sister & brother and me being children, and actually to my mother’s childhood in Austria). The “pre-Christmas time” involves making hand-made gifts and crafting decorations for the tree and the house. It involves remembering previous Christmases. It entails planning what we will be doing for Christmas eve (we let Christmas morning take care of itself, for us Christmas eve is when the magic happens).
In more recent years, the time of Advent included “Secret Santas”, gift-giving games that have everyone buy something for a pot-luck, then sitting together (friends and fam) and playing the game and “winning” the presents. These have to be small, they can even be “mathoms” (Tolkien fans will know those are presents that make the rounds, being re-gifted at every opportunity) or edibles. At a Secret Santa last year, Hubbs won a garden gnome. I won a Loo-Blue. And refused to give it to anyone else when the “second round” entailed randomly switching presents, lovingly or piratically. (An innovation by my highly inventive mom. 😀 )
I tried writing about Christmas a few times in my fiction. “Fanta Claus” is a norty little disrespectful short-story that happened out of trying to explain to my kids the reality of the kind, generous 3rd century bishop St Nicholas, and the commercial (Coca Cola) connection of Santa Claus; the tradition of St Nicholas and Krampus in Germany (6th of December); and how it all relates to Christmas, Baby Jesus and all that. (Obviously the bishop was a Christian!) So no, Santa has not hijacked Christmas from Jesus; he went around icy Europe leaving gifts of apples and nuts for the poor families and quite possibly saving a few lives that way. Santa is indeed intricately connected to the Christmas gifting tradition. And Christians do not need to feel ashamed to give gifts on Christmas, as it ties in perfectly fine with Jesus bringing love (gifts are actually a recognized love language).
But sometimes gifts get abused for power play. The anthropologist Eibl Eibisfeld described in his books how gifting is a tradition that goes straight through all human cultures (he specifically studied cultures of groups that had not yet encountered civilization at the time). He explains that gifting is rooted in the mother-child connection, and in offering food to each other as a form of bonding. He mentions food traditions in human “rituals” (I’m thinking here of Thanksgiving dinners for instance), and how closely they are often connected with gift giving.
However he points out that gifting can be turned into an act of affront – if the giver gives so extravagantly that the receiver is shamed because there is no way he can reciprocate. Reciprocating is implicit in the gifting tradition. So if someone gives you something that you could not afford yourself, the natural response is often a reluctance to accept it. Also, interestingly, if a person is offered a gift by someone they don’t like, the same reluctance to accept comes to the fore. And it would be insincere to allow someone you hate to give you a gift, knowing you will not bother reciprocating. This is probably a topic that will trigger memories for you – uncomfortable memories.
A sad state is, too, if a family has gone to the trouble of hand-crafting gifts and these are then “downrated” as inferior to some or other shop-bought stuff. Even if it’s bath salts, thought, time and effort goes into handcrafting a gift, not to forget that the materials cost money – generally more money than going to a jumble shop and picking out some items. And that is where Christmas gets really frustrating. If you have a clan of ten or twelve strong, giving an expensive, hand-“picked” (from the shops), inventive gift to each can set you back more than you can afford. Going for less expensive gifts can be perceived as cheap-skating. Handcrafting gifts may work out a little cheaper than the boutique type but can also get an upturned nose reaction, especially if you are not a professional artisan and your hands are out of practice, so the gift looks handmade.
Authors, don’t think you can simply give everyone a copy of your latest book. Friends and especially family are likely to spurn your work or be disinterested until they can clearly see that you have interested readers they haven’t met before. It looks like shameless self-promotion, and while shameless is fine towards strangers, it doesn’t achieve much in the family.
I raised my children to appreciate a gift, no matter how humble, at least for the intent of the giver. The day they turn up their noses at a gift is the day they will encounter a true-blue South African klap from Mama Bear. Because then there are people who are impossible to please, no matter what you give them…
As for the rest of you: Remember Christmas gifts are about the intent. If you are a lavish giver, just make sure you’re not making the receiver uncomfortable. If you want to give handmade stuff, go ahead and do it. Personally I adore the “mathom” idea. A mathom picks up history with every regifting. And it is so blatantly embarrassing in a way that it stops being embarrassing. I feel at least a third to half of all Christmas gifts ought to be mathoms, just to remind people that it’s about the ritual of giving and receiving, not the actual content.
If you have written a Christmas story, please consider listing it in the comments below, and linking to it. If you want to give a free copy in exchange for a reader reviewing it, please also say so and let them know where they can get their copy.