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$Monday: Dreaming of a Wise Christmas

It's a tough holiday season for the half of Americans whose finances have taken a hit in 2020, especially families with children. And yet, we can make it a profoundly meaningful holiday. The pandemic is a tragedy of what you might call Biblical proportions. Paradoxically, that presents a unique opportunity for us to get serious about the reasons for the season. Think of all the Christmas and winter-holiday stories you know, from ancient times to the New Testament to classic cartoons and holiday films. Can you think of any that don't involve the overcoming of a terrible hardship? How many involve poverty and deprivation, like the Biblical Christmas story itself?

This is the year of all years to shift our focus from greed and gluttony to love and hope and faith... from flashy vanity to quiet sparkles in the dark.

If you have children, you are most likely experiencing some kind of financial hardship this year. Let go of the idea that you must buy your children a pile of toys. Children are less materialistic than we give them credit for. Be honest with them about how this year is different, and focus less on wrapped gifts and more on quality time together, like baking, playing games, doing puzzles, singing or playing Christmas songs, decorating with whatever you have or can make together, and making snow sculptures outside. Even playing video games together can be quality time. Kids don't remember most of the gifts they unwrap each year, but time spent with family members is the stuff childhood memories are made of. Trust me, trust every expert on this: Your child will benefit less from receiving presents than you think, and they will be harmed by your stress more than you realize. The greatest present you can give your children this year is your own mental health, your emotional support, your calm, and your presence.

Did Mary and Joseph buy Baby Jesus a bunch of presents to unwrap? NO! But they did let wise guys bring the child gifts, no matter how impractical or child-inappropriate. (Lesson: Be gentle and flexible with your crazy-gifting relatives and acquaintances this year.)

For a shot at having your Christmas cake and eating it too, respond to relatives who express sadness that they don't get to travel and see your children this year with gift ideas to send. Make sure your child knows who sent each gift so they can feel the love beaming in from all directions and thank the sender.

At my house, I've already explained to my daughter that she can't expect a mountain of presents this year. (She helpfully reminded me, "Mom, I've never had a mountain of presents for Christmas.") Uh, true! Still, I don't want the tree to look sad on Christmas morning, so in addition to the three or four fun things I bought for her, we'll wrap up a bunch of stuff we would have had to buy for her anyway, like socks (every kid's favorite gift, I know--but at least they're fun socks with favorite characters on them) and body care products (hint hint, quarantine is no excuse for going over a week without showering, stinkbutt). Meanwhile, I told every relative who asked what to buy my daughter to send Robux, because I hate buying that dumb cryptocurrency, but it makes my kid incredibly happy. I guess I understand. I do remember the joy of receiving a fat roll of quarters to put in the Ms. Pac-Man machine at the arcade, and Robux are kind of the same thing as that. Also Robux are easy to mail in a card and don't take up space in my house.

Whether or not you have children, you can exchange meaningful and useful gifts that not only don't cost extra money but might even save everyone money and time. Win-win! Everyone has to eat, right? And everyone needs hygiene and cleanliness and good cheer, wherever they are staying, whether it's a house or an inn or a stable. By now I'm sure everyone but the very rich has completed a crash course in home economics--cooking, cleaning, and grooming ourselves and our own families, at home, even if we used to outsource some of that labor. And we've all discovered that we are better at some of those tasks than others. We enjoy some of those tasks more than others. (For example, my husband has mastered the art of creating homemade personal care products!) So why not share our housekeeping "gifts" with each other so that we can enjoy some variety and special treats without having to become Martha Stewart on top of everything else we're dealing with?

For Thanksgiving, my local extended family members exchanged homemade foods by porch drop so that we could all share and enjoy a varied feast without having to cook small portions of a bunch of different things ourselves. My parents roasted the turkey and made dressing and gravy, then portioned it out for my household and my brother and my aunt. I made mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and a cheesecake. My aunt made cookies. My brother made corn casserole. We all feasted on a big spread of different dishes and enjoyed each other's efforts, even though we had to tell each other so over Zoom. Nobody had to host a big party or hire a dog sitter or travel a long distance with a dog or wait in line for the bathroom or shout over the TV and crowd noise or dress up in clothes without a stretchy waistband. It was kind of great.

Any group of local relatives, friends, or neighbors can do a casual exchange like this for any holiday, of food or anything else you happen to be good at whipping up in a large batch in your own kitchen, such as body scrub or bath bombs or nice-smelling household cleaners or beeswax candles or even cheerful holiday decorating crafts.

For absolute grinches of all things crafty or domestic, you can do a free exchange without even spending the time creating anything new--by swapping used books, board games, or puzzles. Gifts of fresh entertainment don't require a purchase. Just plop something that once entertained you but now bores you in a reused gift bag or some "wrapping paper" made of old magazine pages or junk mail or festively decorated paper grocery bags, and off you go! Ho ho ho!

The magic of the 2020 winter holidays is all about rising above adversity and honoring the traditions that matter most--or starting new ones that have special meaning this year. Vaccines are on the horizon, but they aren't here yet. We can give each other strength, inspiration, and emotional support to have a quiet, meditative, safe and healthy holiday. Other winter holidays in other years can be slap-happy, carefree, or excessive; this year, may yours be peaceful and clever. Don't pressure yourself to make it more-more-more.

As my daughter reminded me, this is actually nothing new at my house. I've been promoting this approach to the winter holidays for years now. For more ideas and reflections, see The Magic Nutshell's POSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST.

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