Rediscovering Christmas

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, December 2011

Meaningful gift-giving doesn’t have to be costly.

This year I want nothing for Christmas. On second thought, a gift certificate for the teamed-up services of Mr Clean and the clutter buster would be most welcoming. But no presents, please—I have everything I could possibly need and I spend more hours than I care to admit trying to keep it all organized.

Societal and economic watchdogs repeatedly warn us that we are becoming more and more polarized, that the chasm between those of us with an excess of everything and those who struggle just to get by is steadfastly widening. Well, doesn’t that make the conventional way we celebrate Christmas a burden for just about everyone? Where’s the joy in lumbering from store to store in search of something special for a whole list of people who already have everything? Or in deepening one’s debt because gifts have to meet certain and increasingly higher expectations? Or in the quagmire of poverty made even more painful by the feasting and celebrating all around?

The custom of gift giving has always been part of the Christmas tradition, but not until the mid 20th century did it begin taking on the largesse of today. Perhaps it was post-war optimism and a triumphant resurge of well-being and security that prompted people to “live again,” which is to say spend again, a trend the retail industry was delighted to encourage. As the decades went by, consumerism in general rose to new heights and spending at Christmas followed suit, arguably to the point of shifting the very crux of the celebration on its axis. No longer was there a limit to what could be bought: Gifts, food, decorations and holiday clothing—everything was packaged as happiness and readily available from the nearest mall. Savvy manufacturers kept their sales humming by inventing new versions of old toys, dolls for example. Remember the Cabbage Patch Doll, Furby, and Tickle-Me-Elmo? Convinced Christmas would be miserable for the kids without these trappings, sane parents went nuts trying to get their hands on them. No wonder December became and still is the most lucrative month for Canadian retailers.

Could we possibly rein it in a bit? Could we learn how to celebrate without such a pronounced focus on stuff? We could, and we’ve probably already begun shifting perspectives, thanks to the ever-more-obvious evidence that the Earth’s capacity is not infinite when it comes to resources siphoned, refuse dumped and air besmirched. Add on the burden of the current subdued economy and the increasingly blunt warnings about debt overload, and it’s no surprise that at least some people are concluding that the notion of Christmas having to cost an arm and a leg is rapidly becoming outmoded.

Giving the gift of time together would herald a big step back to the real meaning of Christmas and probably forge great memories in the process. Choosing a special experience wouldn’t be difficult—happily the holiday magic is all over town these days, and much of it is free or easy on the budget. Pack a thermos of hot chocolate and catch a parade. Be wowed at several tree-lighting ceremonies downtown and out in the municipalities. Check out the decorated trees—more than 70 this year—at the Empress, and the Great Gingerbread House Showcase at the Inn at Laurel Point. See little boats all lit up in Victoria and Sidney, and big ones at the naval base in Esquimalt. Sing carols with the Carillon next to the museum while sipping hot chocolate and nibbling on cookies. Attend a play or concert at several local churches. Catch one of the CRD guided winter walks and holiday crafting sessions.

The Naden Band offers a wonderful concert at the Royal Theatre that’s inexpensive enough for the whole family to attend. The Greater Victoria Concert Band plays for free at Market Square—listen for the neighing horse and cracking whip in the sleigh bells song. For these and a host of other possibilities, a quick internet search will provide all the details.

But don’t stop there. Instead of shopping for a friend, arrange a special coffee date together. Bake cookies with a child and then munch away while watching a favourite Christmas movie. Visit an elderly neighbour and offer to shovel if snow should fall. Invite a group over for an easy pancake brunch. Donate to a cause in the name of someone special and have your gift do double duty.

There are thousands of “new” ways to discover the old Christmas. However you choose to make yours special, may it fill your heart with peace and contentment.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is a Master Gardener and writer. A revised edition of one of her earlier books, "Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada", has just been released by Nimbus Publishing.