Now that the December holidays are within a couple days of being totally over, I hope it’s safe and amusing (rather than triggering and insensitive) to talk about them from my idiosyncratic point of view 🙂
We left the U.S. in January of 1976 for tropical countries, shortly before my 10th birthday, and didn’t move back for about 7 years. (This is relevant. Hang on.)
This means my entire pubescence and adolescence was spent in countries where, at the time, Christianity was an amiably tolerated oddity, and Western-style Christmas was weird almost beyond belief… but the pragmatism of shopkeepers is the same the world over: It’s all money!
And, of course, the legendary sweetness of Egyptians (outside of politics) made it all a sort of good-natured sport:
“Tell me what is ‘Christmas tree’ and I’ll get it — for you, special price, my friend! You my friend! Special price!” (The last part is indispensible.)
Then it was a matter of watching them try to keep a straight face, as you:
- Try to obtain a cold-weather evergreen … in a hot desert country;
- Subsequently drape that evergreen in colors of snow and blood … in order to celebrate a god of peace;
- Who came to earth in — yup — the desert … where it snows less than once a century;
- Which is all somehow tied up with celebrating a Northern solar event, which doesn’t matter near the equator…
… And then there’s the obligatory gift-giving. This was even a bigger trip to explain.
The Cultural Gap on Gift-Giving
“Everyone?” I remember one man asking Mom, in deep confusion. In his life, the only people who got gifts were those who deserved it, and little children on their birthdays.
“Well, not everyone,” she temporized.
“Who do you have to give things to?” he asked, really wanting to understand.
She did her best to explain, as a good cultural ambassador should. “Your husband or wife and children, of course.”
“ALL the children?” he asked, in shock.
“Even if they’ve been bad, or broke the car, or spoiled the crops? Cost you a lot of money? You still buy them presents?”
Mom had to stop a minute. This is where practice bears no relation to theory. “You can try not giving evenly to the children, but they’ll let you know. Mine let me know, as a group, if they think it wasn’t perfectly even.” We did, too. She went on, “And I send presents back to my brother and his wife and family –”
He interrupted, “Where are they?”
She said, “In America.” Where he knew we hadn’t been in a few years.
He tipped his chin to one side, in that “as you wish” gesture of the Middle East, which was a polite way of indicating, “yeah, this doesn’t seem silly. Much.”
She went on, “We also send gifts to my husband’s brother and sister and her children — she’s divorced, so we don’t have to buy for her husband any more.”
His eyebrows popped, but he held his tongue. Why would you buy gifts for nieces and nephews thousands of miles away? What have they ever done to deserve that much effort? — And divorced?? A woman, divorced, still embraced by her famiily? And these foreigners push off the guy instead — odd, but probably praiseworthy. Okay. Nice. Weird, but nice. Moving right along.
But he didn’t say any of that aloud.
Mom went on, “And my mother, of course. My husband’s parents and my father are no longer living, so we don’t have to buy for them.”
I thought he murmured, “I’m surprised.” Maybe it was just his limpid expression.
She went on, “Oh, and we get something for the servants, plus a bonus of money. [Eyebrows up: nice deal, a bonus for your boss’s religion]. And Tom gives his boss a gift, small but nice, and the office pitches in and gets something for each of the secretaries, but Tom still gets something extra for the ones he works with [visibly wondering about those secretaries]… And then of course our friends.”
He was beginning to sound weary, or possibly just relieved that it wasn’t him. “All your friends?”
Mom said, “You get nice things for those you’re close to, less valuable things for friends further out.”
He nodded. At least that made sense. He asked, like the socially sensitive person he clearly was, “What happens if they’re not equal — if you get a nicer present than you give, or the other way around?”
“Well,” said my mother frankly, “That can be a little embarrassing. It happens sometimes, but we try to be polite about it. I’ve gone back and gotten someone something more, to even up the balance.”
Another gracious tip of the chin, this time probably meaning, “Smart move in a crazy system.”
Mom added, “And, if someone invites you to a party, it’s considered good manners to bring them a small gift, or at least a bottle of wine.” How suitable — in a traditionally non-drinking country.
He shook his head slowly and said, “And that’s not everybody?”
Mom finally laughed. “Well, not quite.”
It really makes you wonder, when you look at it from the outside.
Blowing scads of money every single year on a bunch of ill-thought-out purchases, mostly for people you hardly know, who are getting inundated with them anyway, to celebrate the birth of someone who told you that love matters more than money … or possibly because it was the armpit of winter, so let’s all go indoors and eat ourselves sick until the sun shows up again … in the desert.
I never sneer when someone uses the terms “religion” and “mythology” interchangeably, even when they’re talking about mine. I know for a fact that it’s simply a matter of perspective.
Back to the tree question.
Our first year in Egypt, we did try buying a spruce and, well, sprucing it up. The result was pathetic even beyond my father’s generous taste for “trees with personality”. It was the quintessential Charlie Brown tree, but slightly taller. The poor straggly little thing was quite overwhelmed by even the few decorations we dared hang on it, and was almost crushed by a single strand of lights.
Each year, my feverishly creative mother outdid herself in coming up with some fabulous representation of a Christmas “tree”, appropriately gaudy and festive, festooned with merry decorations and strung with whatever we felt like stringing it with. (I remember learning just how tedious crafts could be, the year we decided to string popcorn.)
She was especially fond of the stacked poinsettias, perched on benches and boxes at several levels, but I liked every single year’s distinctive creation as much as the others.
I only wish I could remember them in any detail; it was a pleasant part of the backdrop of life, as far as I was concerned at the time. We take so much for granted at that age!
She finally called it quits on our first Christmas in Bangladesh. She was fed to the back teeth with coming up with something every year and decided to “rest on her laurels” — a nice way of saying that she was plumb out of ideas.
I was home from boarding school in the US (there were no accredited high schools in Dhaka at the time) and was still blossoming under the influence of tropical warmth, so notably absent from Massachusetts in December.
I found a red-and-white canvas plant hanger (this was back when plant hangers were made of fabric rather than plastic) and fastened it to the wooden screen between the living room and sun room. A few bent wire coat-hangers later, we had a Christmas tree to decorate.
I even whittled a couple of reindeer out of Ivory soap and fashioned a little sleigh for them to pull out of unlined 3×5 card and toothpicks. Our little elfin Santa perched in it quite happily.
I have no idea how I pulled it off, but it was easy to do at the time.
So, as you can see, my notion of the holidays involved a lot of flexibility from very early on. This probably explains a lot. I celebrate Yule, Solstice, Christmas, and if I’m invited to any other spiritual observance, I do my best to participate with my best manners and heartfelt good will.
Normally. This disease does change things; most obviously, one’s social activities.
All last year, I sent off presents whenever I found them, things I really thought the recipient would absolutely love. Nothing thoughtless and nothing I couldn’t afford, and no waiting and storing and wrapping to deal with. It was a nice change! Not everyone I love got something, but everything I sent was right, and everyone else knows I love them just the same — I simply didn’t find the right gift yet. Next year, it’ll be a different mix.
At home, there was no noticeable festivity, but there was a cozy little trailer filled with love and care. That was all we were up to, and it was fine.
Next year, J and I think, there will be lights and color and a bit of show. In our own little way, we will celebrate anything we have a mind to, and it will probably involve lights and candles and sweet smudge. Whatever we do, it will still be in a little home full of love and care.
Because love is more important than money.
Informal International Network of CRPS Bloggers:
- Elle’s incomparable version of “12 Days of Christmas” is here: ‘Friends in my laptop and the festive season’
- Some excellent advice from Lili in Canada here: ‘Weathering the Winter Holidays‘
- And from Jo in the UK (this one was posted last winter): ‘Getting Through Yule: Chronic Illness, Pain and the Festive Season’