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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What Happened to Christmas?

What happened to Christmas?

As we know, Christmas started as a religious holiday, to celebrate the birth of Christ (although the birth was more likely in April than December). Then it morphed into something quasi-religious, with the addition of Santa Claus, reindeer, polar bears and snowmen. Now it seems that Christmas is all about shopping, getting up in the wee hours of the morning the day after Thanksgiving to stand for hours in the cold, being pushed, shoved and elbowed, standing in long lines to pay for your merchandise, and spending money that will put you in debt for months.

The season of giving has become one of crass materialism. Everything is about spending money, getting "the perfect gift" (a phrase I detest) and having an absolutely flawless family gathering. Christmas shopping used to begin in earnest the day after Thanksgiving. Now stores put out their Christmas trees and other items as early as August! A radio station in Albuquerque started playing nothing but Christmas music on Nov. 1. The television airwaves are filled with commercials for "perfect gift" ideas: everything from a washer and dryer, sweaters and perfume, toys, to hearing aids! Stores extend their business hours. Newspapers are packed with colorful ads from every kind of store, from office supplies to arts and crafts to hardware stores. Every shop has ideas for "the perfect gift."

Again this year, I am staging my own mini-protest. I refused to go shopping on Black Friday; I've done that only once in my life, more than a dozen years ago. I went to the store about 6 a.m., bought the one item I wanted, and went home. What little shopping I do is done on-line or before the holiday frenzy starts. My 86-year-old father wants and needs nothing. I haven't exchanged gifts with my brother and sister and their families for many years. My nieces and nephews live in Alaska and Illinois; I live in New Mexico. We seldom see each other, and the kids have rooms full of toys, electronics and sports equipment already. Exchanging gift cards seems stupid and pointless, so we don't do that, either. Instead, I donate to charity.

This year's Christmas will be special, not because we were able to find "the perfect gift," but because it will be the first my daughter and I will spend in our new house. It will be special because last year at Christmas, we stayed in a hotel in Santa Fe and therefore missed all of our traditions.

This year also will be special because we will make it special with the memories we will make. Last year, we spent a day painting two bedrooms in our new house, working together and helping each other. My daughter crocheted a throw for me, as well as doing a painting. We laughed so hard one evening in the hotel room as she tried to take a picture of us for a photography class that I had tears in my eyes. When I mentioned that to her recently, she pulled out her scrapbook that had a page of pictures from that evening of hysterical laughing. We still laugh about that experience. We also had a friendly competition to see who took the better photographs as we explored Santa Fe. Those are the things I remember about last Christmas.

For us, Christmas is about doing things together: putting up the tree or making cookies, for example. And it's about our unique family traditions. I always make fudge, sugar cookies and Russian teacakes, and sometimes peanut butter cup cookies as well. This year, my daughter wants to include her favorite Russian dish as part of our holiday meal. Maybe this will be the start of a new holiday tradition.

Our tree is decorated not with mass-produced, 'Made in China" items, but with ornaments purchased in Russia: painted wooden 'eggs', bells, figures in traditional Russian dress, Grandfather Frost figures. The tree also holds numerous dog-themed ornaments, some representing dogs past and present. And we have several ornaments made by Native Americans that reflect their cultures and the Southwest way of life.

Memories of time spent together, and handmade gifts -- gifts from the heart -- mean so much more than another pair of slippers or gloves or another sweater. Spending time with loved ones, donating time or money to help the less fortunate among us, putting thought and effort into making a gift -- THAT is what Christmas is all about.