Creating new family traditions

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This morning in my psychotherapy office I see a patient who talks about the purpose of providing an awesome Christmas for her son. She talks about the guilt of not having lots of gifts under the tree, the disappointment in her child if he doesn’t get all he wants and the pain of going into debt in January to make this happen. This is a story I hear often this time of year.

During this discussion, I offer advice to create new traditions for one’s family — traditions surrounding giving more than receiving, traditions around the Three Wise Men offering gifts to baby Jesus — frankincense, gold and myrrh. Maybe offering three gifts to one’s child then having the child wisely offer three gifts to one in need might be the answer to raising a healthy, caring empathetic child?

Teaching young children the real meaning of Christmas — the birth of Christ — is important work. A child must know that Christmas is more than high-priced, fresh-cut trees, outdoor illumination, TV commercials and Santa Claus. Christmas is about Christ. Intellectually and emotionally, this information is important; no matter one’s religious beliefs.

If one has other than Christian beliefs, celebrating said beliefs with children around the real meaning of these beliefs is also important. Hanukah, Kwanzaa, the Lakota White Buffalo Calf Woman and other creationist beliefs are important to celebrate. If one wishes to celebrate one’s creationist’s beliefs, the Christmas holiday is a great time to have this discussion.

During this conversation, my mind travels. I think about Christmases past, I think about great holidays, I think about sad holidays and I think about a little boy not able to cope with the disappointment of an uncelebrated holiday. I wish my parents would have redefined what Christmas is really about for me.

Following is a vivid childhood Christmas I remember as a young child. As I remember this dysfunctional Christmas, I wonder what Christmas might have been like without the pressure of an Americanized, commercialized, societally correct, over-gifted Christmas. Rewriting one’s Christmas traditions might lead to a more appropriate, honest, emotionally rewarding holiday.

“It’s time for a family meeting,” my mom whispers — not wanting my dad to hear — to my brother, sister and me. Knowing dad has been out of work for the last six months and Christmas is in a few days, my two siblings and I have a pretty good idea what this meeting is about.

Our family only has meetings when dad is either about to get a new job and life is a celebration or when dad has been laid off and life is about to get rough. My brother begins to cry, my sister stomps her foot and crosses her arms while I simply look straight ahead — we know the meaning of this family meeting.

In my youth, dad is unemployed more often than he works so life is often lean. My mother reports news for a small weekly, writing about bake-sales and lost puppies in our hometown of Tuolumne, Calif. The pay is minimal, the work rewarding and barely pays our family’s financial obligations.

Immediately before our family meeting, I hear mom on the phone talking with my great-grandmother, also our landlord, asking for a month’s delay on our December house payment of $55. Sobbing, my mom cries, “The kids won’t have a Christmas this year!” Through the receiver I intermittently hear words from my great-grandmother like, “deadbeat,” and, “bad father,” and, “failure.”

Frustrated by my mom’s sadness, mad at my great-grandmother for making my mom cry then grovel, and horribly disappointed at my dad for creating this scenario, I yell at my great-grandmother through the phone as loud as an 8-year-old can yell, the most derogatory, degrading, evil words a little boy can call another human being. Hearing these words, my mom drops the phone, runs to me 10 feet away and begins to aggressively slap my face with both hands.

“Stop, quit, don’t,” I continually yell, curling into a ball on the floor, accepting each blow without fighting back, by a woman confused who to direct her anger toward. My 4-foot frame is sturdy and each blow lands on my forearms, elbows and ears as I curl more tightly into the fetal position.

Once my mom’s fury is over, my mother begins to cry, falls on top of me and offers a blanket of protection through unlimited words of sorrow, sadness and pity. I try to explain my feelings of anger toward my great-grandmother and father but my mom quickly stops my words by placing her index finger over my mouth and whispers, “Shhhh; I know, I know.” We sit in this position until I fall asleep.

My family repeats this scenario for the next 10 years. Some Christmases lean, some celebrations — some with tremendous stress, others with unbelievable happiness. Money in my family equates to happy holidays. Lack of money equates to sadness.

I still remember each Christmas as a child. On lean years, I lie to my friends and tell them that I receive “Awesome skis and boots and a season pass for Dodge Ridge Ski Area,” or, “An amazing bike that I have to leave at my aunt’s house so you can’t see it, that can do cool jumps.” On celebration years, I tell friends the truth. Looking back, I believe my friends know my deceit and accept the lies in hope of not embarrassing me.

Christmas should be a holiday to rejoice — one to celebrate. No one should ever hate Christmas unless one has created an expectation of unapproachable achievement. Think! What do I want from this holiday? Do I want joy? Create joy! Do I want stress and disappointment? One will create stress and disappointment if one is not thoughtful and does not do the work to make the holiday joyful.

Lastly; I break this tradition. I create a new tradition with my child and her children. I give what I feel I want to give, talk with my grandchildren about Christmas and accept their beliefs and feelings. This Christmas I celebrate because I am honest, loving, caring and empathetic. I celebrate Christmas because there are no expectations — just honest feelings.


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