A long time ago, I think there was some tradition in which writers apologized to their readers for the shortcomings their letters, essays, and books may contain. I do so here: this essay rambles, but I felt moved to write it and am posting it in spite of its flaws.
I love the Winter holidays. I look forward with great anticipation to Winter Solstice each year when the light begins to return, the days get longer, and my often tortured nights shorter. From the 21st of December and through to Epiphany or so, I feel some new hope kindling from the dying spark in my soul.
Last night, I got over myself (a practice that has become easier as I’ve aged and don’t care nearly as much about what other people think of my behavior). I stood in the howling wind on the beach with a group of friends. We drummed, rattled and sang as we welcomed the full moon rising over the ocean, then talked and feasted as we celebrated Solstice together. When I returned home and told my daughter a bit about what I’d been doing, she said, “It sounds like a cult, Mom.” It made me laugh.
As I’ve travelled my life, I’ve left behind many of the religious beliefs of my youth and transformed, albeit slowly and confusedly, from a solid Irish Roman Catholic into a pagan—finally finding a home in Druidry after wandering along the way from one spiritual path to another. If people could actually roll over in their graves, all my relatives would be spinning. Just last week, my husband told me he was talking to a friend who’d asked what I was up to these days. He told him that I’m “into Shamanism and Druidry.” That made me laugh too. “Saying I’m ‘into’ shamanism and Druidry makes it sound like a hobby,” I told him.
Though I travel a different spiritual path these days, I still love Christmas. And anyway, it’s just one of many Christian reshapings of ancient pagan beliefs and celebrations of the wheel of the year. I do think Jesus was an amazing spiritual teacher, and I’m happy to celebrate his birth story and the hope and ethical guidance he continues to inspire in many people.
I unabashedly admit, however, that what I love most about Christmas is the gathering together of people in celebration, and all its holiday trappings and traditions. I actually like driving by all those houses decked out with too many colored lights, inflatable characters, and giant plastic reindeer and candy canes. Someday maybe I’ll shock our neighbors and drape our historic home with purple lights like the ones I saw in Nahant last night, instead of the staid white ones I’ve tied to our fence every year. Maybe I’ll even indulge in one of those crazy machines that projects snowflakes dancing on the house.
I like Christmas music, even in stores and elevators (well, almost all of it except I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer). If nobody’s within listening distance, I bellow out carols while I sit at the dining room table in the wee hours wrapping presents. My childlike excitement grows along with the piles of presents under the tree, and peaks at seeing the stockings hanging over the fireplace, limp in anticipation of Santa Claus’s visit.
The scent of pine and cedar from my tree and mantle creations brings me joy. I love the burning bayberry candles, the bitingly cold air, and the roaring fires in the hearth. Hot cocoa, mulled cider, tree-trimming, and kissing under the mistletoe. Our annual watching of It’s a Wonderful Life, reading of The Night Before Christmas, perching the ancient angel (complete with a trumpet made from a golf tee painted gold) atop the tree, and opening just one gift on Christmas Eve. Our UU congregation’s candlelit Festival of Lessons and Carols. Setting out, still, even with grown children, cookies and carrots and nog for Santa and his reindeer. The gobbling up of butter dingles (popovers) and Roosevelt eggs and sipping of blue-black coffee as we sleepily gather on Christmas morning, wrapped snugly in our PJs and cozy slippers. And even the serving up of bacon (amidst a bunch of vegetarians) in the ancient sterling bacon warmer we inherited—yes, people did apparently buy and use these strange contraptions. And of course the snow. I embrace it when it comes—and occasionally fling myself into it to make snow angels.
I love opening my stocking and presents—not only things I’ve wished for, but especially the fun and silly ones. I still wish for that battery operated red train my dad gave me that my mother then gifted to my friend Stevie because she deemed it a “boy’s toy.” I love giving presents too, especially when I’m pretty sure the person receiving them will like them. All this. Except.
Except I have a terrible problem with gift receiving. I can’t seem to release the guilt and conflict I feel that casts a shadow into the light of my enjoyment. It’s not just my disgust with our culture of spending and acquisition, or the blatantly capitalistic marketing of the holiday (even though I buy into it because I can’t make some of the presents people want, or resist purchasing that perfect thing that might make a loved one smile). Nor is it just the worn remnants of a Roman Catholic childhood steeped in the glorification of denying one’s material desires, self-sacrifice, and the insistence on constant consciousness of one’s personal unworthiness. (Those chants from weekly mass still haunt my heart: “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” and “Lord, I am unworthy to receive you,” to name just two.) The current of my guilt runs deeper than all these—predates my understanding of capitalism, and of myself as a sin-stained, unworthy human in Catholic culture. My guilt comes mostly from one of the many aphorisms passed down in my family that shaped my sense of what I ought to believe and how I ought to behave in this world.
“Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
This is the saying that fires my guilt and highlights my conflicts, especially about gifts. The words sound in my ears incessantly as I tell people what I want for Christmas and wrap the gifts I’ve made or selected for others. I hear it in my parents’ voices, my uncle and aunts’, my grandmother’s. Mostly though I hear it in my beloved Yankee grandfather’s voice. His tall and slim ghostlike figure, never seen without suit and tie, towers over me in my inner eye and intones these words meant to teach me to be perspicacious about having or expressing any desire for just about anything.
My mother’s parents, “Gammie and Grampa,” were full Boston Irish, born and bred from parents who had come over in the nineteenth century, not long after the Potato Famine. So their teachings likely came to them from an earlier generation. Gammie was one of seven, and Grampa one of nine kids (I think…I lose track of how many because there were so many.). Both were full of superstitions and voluble, repetitive aphorisms meant to inculcate respectable values in me.
Though I’d roll my eyes at all those teachers behind their backs by the time I was a teenager, the lessons became so ingrained that I can’t shake them. I even feel guilty when I throw away socks instead of darning them until there’s nothing left to darn. My grandparents weren’t wealthy. My Grampa, the “black sheep” because, shockingly, he left Boston to pursue college and law school in Washington, DC., did well for himself, but he and his young wife raised two children during the Great Depression. So the old imperative was solidified and passed on to their children, and from them to me.
It’s not a bad moral code really. I do mostly believe in it. Eat it up. The dog or the compost get the leftovers. If they’re veggies or bones or turkey carcasses, they become soup. Random things in the fridge or pantry turn into interesting stir-fries, and stale bread into croutons. Wear it out. Unwearable mothy sweaters have sleeves that make great leg warmers. Old sheets and undershirts become cleaning rags, broken plates bases for potted plants, and worn-out clothes cut into squares for crazy quilts (though admittedly despite the mound of squares, I will probably never make one). Make it do. Old mugs become pencil holders, cigar boxes hold jewelry and wine crates books. My husband’s Granny’s wood spoon still serves as my favorite stirrer for cookie making, and her wood-handled spatula, its metal worn to a razor thin edge, still flips omelets better than anything I might buy today. Even old cars can be coaxed along to coughing out the last bits of their transporting ability (witness the 1991 Volvo wagon I am currently driving).
It’s the last bit, Do without, that’s a tough one for me, especially at Christmastime. Because the aphorism is really about the conflict between need and want. I don’t NEED many new things, but I WANT them. The old hats are just as warm as the new one, the old turtlenecks still serve, and the old gloves still fit. I have enough sweaters to clothe several people, and enough scarves to adorn many more. I can “make do” without most of the new things I buy or will receive as gifts (excepting books of course!), but I don’t want to. I don’t want to “do without.” I coveted that white fleece turtleneck I found at Marshalls a few weeks ago, and I bought it—but damn you, Grampa, I feel guilty every time I put it on. And I know that when I open my wonderful presents on Christmas morning, I’ll be living in that conflict between the drag of guilt that I don’t deserve them because they’re unneeded, and the excitement and pleasure I take in them.
So, how do I deal? I guess yet another of my family’s incessant aphorisms helps some: Everything in Moderation. If it’s okay to do and have everything in moderation—not too much, not to little—then it’s okay for me to gleefully accept my Christmas presents that have been so thoughtfully selected and offered to me, accept that they’re not too much, and remember that I don’t always have to excoriate myself thinking I should be doing without them. What helps more is the brain-rewiring I’ve been doing since I got “into” Druidry and moved away from Catholicism. If I’m interpreting correctly two of the loves that Druidry fosters—love of each other and love of life—then it’s good to revel that the presents I give and receive aren’t just material things, but outward expressions of the love we have for each other. It’s good to love and enjoy life with all its presents, material and otherwise. Yes, I’ll eat up the candy in my stocking, eventually wear out the sweaters and socks, make do with the variety of creams and colognes that aren’t quite right, and, definitely, do without the guilt.
4 thoughts on “Presents and Christmas Guilt”
Bless you, dear Trish. I love your thoughts. You are a dear and good person. Love, Aunt ginu
Merry Christmas to you, Ginu! Thank you for reading my blog; I’m glad you liked the essay! Much love to you and your wonderful family.
What a beautifully written, thoughtful piece! I’m very glad that you are going to do without the guilt.
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What an amazing writer you are! Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful Christmas story. The feelings you elicit were very much in abundance in my thrifty Catholic home, but the beauty of Christmas lives on nonetheless.
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