My Christmas spirit comes from the heart, not from gifts and artificial trees

Tis the season! Or maybe, based on advertising and a local radio station broadcasting Christmas music at the beginning of November, we are already a month into what I have come to call “The Season of Craven Consumerism and Chaos.”

For years, and especially since my wife and I have been empty nesters, I have struggled to find the Christmas spirit. Being a print news junkie, it’s hard to find hope and happiness anywhere on this planet we call home. But my struggle with Christmas began as a child. 

Two incidents in particular taint my Christmas memories. 

First, when I was about seven years old, our family was still a “real’’ Christmas tree clan. My parents purchased a tree with a crooked trunk. My dad hacked away at that trunk in the backyard, but when he put it in the tree stand, the tree was still way off kilter. His solution was to tie the tree to the living room curtain rod with a clothesline. My mom immediately objected and an argument ensued.

Second, a couple of Christmases later, still in search of the perfect live Christmas tree, the whole family (four of us) hopped in our car and drove to Michigan to find and cut down the best tree ourselves. Mind you, this was before Chevy Chase stole my family’s Christmas story.

It was bitterly cold, and I think everyone but my dad would have been happy to cut down the first tree we passed. But that wasn’t going to happen. We wandered the tree farm for what seemed like an hour, finally settling on one that satisfied my dad. He cut it down and we traipsed it back to the parking lot. Having paid for it, we hoisted it on the top of our blue Ford and immediately the car roof buckled.

 I think my dad would have been OK driving back to Indiana with a bowed roof, but my mom was having none of it. The tree was removed and we sold it at a discount to another family just arriving to cut down their own tree. The new arrivals got a fresh cut tree without the freezing fingers and sawing.

When we got back to South Bend, my dad went to Brite Way and bought a pre-cut live tree. 

Soon after, my parents got divorced. I’m not blaming the “Christmas tree incidents,” but I’m certain they didn’t aid in maintaining their union.

After my parents’ divorce, my family entered the artificial tree era. My mom worked at Robertson’s department store downtown during the holidays to make extra money. Robertson’s prices were usually out of our family’s budget, but with her employee discount she purchased our first artificial tree. Although it was green in color, its branches looked more like toilet bowl cleaning brushes. That was our family’s Christmas tree until I left for college.

As a divorced parent with two boys, my mom scrimped a lot. That meant that Christmas was usually a frugal affair. My paternal grandparents were fond of sending my brother and me velour shirts, which were pet-hair magnets. My Great Aunt Lee would send five dollars in a card. Santa, knowing our financial situation, filled our stockings with toothbrushes, toothpaste, and other personal hygiene items.

 My Uncle Walter, my mom’s brother, was the exception. He always gave the best gifts, including magic tricks, which turned my brother and me into amateur magicians performing at the local libraries.

When I finally started dating late in my 20s, my girlfriend at the time attended one of our frugal Christmases. After sitting for hours watching us unwrap bars of soap and toothpaste, one at a time and commenting on what a great gift each one was (my mom’s required holiday regimen), she nearly broke up with me on Christmas Day. Thank God she didn’t.

Those frugal Christmases have affected the way I approach Christmas. I am not a willing gift receiver or giver. Early in my marriage, I spent a lot of time in stores (pre-Internet) searching for the perfect gift for my wife. I rarely succeeded. Eventually, I gave up and started the Dunham tradition of asking family to give me ideas, or better yet, buy the gifts themselves and let me reimburse them.

My preferences in gifts are warm socks and clothing or things I can really use, like brushes for my electric toothbrush and a magnifying glass for work. My wife is a much better gift giver. Our kids should be grateful for that.

The past two Christmases of Covid and post-Covid precautions gave my wife and me an opportunity to downsize our Christmas routines. Our 7 1/2-foot artificial tree remained in the attic. We made do with a handmade one-foot ceramic tree. I rather liked it. 

I find my most meaningful Christmas moments in volunteering. For years, I have rung bells for The Salvation Army with my mom, my kids, and now members of my church. I wrote earlier about helping with the Angel Tree ministry, buying and delivering toys and clothing for children of incarcerated parents. I have worked at Broadway Christian Parish’s Jubilee Christmas store for several years.

Still, I struggle every year to find the elusive Christmas spirit. I have determined it can’t be forced. I resist Christmas music (which I love except for the revolting “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”) until after Thanksgiving. I don’t like shopping to begin with, and I like it even less when stores are crowded. Online shopping has made it so easy to go overboard with spending. I resist that as much as possible. 

This Thanksgiving, both our adult children were back at our house for the first time since 2019. My daughter, who is a gung-ho decorator, insisted we resurrect the big artificial tree. In the holiday spirit, I acquiesced. It was a group effort. My wife and I assembled the tree, my daughter put on the lights, and my son and three-year-old grandson decorated it the next day while my wife and I were at work.  It didn’t even phase me that my grandson hung most of the ornaments on the bottom two feet of the tree.

On Thanksgiving Day, my son and I spontaneously broke out in a silly Christmas song from both of our childhoods, “I Want an Elephant for Christmas.” My dad had impulse purchased the $1.99 cheesy children’s LP by the never-been-heard-of-since Caroleers at Goldblatt’s when I was a child. I passed those songs along to our kids. Our son has now shared it with his son.

One of the songs on that album is titled, “Where is Christmas?” The answer: It’s in your heart! Shared family experiences and helping others are where I find the Christmas spirit, not in elaborate or expensive gifts.

 In a world of war, famine, climate upheaval, and political division, my Advent wish is that we all look deeper in our hearts for the meaning of Christmas.