When my daughters were younger, they played basketball. One afternoon, the week before Christmas, Linda and I sat for an hour on a hard, plastic bleacher seat in the high school gym and watched their game. The game was competitive, the referees were above average and there was an amazing moment where my younger daughter’s shot ricocheted off the rim twice, bounced above the rim, and then came down right through the net. Swisssh! It was probably obvious to everyone in the gym that I was her father, because I gave her a standing ovation. My daughters had fun playing, and we had fun watching.
Most people don’t think of girls’ basketball as a holiday activity, but for our family it was. I prefer it to shopping at the mall by a ratio of infinity to one.
Shopping, as you may have gathered, is not something I enjoy. I enjoy decorating our Christmas tree, listening to music, sitting by the wood stove, walking in the woods, watching classic holiday films and, of course, watching my daughters play basketball.
I’ve come to the realization that the holiday season is about the experience we have. Gifts are part of the holiday, but they’re not the main thing. However, once we became parents, and Santa became part of the picture, there was pressure to fill the space beneath the tree with lots of toys. It was as if the measure of a good holiday was the quantity of gifts available on Christmas morning.
If you celebrate Christmas with small children, Christmas morning is filled with excitement. But it took me a few years to realize that what the gifts provided was the experience of opening gifts. For the kids, unwrapping each gift was like finding buried treasure. And for me, watching my children have fun . . . was fun. But the unwrapping experience of the holidays only lasted for a few hours.
Think about what you could do if you didn’t spend so much time (and money) shopping. One year we saw the play, Man of La Mancha, at Middlebury College. We don’t usually think of Man of La Mancha as a holiday play — after all, it’s set in a dungeon built by the Spanish Inquisition. But it’s a wonderfully inspiring story of an eccentric man who has high ideals and is willing to risk everything to live according to those ideals. And it’s a musical. We thoroughly enjoyed it.
Another year, we went to the holiday concert at our daughters’ school, and then watched Miracle on 34th Street. Once we decided to go bowling (a sport in which the less skill you have, the more fun you have) and every year we’d visit a gingerbread house exhibit.
We’d spend three nights decorating our tree (one of our own Christmas rituals) and if we’re lucky enough to get some snow ( a good bet, here in Vermont) we would do some sledding and maybe have a snowball fight. (They played softball, too, so they were formidable opponents).
Now 0ur daughters are both twenty-somethings, trying to find their way in a pandemic world. Our older daughter and her puppy live nearby, and our younger daughter lives in New York. We will probably gather in our living room (and/or through zoom) and celebrate together. These days our holidays include loaning money to third world entrepreneurs through Kiva and making some charitable donations to worthy organizations. We’ll put out extra birdseed and apples for the critters who live around our house and we’ll all pitch in for a meal to be shared (without digital devices at the table). No exceptions.
For commercial interests, the holiday season has become a month-long affair that’s supposed to give people lots of shopping days. But a month is a big chunk of the year (one-twelfth, if my math is right). I don’t really want to spend a month shopping for stuff . . . even online. I want the celebration to be about the experience. And when I reflect back on the joy of previous years, I don’t really remember the gifts. I remember the experience.
Of course we’re still dealing with the pandemic this year — less personal contact and more video chats. We can lament our disappointments, or make the best of our circumstances. Maybe we can channel our energy into something creative this year. Something different to do. The experience doesn’t have to be the same to be worth remembering.