A Gift-Free Christmas
So it must have been after Thanksgiving. December 1, let's say. My husband, Bill, would not have been with me; I used to wander around the manly parts of the stores worrying about his present also, and the way I had snuck up on his nonobservant but nonetheless Jewish self with the concept of Christmas, stringing a set of white lights around the ficus in our first living-together apartment, and then the next year buying a pathetic sawed-off spruce top that I stood on an end table and decorated with, I don't know, an orange. After a while he humored me entirely, and his mother sent us a menorah, so there were candles and dreidels in the room with a hulking Christmas tree, and that was all right with both of us, but now there was more to buy. Small Hanukkah presents for the kids: two kids, eight nights. Plus the boxes under the hulking Christmas tree. And this particular December I'm speaking of, I had a cold. My head had the swollen, tied-inside-a-plastic-bag feeling that makes noises from outside resonate thickly and in slow motion. I remember picking up CD players, sweatshirts, fountain pens, bathrobes, acrylic paint sets, ceramic bowls, ski gloves, and an illustrated history of World War I. I remember a wood plaque on which a mounted tin fish opened its eyes on cue and sang, "Wasting away again in Margaritaville."
The year after that, we banned presents.
It was an experiment, the first time. My husband and I believe it was our kids' idea; like Bill, they had developed a certain wariness as the season approached, due to the possibility of finding me in the kitchen cutting wrapping paper and listening to a radio broadcast of Handel's Messiah and sobbing. When my mother was alive, Christmas had been her holiday; the Messiah was her favorite music, and because she was a passionate, literate, classical-piano-playing alcoholic whom I adored and who broke my heart about 500 times until cirrhosis finally killed her, things that were more or less tamped away the rest of the year tended in December to become turbulent and weird, so that I would stride into shops intent on buying for my family a romantic version of my own childhood. This obliged Bill and the children to set off behind me, trying to hold up their end of the deal. None of us was any good at it. "Let's just not do it," said my son, the older of the two. "No presents. Let's just stop."
So we did.
"What will we do on Christmas morning?" I asked.
"Get up late," Bill said. "Make pancakes. Look at the tree. Start the Christmas Day hike with the neighbors an hour earlier."
I expected it to be awful. That inaugural no-presents December, I avoided all shopping areas with holiday music coming through the loudspeakers; I thought I would feel bereft. But I didn't. I felt light. Unburdened. I imagined the store aisles, their terrible possibilities, their counters sagging with slightly wrong things. I imagined the people in the store aisles, and the way they always seemed to me in December to look either joyous and serene in an immensely irritating manner, or else bewildered and rumpled and haunted and askew. I tried playing the Messiah at home, without wrapping anything at the same time, and until I got to the "Hallelujah Chorus"—that's the "and He shall reign for ever and ever" part—I was okay. I think Handel meant for people to weep at the "Hallelujah Chorus," anyway. The next year I went to a performance of the Messiah, where of course I cried my eyes out but in a satisfactory, music lover sort of way, so that the people beside me handed over a tissue without comment, and now every December we spend a few days searching for music to listen to and twinkly lights to look at, and we send charities money we would have spent on presents, and on Christmas morning we make huevos rancheros, because those take longer than pancakes, and are more festive. Then we go to the neighbors' and give them a jar of homemade apricot jam. They give us toffee, which they cook up a week in advance. There is a very good moment, full of ritual and affection and merriment: We hand over, we receive, we unwrap ceremoniously, we express amazement and delight. Then we clap each other on the back, as though none of us had ever seen gifts so fine, and we walk.
Read more ways to play with tradition