Pious Petunia Makes Your List and Checks It Twice

Nov 30, 2013

Today, guest blogger and advice columnist Pious Petunia intervenes just in time for the holiday season, offering soothing advice for frenzied spirits.

Dear Miss Petunia: I’m always so stressed in December. I can’t seem to enjoy myself because I can never make Christmas as special as it should be. Why do I always feel like a failure at the holidays?

PP: Because you are, dear.

At least compared to the ideal. But you must grab a holly-trimmed shish kebob skewer, right now, and burst that bloated balloon of commercial fantasy. You know very well that advertisers and catalog designers spend the entire off-season scheming ways to make our lives seem shabby and pathetic so that we will buy things in a desperate effort to compensate. They know you will order that pine cone wreath and cashmere V-neck in the vain hope that these will instantly transform your ordinary world into a Christmas fantasy. But face the truth: your living room is festooned with exposed power cords and popcorn between the couch cushions, and your relatives are decked out in tacky jingle-bell sweatshirts. Even wearing out your credit card will not alter this world into a rustic cabin in Maine with fluffy yellow lab puppies by the fire and square-jawed men in creased corduroys casually leaning against the mantle. You can knock yourself out attempting to recreate the perfectly symmetrical fir with the tasteful matching ornaments (theme: birds and harps) but you will still end up with an uneven pine hung with macaroni crafts from first grade. No one can achieve the fantasy holiday, because such a holiday requires a year of planning and a huge team of paid professionals.

How to cope, then, with the considerable gap between the ideal and your life? Make a nice fire in your fireplace and burn the catalogs. If you don’t have a fireplace, put a fireplace screensaver on your laptop and dump the catalogs in the recycle bin. Then get a decent bottle of wine (or sparkling juice), pour some into reasonably clean mugs (because you do not have the correct glasses), gather round your sweatshirt-clad loved ones, and propose a toast the shabby life.

Dear Miss Petunia: Every Christmas, I am expected to come up with thoughtful gift ideas for a whole range of friends and relatives, and arrange for said gifts to be delivered by the “deadline,” which is sometimes even before Christmas Day if that’s when the parties are planned. After years of this, I’m tired! I want out! Am I a Scrooge?

PP: Probably not, because gift-giving has indeed become more an onerous pagan ritual than a joyful and endearing custom. If only the magi could have peered into the future like proper astrologers and witnessed the commercial fiasco they unwittingly unleashed, they would have left the gold, frankincense, and myrrh back in the East and informed Mary that they had traveled many leagues simply to spend Quality Time with the Christ child.

But alas, here we are. Getting gifts for everyone in the immediate family, the extended family, the group of dear friends, and the piano teacher—one cannot get this done with loving good intentions alone. It requires extraordinary planning and organization skills, not to mention Xanax. The only people who can pull off the thoughtful-gift-for-everyone plan are certain retired grandmothers, and even they eventually give up and hand everyone envelopes of cash.

So most families get by with one or another of the following strategies, designed to observe the ritual sufficiently while more or less keeping the peace.

  • The internet spendathon. An efficient strategy in which you spend one afternoon in early December on the internet, ordering something for everyone, to be delivered. While efficient, this strategy is also hideously expensive. Only appropriate for families with no budget considerations.
  • Name exchanges and Google docs. Often used with extended families. With this option, each member of the tribe is responsible only for one other member. But since you don’t all live together, you need a Google doc so that people can post their “gift ideas.” This sounds good in theory, but it quickly devolves into buying each other things you could just as easily buy yourself. It’s ordinary commerce, only less convenient. Plus, unless there are careful stipulations about how much to spend, certain family members can become the subject of bitter whispering about what might aptly be termed “trade deficits.”
  • Grab-n-go. Costco and other big-box stores thoughtfully provide generic gifts for those families in which gift giving is more like a family tax. No one really wants the boxed perfume, gloves, or cheese assortments, but if you don’t show up with something, you’re criticized for weeks afterward.
  • Theme gifts. A favorite plan of parents who are exhausted after years of being responsible for pleasing the children with what goes under the tree. Instead, they purchase the same gift for all the female grown children, and something else for all the gentlemen. This tactic can result in hilarious pictures and fond memories of “the year of the pink bathrobes” or “the year of the ugly sweaters.”
  • Gag gifts/white elephants. Popular at office parties. Serves as a decent parody of how much junk we already own, and may successfully put you off gift giving forever. Or doom you to endless cycles of giving and receiving the same “world’s best boss” mug, year after year.
  • Underwear and socks. A favorite of practical-minded parents. Starting about mid-October, parents buy everyone whatever they would buy anyway and wrap it up so there’s something under the tree. Does not result in thrilled cooing on Christmas morning, but at least people have warm feet.
  • Charity first. In this plan, instead of buying gifts, everyone gives to charity. This is a pious option, and suitable for those who have recently taken a disheartening trip to their overfull basement or attic. Not an option if there are small children under your responsibility or in your clan, unless said children are susceptible to propaganda (“But honey, children in [name sorrowful situation] never get toys—or even food!”) If grandparents of these small children are involved, forget it. No matter what plan you suggest, grandparents will buy children obnoxiously noisy toys that shed small parts.

There you go. Perhaps you can cope this year by proposing one of these strategies to your tribe. Plan on at least several weeks of hurt feelings before everyone reluctantly concedes.

Dear Miss Petunia: Every year I am more disgusted by the commercialism of Christmas! What is the matter with Christians these days who simply capitulate to all this? We should avoid the whole thing and focus instead on quiet meditation and special time with loved ones.

PP: Now, now. One can hardly disagree with such sentiments. But admonitions to focus on the True Meaning of Christmas can become just as ritually tiresome as the commercial frenzy. Scolding each other for lack of spirituality simply makes us feel like failures in yet another way.

You may, if you wish, determine to perform superlative feats of spirituality. But for most people, Miss P suggests keeping expectations on the modest side. Here’s a suggested list of goals: One genuinely pleasant hour with relatives or other loved ones. One meaningful and lovely moment in a worship service. One concert of great Christmas music, preferably performed live. As for spiritual practices, find a time to hide in a room and spend an hour in prayer. Finally, memorize a Christmas hymn—all the verses. Miss P does not have much patience with people who have sung carols all their lives and yet bury their noses in a hymnal while warbling “Silent Night.” Oh, and get yourself some good cookies. Buy them in the grocery aisle if you must, but don’t let the season go by without indulging guilt-free in something sweet and delightful.

Finally, remember: despite saccharine TV specials in which the Magic of Christmas brings about a gentle snowfall and a sentimental, heartwarming conclusion, for most of us magic moments occur unpredictably and without much engineering. So look for those moments and treasure them when they come.

May you receive several this holiday season, and may you catch them in your heart before they melt away.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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