It was Bridget, the blond girl up the road, who did me in. After Christmas we would take a walk that passed by her house. In response to, “How was your Christmas?” she’d roll off a list of new acquisitions, all of which, I knew, had been wrapped in shiny paper that was immediately thrown in the trash.
In our house there were gifts under a tree—a small tree, because “we don’t want such a big thing.” When we unwrapped presents we carefully peeled back the tape to preserve the paper, then folded it back along its existing lines, so it could be used again next year. This wasn’t paper we had ever bought; it has been saved from some long-ago offering from a cousin.
My sister, who was as sentimental as my mother was practical, spaced her gifts out, taking breaks to sigh and reassess in between. The day was long.
Any gift packaged and new—sent from godparents who shopped in department stores—was immediately deemed “too good to use” and whisked away to the Gift Closet. The Gift Closet was a repository my mother pulled from whenever an occasion called for “bringing something.” She never had to spend money on new presents, or even wrapping. She was pleased that she had found another way to buck the system.
When I was bored I crept up to the attic to peruse the Gift Closet. I examined the china dogs, illustrated poetry books, handcrafted soaps and scented candles that exhibited a showcase of other peoples’ lives. It changed as gifts were added and taken away, but some things remained, un-regift-able yet un-throwout-able. Some–like a potpourri–remained in the Gift Closet for decades, gathering dust and turning sour-sweet. Then I would move on to the tin trunks that held the crumbling velvet cloaks and silk dresses of our ancestors.
When my mother began running a thrift shop in my later elementary-schol years, it fit both her preppy background and our current constrained state. Now gifts were always and only acquired there, because “it’s amazing what people will give away.” I didn’t mind; I now had a rotating roster of scruffy stuffed animals, slightly chipped Wedgewood tea sets and exotic jewelry.
By upbringing and temperament, my mother believed in minimalism. It was partly financial, as she was widowed early, but it was also a good cover for her underlying philosophy: Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. Minimalism was put into full effect during the holidays, if the holiday wasn’t ignored altogether (see: New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July).
In our 200-year-old farmhouse full of broken antiques, there was an understanding that life was better before (say, 1900), and elsewhere (in England). We were meant to be satisfied listening to a record of Dylan Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Whales” and remembering how pleased the girls were in The Little House on the Prarie when they got oranges in their stockings. (We got oranges in our stockings.)
Since that golden time was gone, why bother now with an approximation? Besides, the Modern 1970s American Christmas was all crass commercialism anyway, just trying to get you to buy things.
But it was never enough for me. It would never match the TV picture of Christmas I had, with children romping past beaming parents through piles of presents.
“It’s just another day,” my mother would say about holidays. That would have been easier to understand if it weren’t for the rest of the world, the endless commercials of coiffed cheer, the Bridgets who wouldn’t let us be content with minimalism and old-fashioned Christmas penury.
Now I stay up late Christmas Eve wrapping presents in genuine Christmas paper, which they will tear open and throw away like good Americans. They will find beneath it gifts they asked for which were bought new in stores.
I did re-gift “101 Bugs to Spot” from my son to his younger sister, but he never read it and she didn’t recognize it from his bookshelf. I also carefully folded and stored away those cute gift bags to reuse next year. I am still my mother’s daughter, after all.
During the Christmas morning scene, I enjoyed my kids’ enjoyment, but it felt unreal in its unfamiliarity. As I sipped coffee in my bathrobe amidst strewn paper, I acted my part in a movie written by Hallmark and directed by Folgers.
How many of our holiday rituals are performed in reaction to our childhoods, to give them what we didn’t have? I’m giving my kids the Christmases, Easters, Fourth of Julys and Halloweens I imagined, but it won’t change my own longing for those experiences as a child, my own hollow.
When my children are grown, will they chastise me for the waste and excess, the gifts and costumes, the planning and rushing to attend events and parades and parties? Probably. The pendulum only swings two ways.
Virginia Woodruff founded the website Great Moments in Parenting, a SXSW Interactive Award Nominee. She lives with her husband and three children in Austin, TX.