Summer is over, a new school year has begun, and soon trees will begin to show us their glorious display of changing colors. It won't be long before we’ll be thinking of turkey and mashed potatoes, and of course, the big holiday rush. It may be too early to talk about such things, but soon—sadly—the excesses our society has made of Christmas will be everywhere: in stores, advertisements, and the like; the birth of our Savior lost in the hyper frenzy which is now Christmas. A joyful time of year, yet for the past couple of years I questioned why I wasn't looking forward to it with the anticipation I used to, and then it hit me: Such a no-frills birth in a stable, with humility and simplicity. Contrast that with the gluttonous way we celebrate His birth, through not just tables groaning with food that might never even be eaten, but commercial excess: presents, decorations, music. For presents: expensive gift cards and piles of presents under the tree; for decorations: miles of lights enough to light a house to another galaxy and plastic items imported from China; for music, well, just turn on the easy-listening station the day after Halloween and you'll hear the foot-tapping beat of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" as you put your jack-o-lantern in the compost pile.
As Americans, we love to celebrate, and that is a good thing. One of the many pleasures of life is celebrating important events with family and friends, is it not? But why has everything in our country, not just Christmas, gotten so excessive? Want to show your appreciation to your team's soccer coach? Let's all chip in for an expensive gift card. Want to celebrate Halloween at school? A costume party with a few treats is not enough: We have to have goody bags bulging with candy from every child in the class, tons of food (which largely goes uneaten), and organized games. It's St. Valentine's Day? Simple cards and a treat passed out in school aren't enough: we need huge goody bags with those too, filled to the brim with candy, stickers, and fancy crafts. My heart always sank when my children brought their bounty home. I didn’t want to be a party pooper, so I never said a word. Sure, it was very generous of people to do this, but I knew there was no way they could consume all of the treats, even with my (very willing) help!
I have a very strong memory of coming in from recess on party days as a little girl, full of excitement and anticipation. We’d hurry up and hang up our jackets, eager to come inside to celebrate the party of whatever holiday it was. It really didn’t matter if it was Halloween, St. Valentine’s Day, or another holiday: every party seemed to be the same, simple celebration, but we thought it was incredible! It took our breath away to walk into the classroom and see a holiday-themed napkin on each desk with a festive cookie or cupcake sitting on top. A few little decorations would be hung on the chalkboard, utterly transforming (in our little eyes) the entire room! Suddenly it wasn’t where we learned English and math and science; it was a holiday party room! A couple of mothers would be going from desk to desk, pouring bright-red Hawaiian Punch into paper cups. (Remember how it used to come in those big cans?) No more schoolwork! A fun treat and maybe some simple games like 7-Up or bingo. With red mustaches above our lips, we thought we were in heaven!
Oh, I date myself. That was in the 1970s. Fast-forward to now: One lady from another community told me that some of the other room moms signed her up to go to the craft store to buy supplies for a class party, but they had to be fabulous and creative! Nothing humdrum or boring. "Absolutely NO foam thingies," one had said. "And NO wooden picture frames, and NO...," the other said...the list went on and on. Why my frustration? Because it's too much. It's all too much.
I know my opinion is shared by many. Why else do we see magazines, refrigerated cookie dough, and orange juice with the word "Simple" in their labels? Deep down, we are all longing to simplify our lives. It is such a shame to have the simplicity of Christmas—and everyday life—stripped away from us.
Remember that episode of Little House on the Prairie where Laura and Mary each got an orange in their stockings?
And they were thrilled.
You would have thought they had just gotten the latest and greatest device from Apple—except they never had anything but homespun toys. You know why they were so excited? Because it was Christmas, and that alone was enough to excite them. Jesus had been born, and there were simple decorations and festive cheer, and religious songs to sing while Pa played his fiddle around the fire. No slapstick "Christmas movie" DVDs, no cheesy singing reindeer toys, no "Happy Holidays" greetings by strangers. An orange in the middle of winter in Minnesota was a true treat. Huge semi trucks were not exactly hauling produce up the interstates with exotic fruit like they are now from every corner of the globe. A piece of citrus fruit was a rare thing to have. They were thrilled.
Sure, I know we're a long way from Christmas on the prairie, but it does bring about the question: What happened? Why do we have to have such excess in our lives? And how do we take a stand? Do we even want to?
A few years ago, a friend of mine shared an interesting story. She has three teenaged boys and is not one single electronic game or toy in their home. No X-Box, no Wii, no Nintendo, and a computer for all to share. Would you say these boys are happy kids? If your answer is "No," you would be dead wrong. They are some of the most happy, polite, well-adjusted kids I've ever met. When the mom went to parent-teacher conferences one evening, she sat down at the teacher's desk and the teacher looked at her seriously for a moment before stating, "Mrs. S., I want to know why your sons are the only non-distracted students in my class that can sit still and concentrate when the others can't. What is your secret?"
My friend was a bit startled by this teacher's question. But she knew the answer. She told him, "We have no electronic toys or games in the house. In the absence of these items, my kids read, use their imaginations, play a game of basketball, write stories, invent their own games." She said that what started out as a purely financial decision on her family's part turned into a deliberate choice they have made. They took a stand.
Another mom, sick and tired of buckling under society's pressure to provide excessive treats every time her children lost a tooth, was the only household (or so her kids told her) that left a single dollar bill under the pillow when other children they knew were receiving video games and DVDs.
One mother told her, "I have to run to the store; Sam lost a tooth."
"Why do you have to run to the store?" the first mom questioned, confused. "Don't you just leave some simple change?"
"Oh no," the second mother said emphatically. "Sam doesn't like getting money. He'd rather have toys."
"Toys? For a tooth?"
"Oh yes! One time we left a five-dollar bill under his pillow and he was not happy at all when he woke up and found it there. He wanted a CD or something," the mom laughed.
The first mom was dumbfounded to hear this. Such excess in our society! No wonder we don't enjoy anything anymore. A five-dollar bill? Who wouldn't want a five-dollar bill? A child who is used to receiving $20 gifts under his pillow, that's who. But the first mom took a stand. It was a dollar bill from the tooth fairy that visited their home, and her children were grateful. She took a stand.
Then there is the story of the team mom who arranged various things for the baseball team: team pictures, practice e-mails, etc. When the season wrapped up, all of the parents braced themselves for the expected e-mail from her demanding $20 apiece to pitch in for coaches' gifts. Many parents had been laid off from their jobs, money was tight, and there was not much left over for extras. Just paying the fee to play the sport, plus the uniforms and extra equipment costs, was a stretch for many. They wanted to show their appreciation for the wonderful coaches' hard work, of course, but the Great Recession had hit and dealt a blow to many families. Keep in mind that this in the Detroit area, where so many people work in the auto industry, which took a brutal beating. The team mom sent out an e-mail to all the parents saying that, in consideration for the financial hardships everyone was facing, she would not be asking for money for coaches' gifts this time around. Instead, there would be an ice cream sundae party after the last game at the park. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, but still wondered how the coaches would feel about this. Would they be offended or feel slighted? We wanted to let them know how much we appreciated them, but how would they take it?
"I'm sorry we couldn't do more," the team mom said to the head coach, glancing at the plate of brownies she'd baked for him to take home as a gesture of her appreciation.
The coach stopped eating his ice cream and looked at her.
"Please don't say another word," he said emphatically. "This is absolutely perfect. These are terrible times right now and this ice-cream party is great. I have really enjoyed being the head coach for these guys."
Such graciousness and understanding from this coach. Such class. The coaches didn't mind at all. They were just happy that the team had won a few games, had fun, and had grown in their skills and sportsmanship. This mom took a stand.
Another family decided to have a birthday party for their nine-year-old son, but felt conflicted about it. They wanted to celebrate his special day, but also felt that the gifts at these classmate parties were getting out of hand. Children regularly show up with $25 gift cards tucked into gift bags with toys already in them. What is happening? she wondered. How did these birthday parties get so out of control? And what can we do about it?
Nowadays a party at home with simple games and cake and ice cream is looked down upon. You have to have a karate lesson at a dojo, climb an indoor wall at a sports facility, or build your own $30 stuffed animal to take home. This boy's parents decided to forgo all presents for the boy's party, but asked him first about it.
"So many people are needy right now. Would you like to do something for poor children?" they asked him. "How about if we asked each party guest to provide some new or gently used toys for us to donate to a local children's charity instead of bringing you gifts?"
The boy thought about it for a couple of days. Of course, it wasn't his first choice, being only nine years old! The parents let him ponder this, telling themselves it would be his decision; they weren't going to force the idea upon him.
"I was so happy," the mom recalls. "He came to me and said helping these poor children was something he really wanted to do. I was so excited that it was his decision. He feels so good about what he's doing."
We received a nice thank-you note from the child a week or so later, thanking our son for helping needy kids. This family took a stand.
A dear friend of mine, facing a Christmas with a very tight budget, was concerned about gift-giving in her husband's large family. Despite her pleas to perhaps draw names to lessen the financial burden, the family members refused.
"It's so fun to give gifts," one remarked. "It's Christmas! I love buying things for other people."
My friend felt terrible. It certainly wasn't that she didn't want to buy them gifts too; she simply couldn't. This relative's comments had made her feel cheap and Scrooge-like. Then she changed her mind, realizing the relative was simply in a better financial position than herself, and was not trying to be hurtful. She knew that it wasn't a lack of Christmas spirit that prevented her from purchasing over twenty gifts for her in-laws; it was a simple lack of funds! Two very different things!
So she got some festive cardstock paper and designed IOUs for each family member. For a new mother, it was an evening of babysitting. For a bachelor, it was providing a home-cooked meal. For a child, it was a day at the park with her and a trip to the ice-cream parlor.
When, tongue-in-cheek, I asked her why she didn't simply "put it on the credit card" like society would advise us all to do, she shook her head. "I can't justify putting myself into credit-card debt to show people how much I care about them. There are other ways." Her relatives loved her gifts, and she loved spending time with them that she normally wouldn't have done otherwise if she had given them a trinket in a box. This lady took a stand.
You know who else took a stand, in her own humble way? The Little Flower, of course! St. Therese's greatest gift to us is her simple example of simple love for God, something anyone can do. A very Little Way of doing for others and showing God how much you love Him. A very simple path to God through holiness that is not great deeds or showy actions: actions not of excess, but of simple love and littleness.
Do you think it is possible to curb the excess? I think it might be, but it won’t be easy. Consider the above people who took a stand. It worked for them. Who knows? We may not get back to the time when an orange in a stocking was a treat (or even a paper cup of Hawaiian Punch), but perhaps we can stop the madness from growing. I’m willing to try.
"Our Lord needs from us neither great deeds nor profound thoughts. Neither intelligence nor talents. He cherishes simplicity."
Copyright 2013 Nancy Carabio Belanger
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