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December 21, 2015

Presence over presents: What matters most this season

Lifestyle Holidays
Father Son Christmas Trees 08032019 Photo by Joseph Gonzalez /on Unsplash


I watch her hands as she wraps the gift. They shake. Even as a young girl, I can tell that my mother is upset.

“We hardly have the money to purchase gifts for you children this year,” my mother says. “Yet, I am expected to show up with something valuable to present at the family party.” 

I sit silently. Sadness fills the air. 

I know my parents struggle financially. I also know that the presenting of gifts is the center point of my maternal grandparents’ Christmas parties. All eyes will be on my aunt as she opens the present my mother wraps. 

Will it be seen as enough? 

As I look back on this memory, I can’t recall what specific kitchen accoutrement was in the box my mother tied with red ribbon. I am pretty sure it was something we couldn’t afford to own ourselves. I do know that this was the first time I was witness to the stress that too often accompanies the holiday season – especially for families in need. 

“Christmas isn’t about getting lots of presents,” he taught us. “Small things can teach us to be grateful for what we have.” 

Let me be clear. I carry many wonderful memories of Christmas gatherings at my maternal grandparents’ home. We always enjoyed a hearty meal. We admired how beautifully Gran played hymns on her treasured organ. I loved the anticipation of gathering around the brightly decorated tree. Many of the items wrapped with love were handmade by Gran, a woman of remarkable talent when it came to crocheting blankets and dolls. As a family, we sat together for hours while she carefully selected presents for individuals to open. Yes, our public and ceremonial opening of gifts was the centerpiece of the celebration. Before the incident with my mother described above, I only associated this with joy. 

As young girls, my sisters and I were close to both sets of grandparents, and we loved each dearly. Both sides of our family were active Latter Day Saints (Mormons), and reverent gratitude for Jesus’ birth was a mainstay. However, outside of the earshot of our parents, my sisters and I would compare the differences between the holiday gatherings of our mother's extended family and our father’s extended family. 

“Which party do you like the best?” 

We posed this question to each other because the contrasting styles of celebration were stark. 

On my father’s side, it was never about presents. We didn’t gather to unwrap gifts, and there was no expectation to show up with any. Food, games, singing Christmas carols and putting on our own Christmas pageant took center stage. One year, I was chosen to play Mary and my beloved cousin Hans played Joseph, his costume completed with a blue towel on his head. Another year, we rented out a church hall with wooden floors and spent hours roller-skating. At some point, the breaking open of a candy-filled piñata became part of our eclectic traditions. My aunts loved to read “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and my grandfather shared stories about a porcelain cat, the only present he received one year, as his family of nine had little means. 

“Christmas isn’t about getting lots of presents,” he taught us. “Small things can teach us to be grateful for what we have.” 

Following these gatherings, we left empty-handed but full of heart. The presence of joyful memories journeyed with us as we made our way home in our old Ford Pinto station wagon. Quietly, my sisters and I agreed that while we loved our Gran and Grandad very much, our father’s family had the Christmas parties that were the most fun. We didn’t think twice about the missing presents. 

Given our country’s relentless consumerism, it isn’t easy to nurture a presence-centered approach to cultural and religious celebrations. Far too often, an intensely materialistic narrative dominates the holiday season. And it’s not just families who struggle financially who find the pressure to purchase items out of obligation and social standing to be burdensome. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-present. I absolutely treasure the handmade gifts Gran made, items that inspire memories of her to this day. By combining the best of both sides of my family, I’ve come to love giving a few thoughtfully chosen gifts each year while doing my best to place my gift giving on the periphery of a more meaningful celebration. However, if I had to choose between presence and presents, presence would win every time. 

Earlier this week, child psychologist and well-respected parenting coach Dr. Laura Markham posted an insightful reflection entitled “Guaranteed Favorite Toy.” She writes: 

Study after study confirm what Dr. Markham noted: Human happiness comes from connection, contribution and meaning. 

“When we focus on presents, it actually fuels the fantasy that material things can give us what we need inside. But that doesn't work, at least for long. So we're always looking for the next ‘thing’ that might do the trick. That makes it hard to appreciate what we have. And it's what puts kids into a frenzy, so they tear through their presents looking for the next big thing, the answer to their cravings. The truth is, your child IS enough and has enough. Happiness comes from connection, meaning and contribution, not from things.”

Next to our tree decorated with warm glowing lights, I taped a “Christmas countdown” for my 4-year-old son to reference. A handful of presents rests under the tree, and he wants to open them -- now. So, we count days and talk about the meaning of giving and what brings happiness. We make holiday crafts and read about the Grinch. I remind him of how we celebrate his birthday. A few treasured gifts are given in the morning, but when it comes to his actual party, my husband and I ask guests to make a donation to our favorite charity. Games, fun, song, stories and the sharing of homemade cake take center stage.

For many, the holiday season is a heady mix of joy and tension. How many of us wrap presents with shaking hands knowing we are simply adding to the recipient’s collections of rarely used goods? How many Christmas toys wrapped today end up in the landfills of tomorrow? As citizens of a country that constitutes less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we grossly “create half of the globe’s solid waste.” Clearly, there is much wisdom to be gained from the presence approach to living. 

So, try it. Invite loved ones to a gathering sans wrapped items. Let a presence-centered approach guide you as you ponder what gifts to give your children. A piñata game at Christmas, why not? Think outside the toy box and consider purchasing a membership to a local discovery museum or signing your family up for pottery classes -- together. For many parents today, deleting the Facebook app off their iPhones will constitute a much more meaningful gift of presence than anything one could stick under a tree. 

Study after study confirm what Markham noted: Human happiness comes from connection, contribution and meaning. This is why young girls huddled in a station wagon in Utah decades ago ranked one party as “more fun” than another. Holidays are a time for happiness. Affirm a presence-centered approach to the season. Give what matters most of all: your joy, love, attention and time. 

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In-line photo, of the author as Mary at her paternal grandparent's Christmas celebration, courtesy of Kristine Ewert.

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