Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Happy Holidays

The holidays are upon us and Santa's bag holds more than just toys for good girls and boys. It also brings trigger points for one and all that are locked and loaded. Even before he arrives to unload all those mixed emotions, everyone is hoping that everyone else will be on their best behavior and, invariably, at least one of us will be hurt and disappointed.

For me, Halloween is the beginning of the holiday season because it is where, for me, the guilt begins. After trying to pull off the best costume that can be pieced together from the curtains, clothes, linen closets, and the kitchen pots and pans, it is time to buy groceries that will conjure up warm family Thanksgiving memories, and then it culminates in Christmas (I was raised Protestant and I am not completely familiar with how the season culminates for those who practice different cultural and religious events). Christmas, for me as a teen parent was when the meagre amount of money available to make great memories of the holiday season had already been stretched to its limits. Christmas was always on the credit card.

The years before I had a credit card to pay for the holidays provide some of my happier memories. More money did not make better memories. The more I believed I needed to make more money, the more I worked and the less time I had to be a part of the holiday memory.

Halloweens gone by, my son has been everything from a ghost in a sheet with eye holes cut out of it to a drag version of a 1980s Valley Girl. The only ready made costume he ever had was when he was a Mutant Ninja Turtle. That was the first year I began to think that more money would make better memories. I think back now and can come up with12 ways to make that costume, but at the time I was working two jobs and thought it would make him happy to have the "real" costume to wear when he went out Trick or Treating with somebody else, while I was at work.

In the days of inescapable poverty, instead of taking a second or third part-time job at the local supermarket, so I could get a "free" turkey, we would have a  "must go" Thanksgiving meal that was planned, cooked and eaten together. A "must go" is when you clear your refrigerator and cupboards of everything that must go before it spoils. This makes for a very interesting meal and requires collaboration and creativity. If you have never had a potato, sauerkraut and bean burrito with fish tacos made from canned tuna followed by homemade cookies made with whatever was left in the cupboard, then you have missed out on the fun of creating a meal that provides explosive fits of laughter for the rest of the evening.

When you live in poverty,  Christmas is easiest when kids are young. Handmade or hand me down gifts are just leftovers from the gift of being able to tear the paper wrapping off of them. As kids get older they and we (parents) become more aware of what they do not have. This coincided, for me, with my belief that working on Christmas to make an overtime paycheck was the way to make happy memories. My son could then open the gift he had asked for with someone else, while I was at work.

The best Christmas memory I have is when my son was 15. Using his learners' permit, he drove us to Kmart and we bought a lemon tree in a plastic pot, a box of whoppers and some popcorn. We went home and listened to Depeche Mode and Jane's Addiction while we decorated the lemon tree and tried to make popcorn balls. I did not see it in the moment. I actually felt like quite a failure in the parent department that Christmas, but today it is one of our fondest holiday memories.

The best holiday seasons for me have been those that required the least amount of money and provided me the greatest amount of time to spend with my kid. He is my gift, and my time and attention are the most precious things I can give him.

I understand all the sociological and psychological explanations for why I bought into the consumer holiday model. I thought that moving us out of poverty was important, and it was. But, from October 31st to January 2nd that goal could have been number 2 on my list. If I had been able to make that goal second on my list for that little while, I might have a lot less holiday guilt and a lot more happy memories

I share these stories in the hope that someone in circumstances similar to those I have described will rethink working the overtime and instead stay home and make some really sweet holiday memories. I did not realize what I was doing when I was sacrificing sweet memories for a paycheck that really did not expand significantly with overtime. I figured it out when I got my first job that paid what I had always dreamed of as the ideal paycheck. If I made this kind of money, I told my impoverished self, everything would be great. I will be happy and I will be a better parent. The problem was that while I was working my way up to that great paycheck, I missed too many opportunities to build all those happy childhood memories because I was at work. In addition, I now know that there is no amount of money that generates an equivalent amount of happiness. You can buy love and you can buy happiness, depending on how you define those terms, but you cannot buy memories (yet).

I do not want to dissuade anyone from moving out of poverty; please feel free to work your tail off for most of each year, so that when you do finally move yourself to that magic rung on the economic ladder you don't do it at the cost of those magical moments you can spend with your kids this holiday season. A funky meal, re-gifting, something handmade might not seem to be enough right now, but I can tell you that for me those are the things that make for my happiest holiday memories.

Thanks to all of you who read these postings and give me feedback on them. That is the best gift - ever. It is the gift of your time and attention, and I honestly appreciate your generosity.