Most years, some of us do the same thing at Christmas time: we drag out the tree, assemble it, put lights on it, and then we decorate it with ornaments. But it doesn’t stop there. We find little shops where we spend our money on sometimes useless things that may be eventually put in the “re-gift” box at its final destination. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to put a damper on your Christmas spirit. Some of us are still looking for the true meaning of Christmas, and I’d like to offer to you some ideas.

After coming to India to live, and even many years before, I gave away a lot of these Christmas practices because of my living circumstances. A lot of the time I was fortunate enough not to live in the main stream—where the music programming or the television programming suggested that I drag out the tree to decorate it and spend money on people.  Often, I made gifts for people, and brought in the Christ feeling this way. But, when I had to take a trip down to the local mall, I was bombarded with a Christmas programming that suggested that the latest gadget or fashion was what made the difference for joy—something that would help us to “feel true happiness” after all of the hoopla was finished. I wasn’t convinced. A lot of times, I felt somewhat empty after the last gift was opened, and wondered why.

Yes, I said it: suggestive programming.  It is everywhere in the stores, TV, and on the radio. It goes deep into the subconscious and holds on like a clam to a rock. The feeling I had and still sometimes experience is a “usual ‘warm feeling’ that comes over me, like a fog or cloud.”  I respond blindly, not thinking critically about what has come over me. I start buying gifts, baking cookies, and humming the tunes just as the commercialistic ambassadors’ design for us to consume blindly suggests. This happened to me recently when I returned to the US in 09 for Christmas, although I was conscious, and slightly curious about “what had come over me.” In the first years (mid-nineties) when I decided to “go against the grain” I experienced guilt feelings, that the gifts I made for family and friends weren’t good enough—especially if I hadn’t heard back (as in a “thank you” note.) But after a while, I decided that feelings of obligation because of expectation defeated the purpose of the season. Many people feel obliged to give gifts, or to put out plastic the Santa on the lawn and plug it in, because their neighbors have had an elaborate “winter wonderland” display of lights and figurines since Thanksgiving. 

At breakfast recently my husband turned to me, and said, “Thank you.” I told him,
“It’s my pleasure to cook for you.” (I had made a big-fat-tasty southern style American breakfast with biscuits, gravy, eggs, and sliced tomatoes.)  “No, I mean for everything. Thank you.” This is the kind of gift that keeps giving, and I feel grateful for it.

In India, because I couldn’t understand the language, or recognize Christmas carols in Malayalam, the suggestion was not triggered inside of me to have a tree, or even to engage in all of what my American family considers traditional Christmas ritual. Yes, I said ritual. That’s all it is…just some behavioral patterns that “makes meaning” for a certain metaphor.  And when I take a deeper look at the simplicity of my Indian life without the commercial aspects of this holiday, it feels peaceful, almost liberating. I read comments from my friends’ pages on a local network, and I see the pressure to perform. When I was practicing “Christmas,” was I really making it “holy” by doing all of the things that western culture, media, or that which my family suggests?  I don’t have an interest in all of the latest shiny gadgets, jewelry or fashions—and I remember the hollow feeling I sometimes had after Christmas “when I didn’t get what I wanted,” when I was operating out of a “materialistic” mentality. Some years, I pull out our Christmas stockings—which get stuffed with small, inexpensive things that we may need—socks, pens, fruit and nuts, tiny things that we sometimes forget to buy—soap, toothpaste, hair clips, and so on. This old feeling that I don’t have enough “stuff,” thank God, has disappeared also.

Last year I celebrated the spirit of Christ in the hospital, happy enough to have my life. And I truly felt it when the cleaning lady came in to my room, deliberately prayed over me, and sang a Christian hymn in Tamil. I couldn’t hold my tears back after she left the room. The room was so full of Christ spirit.

I practice Christ’s teaching as much as I can every day. This year-round celebration is enough for me. Maybe I will make cookies. I do send a few gifts. A few years ago we asked family members to please simplify, that we don’t expect (or really want) gifts, since we live in a small house, shipping is pricy—and where do the things go? Sometimes to the re-gifting box, (after we read them or use them a couple of times.) Our Indian friends might find something new or near-new—during an unexpected drop-by visit, or at a wedding or housewarming, or baby shower, because the spirit moves us to share. For us, we silenced the commercial “Christmas machine” and don’t look back.

 Please don’t think of this as ungracious. We are practical people. Twenty years ago, when family asked for my “wish list” I wished for things that I could use, such as soap, shampoo, candles, pens and paper clips, dehydrated food, and yes, cash, and so on.  If we operate in a “mechanized” way, usually it means that we are not operating with our hearts. For example, when we memorize a prayer, we recite it from memory—something that is best when spoken from the heart, which makes prayer different every time rather than by rote memory. There is no feeling in a recited prayer, unless it is said slowly and mindfully. The same applies to Christmas celebration. Do it for Love. Period.  And I still feel strongly about this. Donate money to a great cause, or plant a tree in my name, if you feel the need. The true gift is how you interact with me, your neighbors, your siblings, your parents, strangers, co-workers and your friends on a daily basis.

A few days ago, my husband surprised me with a wool sweater—one that I had admired months ago at a store here in Ooty. It’s my first Indian wool sweater, and I was very happy and grateful. He said, “Because it occurred to me that I hadn’t given anything to you for a long time.”  But I think that this is not entirely true. He gives so much to me every day. He gives without even knowing, apparently.

We don’t celebrate Christmas once a year out of habit. We practice deliberately, year-round. And we are thankful to leave commercialism and ritual out of it. Have a blessed season!