Merry Christmas everyone! How are you celebrating? I hope you'll be surrounded by loved ones with a tummy full of tasty food.
Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, we're celebrating the traditional Swedish way with our neighbors. In Sweden, Christmas is celebrate on Christmas Eve, julafton. (Our neighbor told me that when she was a girl, she felt so sad for all the kids in America who had to wait until Christmas Day to open their presents!) We'll finish off our month-long advent scavenger hunt somewhere outdoors, then come home and clean up before heading to the neighbors' to watch Kalle Anka (Donald Duck), which airs across Sweden at 3pm every year on Christmas Eve. It's been shown every year since 1959! I found this piece on the history of Kalle Anka on julafton in Sweden fascinating, and this quote particularly telling:
The show's cultural significance cannot be understated. You do not tape or DVR Kalle Anka for later viewing. You do not eat or prepare dinner while watching Kalle Anka. Age does not matter—every member of the family is expected to sit quietly together and watch a program that generations of Swedes have been watching for 50 years. Most families plan their entire Christmas around Kalle Anka, from the Smörgåsbord at lunch to the post-Kalle visit from Jultomten. "At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, you can't to do anything else, because Sweden is closed," Lena Kättström Höök, a curator at the Nordic Museum who manages the "Traditions" exhibit, told me. "So even if you don't want to watch it yourself, you can't call anyone else or do anything else, because no one will do it with you."
I suspect we'll open presents either right before or after watching, depending on how long we can keep Leif from ripping the paper off of his gift/s. After that we'll sit down to a massive, delightful, and delicious smörgåsbord. I am most looking forward to eating Jansson's Temptation, Janssons frestelse, a mixture of potatoes, onions, anchovies, and cream. (If you're curious about how the Swedes celebrate Christmas, check this out.)
On Christmas Day, we'll have our family Christmas in the morning, with presents and games in our jammies, before heading south of the city to see our dear friend Sophia and her family. It will be so lovely to eat more delicious food in the company of close friends, while the boys make a mess of everything together (there will be six boys under ten years old!).
On the 26th, Boxing Day, we're planning on having friends here for another day of food and fun, and if the weather's nice, forest walks.
This year, James and I decided to forego gifts to each other and instead give that money to organizations doing work we believe in. We did get gifts for the kids, of course, but we kept it fairly simple. I know some people love an abundance of presents on Christmas, but we want to keep things more moderate. Have you heard of giving kids "something they want, something need, something to wear, and something to read"? It's a way to keep the holiday simple and focused. We've done a bit more than that, but I had that phrase in my head as James and I played hooky from work yesterday to do the Christmas shopping. We want our kids to grow up feeling that Christmas is about being together with loved ones and having fun, eating yummy foods, listening to and playing/singing special music, and decorating the house to feel cozy; presents are a part of the holiday, but they shouldn't be the primary focus.
I read this piece in the New York Times this morning and I kept thinking, mm-hmmm, yes, amen! To me, there's something so antithetical about writing out a list of gifts that I want, or that the kids want, and giving it to family. I wish gift-giving were a more thoughtful and joyful exchange; instead, it can feel much more like an exchange of money, and honestly, that's not really something I'm interested in doing. The author of the piece, Mary Laura Philpott, writes:
There’s a transactional aspect to giving now, a way of forcing a script onto what used to be spontaneous. This has trickled down from wedding and baby gift registries to birthdays and holidays, not only for adults but for children, too. Online personal registry services have evolved to serve the demand. Giftster.com, for example, allows you to “rate items to see what is most wanted, add links to your favorite stores, and post your preferred colors, sizes and activities.” God forbid someone show you generosity you didn’t explicitly request.
Where’s the line between writing a letter to the North Pole and forking over an itemized file of material desires? The former seems sweet; the latter feels like handing someone a grocery list.
Plus, if you ask only for things you know exist, how will you ever be delighted by something you couldn’t have fathomed?
Especially for the kids, I certainly don't mind pushing well-meaning gift-givers in the direction of the kids' interests, but I also like to see what kinds of presents they come up with themselves, what things they want to see the kids engage in.
We haven't really asked the kids what they want this year (or any other year); this is partly because we know what types of things they are interested in (as well as what types of things we want them to be interested in, like tennis and painting and reading!); however, it's also because we don't want to teach them to make demands for gifts, or that they're entitled to getting what they want at Christmas. We take note whenever they express an interest in something, and think about what gifts can encourage that interest, but we don't see it as our duty to fulfill their every wish and desire. I suspect, of course, that this will change as they get older and they are better able to know and articulate what they want, but we don't feel it's necessary to start teaching toddlers and preschoolers to start asking for and expecting certain gifts.
Also as the kids get older, I want to find a way to work the idea of service into our holidays—maybe by volunteering somewhere, donating a bunch of used and new toys to less fortunate families, or even simply singing carols in the neighborhood. If you have any good ideas about this, please share in the comments below.
Have a wonderful, wonderful holiday weekend!
All photos by me.
Read more about winter in Sweden, and about the traditions we've been building this year.
Merry Christmas! The Swedish traditions sound like fun, and you've found ways to incorporate your own family fun (and values) into the mix. I agree that there is a balance to be found between gifting and giving and family and food -- and service. It's especially hard, I think, when the kids are so young. We support a phenomenal organization here in Chicago called Breakthrough (www.breakthrough.org) which serves homeless individuals and at-risk families in a way that recognizes and supports their dignity and strength. We have participated in s few volunteer events, and even though our kids are too young to officially help out, we brought them along and included them in what we were doing. It's important to us that our children, who will grow up quite privileged, understand how blessed they are and feel an obligation to use that privilege for the good of others.
Other ideas for getting kids involved in serving at Christmas include including them in choosing charities to donate to (something like Kiva works well for this, where you can read about the different applicants).
At any rate, may peace and compassion fill the earth these next few holy days. May light shine strong despite the darkness. May we be filled with humble joy.
Love to you and yours, Jodi.
Thanks for you essays. I like thinking about the things you think about. I find gift giving complicated. I like seeing Christmas as a time of particular generosity, but like you, am troubled(ambivalent) by the present giving. My plan is to try to be particularly generous with kindness and understanding. I expect that to be a challenge at times. 🙂
I'm super late in reading and responding to this one, but the excerpt from the NY Times piece sparked my interest (I haven't clicked through to the article yet). I see what you mean and what the writer means, but I have to admit that I tend to have the opposite approach. Since I come from a family that really loves going overboard with gift giving at Christmas, we've all received dozens and dozens of unwanted gifts over the years. In many cases I feel guilty getting rid of them because they were well intended, but then I feel suffocated by all of this stuff I don't want and don't like. Not only that, but it feels wasteful to have someone spend lots of money on things I really dislike (and depending on the situation, it's impossible to convince the person not to buy anything at all, because they really love doing it). In my family (with my parents and sister, that is) we all learned to get very specific with our Christmas lists because it seemed to prevent a great deal of waste. Another example of this is K's mom, who each year gets each of us an expensive gift set of Clinique makeup. Neither of us wears any of it, and we've collected hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth over the years. Only this year did we learn from my SIL that every year she returns hers to Macy's for the store credit (so that's what we did) but how foolish to let that go on, right? My sister and I have developed what I think is a good in-between: we usually tell each other something like "I'd really like a comfortable top that's also work appropriate" and let the other one have freedom to choose something that fits the description. I love wonderful surprises that I couldn't have dreamed up, but it seems to rare to hit that nail on the head. I like knowing what someone else is looking for, and I'm not always a great psychic in figuring that out for myself.
These are really great points, Dava. I think that in being specific, you can in fact prevent a lot of useless gifts lying around. But I also like the spontaneous, thoughtful gifts. It just seems that some people are excellent gift-givers and can find the perfect gift for anyone. (I am not one of these people). I like what you do with your sister, it seems like a great in-between. When people ask about gifts for the kids especially, my preference is to tell them the kinds of things our kids are into—that frees the giver up to use a little creativity but also find something that fits with the kids' interests. Unfortunately, no one has responded very well to those types of hints/suggestions.