The Gifts of Christmas

christmasOur family exchanged a lot of gifts this Christmas.

Fifteen of us sat in a big circle, so it took hours to open all the presents, one by one, everyone commenting as each package was unwrapped. It’s fun to see your family express themselves in the presents they want and the ones that they give. This year, Santa brought photographs and other works of art, scarves, cooking utensils and many books. My dogs got new leashes and I got pajamas from the Three-Legged Dog.

There were many squeals of delight as we got exactly what we hoped for or were surprised by the thoughtfulness of our relatives.

We love our family rituals. We all went out to brunch on Christmas Eve and sang carols that night. We teared up watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” while we did last-minute wrapping. Yet, just as we try to preserve the familiarity of Christmases past, each holiday is different. No longer do our children wake up with wide-eyed anticipation and run screaming down the stairs to see what Santa has left for them. The youngest this time was 24 – she baked a coffee cake, but she still puts on a Santa hat and distributes the gifts from under the tree.

That younger generation brings new celebrants into the circle. This year, we initiated my niece’s boyfriend to our fun and seriousness. The reading of “The Night Before Christmas” and “The Polar Express” has passed to that generation. Now they listen to our political discussions, and sometimes lead them. I am a bit envious of my two friends who celebrated new grandchildren this Christmas. I look forward to a time when there will again be little children in our family, who make Christmas a time of wonder and mystery for everyone.

It wasn’t a perfect Christmas, though. The post office failed to deliver some gifts on the day they had promised. Not all of us were healthy. My father-in-law, who has presided over dozens of these family gatherings, was not there.

His Alzheimer’s would have transformed this happy event into confusing frustration. We stopped our gift-opening a few times, so smaller groups could go visit him in the nursing home, bring a present or two, and show him that his family would stay with him, no matter what.

There is no perfect family and no perfect Christmas. Every year brings challenges, even to the happiest family. Material goods can’t make problems go away.

We can’t prevent minor disappointments from intruding on Christmas celebrations. But we can watch our children pass new milestones of maturity or take over more responsibilities for family meals or find appropriate gifts for their family.

We can’t produce good jobs for the young people in our family who seek to take on responsibilities in an unforgiving marketplace. But we can encourage them to have patience, to see how much they already have, to keep getting better at finding their niche in the working world.

Steve HockstadtWe can’t bring my father-in-law back from the Alzheimer’s fog, which limits his understanding. But we can teach each other how to deal with the sadness of aging.

We can’t create a perfect Christmas. But we can use this once-a-year moment to exchange gifts of love, to celebrate what we have and what we are.

I hope you all had a merry Christmas.

Steve Hochstadt

Published by the LA Progressive on December 29, 2010
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."