Imagine There's No Presents: A Christmas Challenge

I'm not one of those people who complain about Christmas; I love Christmas, despite being a Jewish atheist (or maybe because I'm a Jewish atheist). I love driving around at night and admiring the beautiful lights. I love the smell of pine trees and eggnog. I love being with my extended family and dressing up and overeating.

I thought I loved Christmas shopping but it turns out I don't! Our designated hostess this year asked that we forego gift-giving, which over time has become a drawn-out orgy of fifteen people opening presents and yelling Thank You while tripping over boxes and bottles of deluxe liquor.

Imagine There's No Presents: A Christmas Challenge

It was a radical idea and I was all in. It would save a ton of money, first of all. We agreed that the main thing was to be together. It sounds corny but once you're past a certain age, it's the truth. I can't even recall the gifts I've been given over the last ten or twenty years. I can't remember the gifts I've given, either. The exchange of gifts is a ritual, but it's also a duty driven by commerce, as my email inbox can attest.

I now have fifty billion reminders that it's the last day of some special holiday sale that was also the last day yesterday and the day before. "It's not too late to buy" this or that! Last minute gift ideas! I feel the pressure even though I have already opted out.

Who hasn't spent hours in the days before Christmas, looking for candles or soap or some other innocuous item you can give to co-workers or in-laws or people who might show up at the last minute? My BFF insists on giving me awful regifted candles as an annoying Christmas joke. She also gave me a George Bush butt-plug one year but that's what BFF's are for, right?

Imagine There's No Presents: A Christmas Challenge

When I look back on Christmases throughout my life, the best memories are those with my children, sharing their happiness as they showed off their presents and enjoying the pleasure of going back to bed for a little more sleep. The deep satisfaction of being a parent is especially keen on Christmas morning.

Even more precious are memories of my sons decorating the tree, which became highly ritualized over the years. I would say, "Not too much tinsel!" and they would say something obliging. We always used a silver cardboard star to top off the tree, made by my firstborn in preschool. We always played the Phil Spector Christmas album for background music, even after he shot that woman in the face.

Without kids in the house, Christmas is different. Christmas for adults is more about celebrating relationships and connections. It's not an obligation, for most people at least. You don't have to show up. No one can make you. You show up because you respect the tradition, or because you want to feel part of something larger than yourself. Being with people who know you but still like you is pretty great.

Gathering to eat a meal is a celebratory custom in every culture all over the world. It is obviously hardwired into humanity, fostering trust and well-being and community. The custom endures because it still works. When we gather together at Christmas, we affirm our bonds. We affirm that we matter.

Family traditions change, because change is part of life, even though I have personally railed against it. Marriages break up, kids move out, people pass away. Christmas gatherings must change accordingly, with new people added and sadly, loved ones lost. But all of us who have a gathering to attend at Christmas are blessed by the universe. Our friends and family are everything. You don't need to wait for a crisis to appreciate that.

Imagine There's No Presents: A Christmas Challenge

I went to a mall yesterday for the first time this "shopping season" and it was pretty nuts. I still have to buy gifts for people outside my family, so I didn't get off totally unscathed by commerce. I was glad to leave the commotion behind me, and glad to escape the horror of looking at candles and fancy soap.

I'm looking forward to not getting presents, because there's nothing I need. The gift ban doesn't make us Scrooges; there are many deserving charities who will profit from the money we've saved. Whatever cause is close to your heart will welcome your donation, however small. And none of them will have to fake a smile or feel bad about all that wrapping paper.

However you celebrate, happy holidays, everyone!