When my cousins and I would open our Christmas stockings together on Christmas morning, we knew what we would find: a candy cane, a popcorn ball, and an orange. I always found it to be a little bit of a letdown, particularly the orange. It just wasn’t special. But it was clear to me that my grandma, who filled those stockings, took pleasure in watching us.
As I grew older, I started connecting the dots of my grandparents’ history. Members of the Greatest Generation, they were children during the Great Depression. History was my passion and I began to query them on World War II memories, the Depression, the things I was studying, but that they had lived.
For Grandma, an orange on Christmas would have likely been her only orange of the year. And while candy canes have inundated my Christmases for as long as I can remember, for her, it would have been a rare treat.
When Grandma told me how she and her family spent one winter of the Depression living in a tent in the snow, living off the wild plums that grew nearby, I asked her if she viewed subsequent generations as soft, spoiled? She responded yes, but that she was soft herself, and couldn’t imagine living through that again. Then she spoke some words I have held on to as a guiding force: “But your children, the children of this generation—I worry about them. They have it so easy; they have everything they could ever want. Growing up will be a disappointment to them.”
One of the beautiful things about the Advent season is the chance to live with anticipation. At a family dinner, I told my children the story of my Christmas stocking, and my grandmother’s winter in the tent. I wanted to prepare them for a period of denial that we choose to take on in different ways every Advent. We set aside the treats that are being foisted on us from all sides, saving these things for Christmas. We encourage friends and family to make gift-giving simple. We work on waiting for basic things that we need: new colored pencils, replacement socks, a new bathrobe. I make these choices because there is joy in working, waiting, hoping. Even if it means being that weird mom who puts scotch tape and erasers in the Christmas stockings.
It is hard to self-impose limits on our abundance. I wrestle with how to help my children understand thrift and self-restraint when we can purchase things on credit and not wait to fill a need, or even a want, until the paycheck comes in at the end of the month.
I know that true fulfillment is not about acquisition; it is about the labors of love, the joy of expectation, the hope in anticipation. So I keep saying “no” to the Christmas cookies, and I set aside the candy canes from the bank drive-thru. We eat a simple meal on Christmas Eve and then go to church and sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
I hope my children will understand more every year the true gift of Christmas, the Incarnation of God, come to make us whole. He is a God who brings more than toys and trinkets, but who is happy to have the delight of these small gifts as a reminder of His goodness to us.
I believe my children will love Christmas more if they wait for it. They will enjoy life more if they learn to work, save, and wait, and if they realize the limitations of material goods.
When I wonder whether my message is getting through, I treasure the memory of my 11-year old running to ask: “Mom, remind me what was in your Christmas stocking again?” She was writing down the story in her journal, continuing the practice of learning from those that have gone before.
My heart is full. I am ready for Christmas. And pumpkin pie.
Photo Credit: Graphic design by Anna Soltis. Following photo courtesy of author.