I wasn't born into a family that celebrated Christmas, but I had heard about Santa Claus, the tree- covered with sparkling ornaments, lights, and tinsel- and shiny wrapped gifts under it ever since I could remember. To a small child in the far-away land of Bangkok, Thailand, Christmas was like a dream. My jaw would drop and my eyes widen in bewilderment when, every year in December, my British English teacher would tell Christmas stories and relate her personal experiences in England, during which she celebrated the joyous occasion. I dreamt about meeting that most amazing man in the red velvet suit who rode his sleigh all night to deliver gifts for boys and girls on his good list. I dreamt about touching soft white snow and decorating the tree. Often, I wondered what it would be like to "feel" Christmas-y.
Instead of Christmas, in Thailand our big event would be the celebration of the the new year. Christmas would come and go unnoticed (except for the teacher telling the story) while we were excited and getting ourselves busy with New Year's feast preparations. Other than going to the temple near our house to "tahmbunn," or to make good merit, by offering food and necessities to the Buddhist monks, and later listening to the sermon, my sister and I would make sure we looked and felt clean. My grandfather would remind us that more important than the outside was the inside- our minds and hearts would also have to be cleansed. We were not to bicker, not to think bad thoughts, and to pick a goal for the new year of one good thing we would add to our behavior in order to improve ourselves.
As a child, two things ran though my head: One was that if every year I added one good trait to my personality, by the time I grew up I would be the most perfect adult. The other was that at some point there wouldn't be anything good left, since I would have already added them all to my personality.
The evening festivities were what my sister and I looked forward to the most. Everyone would prepare a gift and they would each be labeled with a number. When the moment came- after playing all sorts of games, dancing and singing, eating many delicious food and desserts, and watching fireworks- all the guests at the party would draw a number and receive the numbered gift which came from someone else. Every year, one drawing, one gift, and we didn't know from whom it came. I was always happy with my gift. It didn't matter what it was or whether it was useful. At the countdown we joined hands. With smiles on everyone's face we sang the Thai version of Auld Lang Syne
. That usually marked the end. We wished each other a happy new year as we bid each other goodbye.
Fast forward to many years later:
My children, with their cross-culture experience, have the best of both worlds. Our eldest son's first real Christmas took place after we had moved to Bangkok. We found a stocking larger than his 15-month-old body and filled it with toys. Halfway going through the stocking, Brendan crawled inside it to get the rest of his toys. He was hooked on the receiving aspect because we taught him that value. From then on, all manner of questions poured out of him about Santa Claus.
"The North Pole is far from Thailand. Does he have turbo on his sleigh, mommy?"
"How does he enter our house?" He asked because we didn't have a chimney.
"Is Santa rich?"
"He must have a good stomach to drink all the milk and have all the cookies."
"What if he gets sick from some bad milk, mommy? Who will bring my presents to me?"
Then came letters to Santa: first from Brendan, then from Nicholas and then Justin. (At the time we were living in Bangkok, Kaitlyn was too young to write a letter of her own.) The pile of presents under our large artificial tree grew as we added more members to our family.
We ended up donating all these toys to an orphanage and to charities prior to our move to America. We moved into our new house, and by Christmas of our first year here we once again had covered the base of our beautiful real pine tree with many gifts for our children.
It was somewhere between the first and fourth Christmases in America that we found some toys just didn't get played with. In Kaitlyn's case, she often found more joy in simply tearing off the wrapping than in playing with the new toys she received- with the few exceptions of those toys she really liked, naturally.
Gone was also the belief that Santa Claus was responsible for bringing the gifts, and that he was real.
On the fifth Christmas, we added to the gifts clothing items we knew the children would need, and we took away some toy items.
With the knowledge that we the parents were solely responsible for the gift-giving it was a clear disappointment, and it was met with the most definite disapproval from these cherubic-looking faces.
"I'd be happy with less gifts, but please don't give me any clothes," one of the children informed me.
I compromised by meeting them halfway. The following Christmas we gave only "cool" kinds of wearable goods, some toys and other gadgets, and a small amount of cash.
This time we heard a complaint. "Don't buy clothes for me without asking me what I want."
For our sixth Christmas here, we once again revamped our Christmas gift giving technique. "Let's ask them what they want."
To my surprise, it took a long time for our children to make the decision on what they would like to have for Christmas. Some of them even told us, "The reason it took me a long time is because there's nothing I really want. I had to really think about what I could have- wouldn't mind having."
I started operation clean-up for the unwanted and unused toys and clothes. Since then, we have donated many bags of clothes -some with tags still attached- and Christmas toys. At the same time, we started a tradition of secret Santa. This way, our children would only get a single present for one person. We are still providing other gifts, only now we find ourselves stuffing envelopes with game money cards more than wrapping actual gifts. As for the cash that we usually gave as extras, this year I hid it in packs of underwear and socks that some of the children had put on their wish lists. (Since they had asked for these it didn't violate the rule of no clothing items.)
Also, after several years of chasing down the last Christmas tree in the county, we decided to go tree-less, and instead we decorated a Christmas corner where the fireplace is located.
I was satisfied seeing our corner not looking too bare; yet, I couldn't help but feel a little bit of guilt, what with some of the underwear dressed up as Christmas presents.
Some found the money-in-underwear funny; others, not quite so much.
I sighed. I wanted the children to be happy.
This year- our seventh- we had the same set up, with a Christmas corner and a secret Santa. We got each child one item we thought they would like to have, a small amount of game money, and a little bit of cash for their savings. Without any planning, my husband and I got each other one gift. The children wrapped their one secret Santa gift and- of their own free will- prepared small gifts for each other.
I checked out the Christmas corner and noticed that it looked even more sparse this year; however, that didn't make me feel bad. Instead, I had a sense of satisfaction. I liked what we had done. I liked what I saw, and somehow I knew that I would like the outcome of the thoughts we had carefully invested in making this Christmas work.
As it turned out, our children enjoyed their gifts from us, their secret Santas, and from each other. One of them mentioned- and everyone agreed- that he didn't want a lot, and what was shared was just right. We appreciated everything from them. An unfamiliar but welcome comfort filled the air as there was almost no pile of trash- that unsightly pile of what minutes ago had been beautiful gift wrappers and artfully designed and decorated bows and ribbons. Smiles were on everyone's faces as we happily unwrapped the gifts. Most of all, it still felt in every way like Christmas. We felt serene and peaceful.
The rest of the day was spent together with each other and with other people we love. No turkey, ham or roast, or major Christmas dinner like every year ,as I was asked not to prepare the meal. Instead, dining out at a great restaurant was a gift given to me from my family. It was a lovely time well-spent with them.
It took twenty Christmases for me to realize that the best Christmas is one with less emphasis on the gifts, but with a lot more on our family of six spending it together.
I found my Christmas, and it shall be with me wherever we are.