In our house, we celebrate Christmas, a holiday I approach with both adoration and dread.
Here are the parts I adore:
- Decorating cookies in a quiet kitchen, putting swooshes of melted chocolate on tiny cookie trees (this noiseless scenario is possible only after my children have fallen asleep, obviously).
- Putting up the ugliest Christmas tree in the world, a skinny, pre-lit abomination my husband acquired before we married. It comes with pink, purple, and silver ball ornaments. We use every single one.
- Reading my kids “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey,” about a grumpy woodcarver who finds the Christmas spirit, while chuckling at the enemies-to-lovers subplot.
Here are the parts I dread:
Buying gifts. Receiving gifts. Managing gifts my children receive.
I am, in other words, a bit of a party pooper.
I know other parents have mixed feelings, too. For some, holidays represent a wasteful accumulation of, well, stuff. For others, gifts signal holiday hopes left unfulfilled due to shrinking budgets. Nevertheless, people still buy gifts — lots and lots of them. According to a Gallup poll, Americans spent an average of $932 on Christmas gifts in 2022.
How did we get here? When did spending almost a thousand dollars in gifts become synonymous with a holiday established to celebrate a baby born in a stable?
Looking back to the 1800s
According to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, the answer is: the 1820s.
In his book, “The Battle for Christmas,” his descriptions of Christmas celebrations in post-Medieval Europe and colonial America would be unrecognizable today. He writes that these earlier Christmases were characterized by public revelry, so rowdy that authorities worried about social unrest (think spring break in Cancun, minus the bikinis, plus a dose of working-class protest).
But by introducing St. Nicholas as a Santa figure via the wildly popular poem, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” (published in 1823), elites in New York sought to maintain order by recasting the holiday as a child-centered day celebrated at home with a profusion of commercially purchased gifts.
Taking back the night
Knowing that the commercialization of Christmas was an invention of a bunch of hoity-toity old men worried about their social standing is discomfiting, but also . . . freeing? If Christmas gift-giving as we know it was essentially just made up, why can’t we continue to shape the practice until it feels like a more accurate reflection of our values?
When you look beyond the wrapping paper, gifts play many roles. In European folk tales, when given by a flock of birds in the forest or perhaps an old crone by the side of the road, gifts functioned as a source of power. To the Muckleshoot and other Indigenous People of the Pacific Northwest, giving is a way of keeping culture alive and communicating the nuances of political and social relationships.
I recently spent time researching gifting traditions and in doing so chatted with families all over Greater Seattle. I hoped to rediscover what meaningful gift-giving can look like.
Families shared how the gifts they give address myriad needs and desires. In these families gifts:
- serve as conduits to cultural heritage
- serve as a way to remember ancestors
- can be a connection to a faith tradition
- are a means to pass down cherished values
- help strengthen bonds
- are a way to serve the community
Furthermore, I was reminded that not all gifts come wrapped in a box.
What I learned was this: Gifts are always about more than the gift itself. And gifts, like their givers, can take many, many shapes.