From the Vault: surrounded by the joy of the season

In December of 2001, Anne I were really struggling financially. It had already been a pretty lousy year, as far as work went, and after September 11th, things only got worse. As Christmas got closer, it was clear that we simply couldn't afford to put many things under the tree for our kids, let alone each other. 

One night around the second weekend of December that year, Anne and I had a long talk about the impending holidays. We never wanted the holidays to be about stuff, anyway, so we used the opportunity to introduce the concept of "Little Christmas" to our kids. We told them that, contrary to what television told them, it wasn't about shopping and things, as much as it was about spending time with people you love (and music, and spiced cider, and walking through the neighborhood at night to look at all the pretty lights.) Little Christmas began as a financial necessity, but we discovered that putting the emphasis on the holiday "spirit" rather on the holiday "stuff" made us all happier, and we pretty much removed ourselves from the consumerism that bummed out Charlie Brown so much in 1965. 

Even though things eventually got better, we crossed a Rubicon that year, and we never went back. Instead of submerging ourselves in Christmas Crap, we got a few gifts for each other, but we always did some sort of cool thing together as a family, like a trip to the Grand Canyon, or a night out with my parents to see a play. The idea was that Christmas Crap usually gets old and dusty, but the memories we created doing something together would last for the rest of our lives, and that's a better gift to give or receive than anything we could get at the store.

This post From The Vault features a portion of a post I read on this week's Radio Free Burrito, about our 2006 Christmas trip to Julian, in San Diego County, which included a day at the San Diego Wild Animal Park with my brother, his wife, and my parents:

We stayed at the Wild Animal Park until it got dark. On the way out, Nolan came over to me and he said, "I'm really glad we came here today."

"So am I," I said.

"I wasn't all that excited when you told us what we were doing," he said, "but now I'm really glad we did this. I've had a lot of fun today."

"Yeah, your mom and I were a little bummed out that you weren't into doing this when we told you about it," I said, "but we were pretty sure you'd like it once you got here."

"Well, I just wanted to spend the weekend with my friends," he said, "because I'll be gone all next week and I won't get to see them."

"I get that," I said.

"But it was totally worth it to come down here. Thank you."

"I'm really glad you told me that, Nolan," I said.

He smiled, walked over to Anne, and told her the same thing. Then he told my mom.

Nolan is 15, chronologically and in every other sense, and I feel like I'm dealing with something from another planet more often than I'd like these days, so it really meant a lot to me that he made the effort to let the people who pulled the trip together know that he enjoyed it, instead of finding lots of reasons to be sullen and unhappy because . . . well, that's what teenagers do, if I remember correctly.

After dinner that night, we drove back up to Julian, and the rest of my family drove back to their hotel down in the valley. When we got back to the B&B, we put another fire in the stove and watched A Charlie Brown Christmas together. As much as I've loved that special my entire life, this was the first time I watched it and really felt its message about the meaning of Christmas. 

We're not religious, and we're not into the consumerism of the holidays, so it would be easy to feel like we're not part of the whole Christmas thing, but as we sat there, basked in television's warm glowing warming glow, and drank hot apple cider together, we were surrounded by the joy of the season.

36 thoughts on “From the Vault: surrounded by the joy of the season”

  1. I think more people need to remember that the holidays are about sharing love and finding joy in what you have, instead of grabbing all the Christmas Crap you can. I love the idea of “Little Christmas”!

  2. We, like many others, have had a hell of a year. My husband, Jeff, is a web developer who lost his job in March. He remained unemployed for eight months. We have two small children, so it was really important for us to keep our house that we’ve lived in for 7.5 years. That, and that alone is our Christmas present to each other this year. I felt every word of this story as I was reading it…

  3. I really liked this posting because:
    A) It reminds me of the year we did the Wild Animal Park at night around Christmas. It was fun but really cold.
    B) The Charlie Brown special has the real meaning of Christmas front and center. In fact I think its one of the few specials that actually does.
    C) Its just a nice little post about Christmas :)
    I’m not sure how long you attended Lutheran School but I’m sure Christmas was talked about quite a bit as well.

  4. That sounds like the kind of thing I’d like to do next christmas. Just, do something together, rather than buy a bunch of junk for people. I never manage to get more than 3 days in a row off, though. *sigh*

  5. Thanks for the reminder, Wil –especially in today’s somewhat wobbly financial climate. It’s nice to see someone do it right, and I think it would be a brilliant thing if more families followed this lead.

  6. i’m glad you feel the same way about the holiday — my family (specifically my parents) are the same way, and it was always a little weird being the present-less kid around xmas when i was very little, but now as an adult i really appreciate what my parents built for myself and my brother. we are able to really enjoy the holiday as a family gathering and not get caught up in shopping angst, and at the same time it isn’t about making a statement Against Consumerism!!11 or whatnot — it’s just how it is. it’s just our family’s tradition. and i’d like to think it made our holidays a little more sane. so glad to hear about other families that have done the same thing, it’s nice to not be totally alone on this (when everyone else seems to be going mad with shopping lists et cetera)…

  7. Our family has always been this way. We have never really had that much money either and haven’t had the opportunity to get into the commercialism of the holidays, so I understand exactly where you are coming from. We look at the holidays as that special time to see our family and do things with our children instead of just spending money on presents that sit under the tree, cold and often times impersonal. In the past few years we have put a limit on our spending, not due to financial reasons, but in order for us to have to put more thought into our gifts. Grown ups get a $25 limit and children get a $50 limit. If you want to get someone a present, then you can’t spend more than that. It really makes for an interesting and often thoughtful Christmas season.
    Like you, we aren’t really religious either and I am not the biggest fan of shopping, so this really helped us get closer as a family in the past decade or so. Another way we spend our time for the holiday season, is throwing a huge family party and inviting our entire family and most of our friends to come and join us in playing some serious Rockband…lol. Nothing says the Holiday Season more than listening to your sister destroy the soulful harmonies of Paul and John in Beatles Rockband. Happy Holidays!
    Have a great holiday season and keep safe.

  8. Loved hearing you recall this in RFB Wil. When my family got together for a combined thanksgiving and christmas this year, we just did stockings. Nothing big and special.

  9. This is the way we all need to be. Yes, this is what this holiday is about, not something that gets rung up to a price that leaves a hole in your pocket. It is the’little’ things that make the memories…it is those memories that will be looked back upon.
    Have you ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Well, I feel just like Chevy this year….lol. Here’s to an old fashioned Christmas! Take care Wil:)

  10. Pretty apt post for around our place, thanks for the reminder of what it’s all about. Not a lot of cash flow right now anyway (I’m out of work, & the husband just got laid off yesterday – happy freakin’ holiday…), and I’ve always hated the stress of ‘HAVE to get the right gifts for everyone’. Looking back, one of my favorite things about the holiday was laying under the tree, looking up at the lights. It’s definitely time to go put up a tree….

  11. Thank you Wil. I’ve been having a hard time getting into the holiday “spirt” this year, and your post made me feel just a little bit warmer. Great story, I’m glad that you and your family can find the bottom line of such a wonderous holiday.
    Happy Holidays Wheaton family, and all the best in 2010!

  12. I love it! That is so touching. We’re feeling the burn out this year as well, so we’re not giving many gifts to anyone but our little ones. I wish we could convince our whole family (both sides) to follow this method, but there are too many members who go a little crazy buying stuff. I’m on the same page with the “Christmas Crap gathering dust” and would much rather have memories to share than junk to get rid of in a few months.
    Merry Christmas!

  13. It is not uncommon for people to get really depressed during the Christmas season. It is mostly due to the fact that people end up alone on a holiday that should be spent with family, or they get depressed because they feel like failures for not having much “stuff” under the tree. I fell into this depression trap about four years ago. We had two medical emergecies earlier that year, and me and my husband had been laid off. The bills piled up and I got super depressed and overwhelmed. I actually thought about taking my own life a few times, and luckily my husband was paying attention and made me go to the hospital despite my protesting.
    Although I got over my depression, Christmas had lost its luster. I began to dread the holiday and found myself going through the motions of what people traditionally do without any real sincerity.
    Then in July, I gave birth to my little girl. Christmas came early for me this year. Christmas has now been revitalized as I now look forward to helping my little girl tear into her gifts. I look at her and think about all the letters to Santa she will write, and I am blown away by the wonderment she is already expressing when she looks at the lit Christmas tree. Christmas has become magical once again and not because of the “stuff” under the tree, but because I get to see joy of the season through my little girl’s eyes.

  14. My whole family are broke this year and have had to pare things right down. It’s not something the whole family has been in to but we’ve only bought things we really want or need. We all have small children and they have enough toys already so there’s been no point into buying things they will only play with once and then ignore. My daughter wants a Halloween cat cake.. so that’s what she’s getting. We’re not religious either but I do want her to know the story behind Christmas and that it’s more about family and warmth than presents and Santa. It’s sad that so many people see it that way.
    It’s also good to know you have had tough times too. None of us like the tough times ( I would sure like to be out of them). But I think it grounds us. Reminds us of what is really important.
    Thanks for this today. Been lovely to read :) Hope you have a lovely Christmas.

  15. A touching story with a good lesson attached.
    My family came to a similar realization several years back. There’s 6 of us kids, and at the time most of us were in high school or college so buying gifts for everyone was too much. We eventually voted on going to the movies after Christmas brunch, and we’ve kept it as a tradition. Much more fun and since most of us have similar tastes in movies we can all see the same movie together. :)

  16. I tried to institute “Little Christmas” this year and thought that I was doing very well. And then it came time to wrap the presents and I realized that this year, when we have even less money than last year, we spent more! Not on my part, at least I don’t think; but my husband decided to buy himself 10 vinyl albums at 20 bucks a pop. Which meant that he needed to go OTT to even out the amount of money per person. And so he bought me a new iPod Nano when my 3 year old one works fine. Can’t even return the sucker because he got it engraved.
    Our family was supposed to have ONE family present (Beatles Rockband) and two presents each. Although all the presents were bought out of love (Ooh! So and so would love this movie/book/video game! It would be such an awesome surprise!) it’s still very annoying that I wasn’t able to enforce a “Little Christmas”. Next year! Hopefully my son who’ll be 10 for next Christmas won’t want/need anything big. Like a new mattress (last year) or an awesome loft frame (this year). We’ll put off a new computer until he asks for one, which hopefully won’t be for a few years!

  17. Wil, when you blogged about your visit to Julian, it inspired me and my family to spend the following Christmas there. For oh, 25 years now, my parents have spendt at least one weekend a year at Shadow Mountain Ranch in Julian. My parents decided to rent Manzanita Cottage and the Gnome Home for Christmas in 2007. My parents stayed in the Gnome Home, and my fiance and my brother and I shared the Manzanita (it’s got two bathrooms and two bedrooms). It was a very, very special holiday that year. My parents paid for the rooms, my husband and I bought the food and tree, and he and I did all the cooking (which we love to do, so it was great!). It gave us the opportunity to hang out with family and play boardgames (Pirates Cove and Red Dragon Inn) and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. My brother had just moved back to San Diego, so it was our first Christmas together in years. It was really a delightful holiday for all of us. So, thank you for inspiring us to make it one. We never would have done it had you not done it first, and then told the internet about it. (In fact, if you go back to your original post, you can read my comment where I say I might suggest it to my family.)

  18. Love the reference to my favorite Simpsons Halloween episode (at least I think it was) toward the end, Wil. :)
    I just hope I never run across a Holiday special starring Hal Linden and Tyne Daly while I’m frozen in the snow, but at least I’ll be with my family when that special slice of Hell finds me.

  19. This is such a lovely story! I think the “little Christmas” idea is fantastic. While I enjoy finding things for people that I think they will love, so often, people simply buy gifts out of some weird sens of obligation. It’s another item on a to-do list…which is not what holidays and family and loved ones are about.
    I enjoy reading about your family anyway, but this is especially great. I think it is wonderful that something born out of necessity has become a tradition that is capable of warming the cockles of a teen’s heart.
    Happy holidays!!

  20. What a lovely post, Wil. I’ve been thinking about this ever since a friend posted something about being anti-“Happy Holidays” but the followed that post with something about trying to find the perfect holiday meal. I couldn’t help thinking that she was missing the point. As your post shows, it isn’t the words you say it is how you celebrate that matters. As long as you are surrounded by loved ones it doesn’t matter what you spent, what you bought, or what you ate… as long as you were together. Merry Christmas to you and yours.
    (I’m spending the day at my Sister’s then coming home to 2 MST3k Christmas specials. A full, glorious day)

  21. I loved this. Christmas does not begin in our house until after Thanksgiving and we start every holiday season with A Charlie Brown Christmas on Thanksgiving night. It helps get us off on the right track since we’ve been bombarded with commercialism crap since before Halloween. Keeping Christmas focused on the truly important things with teens can be really hard, but I’m so proud when my girls talk about what’s special to them during the holidays and it’s never about stuff. It’s always about the people. I’m glad you and Anne get to have that warm fuzzy I AM doing a good job raising them feeling too.
    Have a joy filled weekend and stay safe in your travels everyone!

  22. I agree with much of what you’ve written here, Wil, & with what others have said: I like the idea of only buying a few things, not going overboard. Hubby & I have a limit that we set for each other & for gifts for others. I also agree that this is a special time of year that is meant to be spent with those closest to you, whether it’s family, friends, or both. It’s the fellowship that’s the important thing. One thing that does bug me (and I hope you don’t mind me saying it on your blog, but it’s something that you & others have mentioned here) is that people say, “I’m not religious, but to me, Christmas is about .” I’m not exactly religious either; I’m a practising Catholic, although I don’t agree with every single thing the Church preaches. While I do attend Church every weekend & on the Holy Days, I don’t feel that it’s actually necessary, & I don’t go to Confession. I talk right to God, you know? So I feel that I’m faithful more than I am religious. I like the ceremony of the Catholic Church; it helps me, personally, feel closer to God. All that said, it’s a personal pet peeve of mine that people say “I’m not religious, but…” in the context of Christmas meaning “spend time with family” as opposed to “celebrate the birth of the Saviour”. It’s fine to believe whatever one wants to believe – but IMHO, if one only believes that this is the “spend time with family” time of year, having nothing to do with God, they shouldn’t really call it Christmas. They should call it Yuletide, or something to that effect. I’m no religious fanatic, believe me, but I do believe that (to quote a zillion bumper stickers), Christ *should* be kept in Christmas. If you (not you, but the universal you) don’t believe in Christ, or whatever, that’s fine… but I wish people that feel that way wouldn’t call it Christmas. I’m just sayin’…
    -Alicia (@AliciaWag)

  23. Important and heartwarming post Will. Life should be a balance of five things – Work, Family, Friends, Partner and (most oft forgot) Self. We have 24 hours in a day and if you go with the ancient trade union mantra of 8 hours each of Work, Rest and Play, then you end up with 18 hours of wake time for Work and Play. Ideally we should divide this equally between those five things. Working from home has already put you well ahead of the pack.

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