My favorite Christmas gift each year is the one from my parents. To me, it embodies the true spirit of Christmas perfectly and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
I come from a family of many, many children who now have many, many children and grandchildren of their own. Buying gifts for each one of them would be chaotic, expensive and impractical. More importantly, all that commercialism wouldn't reflect who my parents are. They are down-to-earth, authentic, self-reflective Quakers (yes, some of that is redundant). Their generosity of both time and money is brimming over with purposeful intent and a goal of leaving all those children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren the most meaningful gift of all...a world made better by my parents having been a part of it. So each year, they carefully select an organization whose mission aligns with the values they've spent a lifetime instilling in their offspring and make a donation in our honor. I really can't think of a better legacy to pass on to my own children.
Teaching altruism is not something you can do except by example, and the more examples our children have of it, the better the lesson is learned. The holidays present a unique opportunity to show our appreciation for those who model the concept throughout the year. One such group is teachers. I used to show our thanks for their service and sacrifice with home-baked goods. But as my kids have grown, we've been blessed by an increasing number of these amazing people in our lives, and there simply isn't enough butter, sugar or time for that to be practical anymore. When the kids entered middle school, with 7-10 devoted educators each, I decided to put into practice the lessons of my parents (finally!...hopefully it was worth the long wait) and teach giving to my children.
It started out with my husband and me making a donation to an educational nonprofit in honor of the teachers at each school. Now that my kids are teenagers with access to real money of their own--not just the Monopoly kind--they set aside a percentage of their allowance each month for giving. During the holidays, they each carefully select an organization whose work touches their heart and donate the money they've set aside all year to them in honor of their teachers. My husband and I match these gifts with a donation of our own to the same two organizations. The kids then write out a holiday card thanking each of their teachers, with a letter enclosed explaining the donation and their reasons for selecting that particular nonprofit. (They also include a candy cane, because it's only fair that the students should have to deal with sugared-up teachers at least once a year...turnabout is fair play, after all.)
The best part of this teacher gift idea is discussing various organizations and the marvelous contributions they make to our world as we deliberate over their selections each year. The decision is not always an easy one. It's also a gift in itself for me too, to see the seedlings my parents started begin to take root in the hearts of my children. I know that long after Dad and Peg are gone, their generous spirits will live on in their grandchildren.
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, or Festivus, December tends to be a frenzied time of year for most of us. Perhaps you are familiar with this old-fashioned holiday recipe?
1 cup Family Togetherness
3 cups Overcommitted Time
2 teaspoons Desire to Impress Others
1/2 cup Unrealistic Expectations
1 3/4 cup Excessive Spending
4 tablespoons Bad Nutrition and Lack of Exercise
2/3 cup Exhaustion
Name Your Goal
What's the most important point to your holiday? Is it spiritual reflection? Spending time with loved ones? Giving something back to help those less fortunate? Taking time to savor the tastes, sights and sounds of the season? Reliving fond memories through old traditions? For many of us, it is all of these things, but you must determine which is #1 on your list so that you can prioritize your activities accordingly. When scheduling conflicts arise, ask yourself which calendar item most reflects your #1 goal for the season. This will help you not to spread yourself too thin. It's okay to say "no", especially if it means saying "yes" to a more relaxed and enjoyable holiday!
Keep it Real
Even Martha Stewart doesn't do it all herself. She has a staff of people to make it all look easy...which it isn't. People are rarely impressed with frazzled hosts/hostesses. Be realistic and accept that you have limits. Embrace them and spend time on the things you enjoy doing to make the season special...a cheerful smile is always pretty impressive, don't you think? It's okay to buy the dessert for your party or to give a gift card you picked up at the supermarket, especially if it means having more time to spend with the people you care about.
Set a Budget
Also not impressive is bankruptcy. Don't give yourself the gift of massive credit card debt this year! Decide what purchases most reflect your #1 goal and budget accordingly. If giving to those less fortunate is at the top of your list, consider making charitable donations in a loved one's name as your gift to them. If enjoying the sights and sounds of the season is imperative, factor in those tickets to the Nutcracker or that especially tall Douglass Fir and plan ahead. It's okay to shorten your gift list to fit within your means...you may find that others are relieved to have the opportunity to shorten theirs too.
Norman Rockwell aside, most of us have some degree of dysfunction or disagreement within our extended families. Holidays tend to bring out the short tempers in everyone, so agree to some ground rules before your spinster great-aunt or your unemployed cousin move in for Christmas week or your mother-in-law reluctantly agrees to let you make the latkes for Hanukkah. It's okay to put all your cards on the table beforehand so that everyone knows what to expect (or what not to).
Give Yourself the Gift of Good Health
Stress and fatigue lead to illness. Over-indulgence leads to guilt and a wide array of health issues. Make the time to eat right, exercise and rest. Your friends and family would rather have you for the holidays than the presents, food and parties. It's okay to take care of you during this busy season so that others won't have to.
Don't forget, today's holidays are tomorrow's memories...you'll treasure them more if you don't make unreasonable demands on yourself. Even memorable holidays can be easy peasy if you just relax, celebrate and enjoy!
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.