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  • Susie Csorsz Brown

Gimme gimme gimme

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Here it is, ‘tis the season.

Interestingly enough, according to certain larger-than-necessary shopping establishments in the US, we should have been decking the halls since 1 November, but for those of us on a more seasonal calendar, Thanksgiving typically kicks off the holiday festivities. We usually use the long weekend to put up our tree, and hang the various accoutrements of the season. I love this time of year: we start thinking about various ways to share the holiday joy, sending holiday spirit to our friends and family here and around the globe (literally; we’ve gone through a lot of stamps!), and planning things to do with our family. Regardless of living in the tropics, we still try and go as many of our ‘traditions’ as we can. I have to say, though, it would be nice to put the ‘joy’ back into the holiday season, rather than it be all about getting stuff.

And, to be honest, I have to admit to becoming rather worked-up by the serious email campaigns that have been assaulting my inbox for the last two weeks. Instead of considering any of the savings, I simply deleted them all just to get rid of the (to me) insulting emails. I don’t generally get so riled by email ads, but this year it really felt like it was over the top and aggressive. Anyone else agree? I mean, it’s bad outside of Internetland, too. Here where we live, even the big local grocery store was even advertising their Black Friday sales! I mean, really, do we need to have emails about saving $0.50 on Fanta? Actually it probably wasn’t even that much of savings.

Don’t you think that maybe Santa Baby has more things on his mind than just filling up each house with a heap of toys? Or at least he should. When did Christmas become so focused on the getting?

We can’t let commercialism eat Christmas. Showing the next generation what’s really important – family, time with your loved ones, helping those who are in need, health and happiness – means making more of an effort than whipping out the ol’ plastic, but effort means something too. Christmas should MEAN something. As parents, I feel as though it is important to teach our kids what it means to give, and how one can benefit from being a giver rather than always being a recipient. It’s hard, though, especially when our kids see all of the cool toys and gadgets their friends have. It’s even harder when even their emails are inundated with Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping specials. It’s hard when all of this STUFF is in their face all of the time. Of course they want to cool gadgets and toys – tech and otherwise – their friends have. How do we get our kids to focus on the important things during the holiday season?

I so don’t have the answer. I’ve been looking around, reading all sorts of parenting blogs, trying to see if there is a magic formula. I don’t think there is, though. I think our best choice is to do our best to show kids what IS important, and that may very well be different for you and your family than it is for me and mine. I don’t know what that is for every family. Take the time, figure out what matters to you, and then take the time to know what you want your kids to see. To learn. What is important to you about the holidays? What is the message you want your kids to learn?

This is big, friends. This is important. Focus on this: WHAT do you want your kids to learn from your actions? And your words?

Us? We focus on family. We focus on those who might be in need. Okay, we don’t go to the shelters or soup kitchens. Where we live, those kinds of establishments don’t really exist in the same form as they might in the States. We learn what’s needed, though, and donate (food, funds, effort). More importantly, though, we spend time together enjoying holiday things, without spending money.

When we are in the States, one of our favorite activities to do is to pick an evening, hop in the car, give the kids a candy cane each (set the mood, right?) and with the carols on the radio, head out and admire some holiday lights. There are some amazing decorations out there. Amazing. We talk about how much good fortunate we have as a family, and how much we have to be grateful for. And we embrace the beauty that is the holiday season. Overseas, we’ve admired light displays (and fake snow!) in Singapore, we’ve laid under the amazing light display on the embassy compound in Phnom Penh. Every country we’ve had the good fortune of spending the holidays in has had something else to offer embracing the beauty of the holiday season. This year, we’re going to go surfing in Capetown. Because why not? I imagine a good bit of the touristy area will be decked out with holiday lights, too.

Regardless of what country we live in, and what the climate might be, we decorate our own house and yard. We’ve created our own solar light display in the third country now. We involve the kids, even though they are going to bunch all of the decorations on one branch or make their paper wreaths orange and purple. You know what? Your house is not going to look like Martha Stewart decked it, but that really doesn’t matter. What matters most is that you do it together.

Another favorite tradition is our Christmas mussels. Yes, mussels. This started after my youngest was born, and we were in Singapore, wandering around the day after Christmas. A wide range of dining options and what do we pick? Mussels. And they really hit the spot. So we decided that we would stick to this, no matter where in the world we are. Christmas mussels are always awesome.

I think it’s important to teach kids to give of themselves. The earlier they start with this practice, the more it will be a part of their lives. As they do this more often, they learn to see others’ needs, and that generosity of spirit is a good thing. Doing things for others as a family – be it help with a food or clothing drive, or help with a shelter, or sponsoring a family – can teach a valuable lesson. Kids learn that even one person can make a difference; they learn a heart-felt appreciation for what all they have; and they learn an appreciation and tolerance for people of all walks of life. And you know, it doesn’t have to be helping other people; you can help animals in need, too. Volunteering time at an animal shelter or helping an animal rescue organization can be a very rewarding experience.

One last tradition we hold is making a box of goodies for all of our dearest friends. We pick 5 or 6 holiday treats, and start mixing them up. This takes several nights, and a lot of stirring; it’s such an enjoyable process to create these tasty treats, and know our friends will appreciate our efforts. One year we made homemade hot chocolate mix (complete with a bag of marshmallows), but more often the mix includes a couple kinds of brittle, chocolate almonds and some saltine toffee. Packaging counts, so we take the time to make it all look nice. Then we play Santa. The kids love this part. Spreading joy with holiday treats is the most fun. We love this: we’ve invested time and effort into these gifts to show these friends how much we value them.

A couple of years ago we helped spread some holiday spirit by going caroling at the temporary military base in our hometown at the time. The soldiers are away from their families and appreciate seeing kids, and while we may not be the finest choir out there, a group of people singing holiday carols enthusiastically can make anyone smile. Of course we included our kids so that they could enjoy the experience and also see how much difference a simple gesture can make.

We’ve also started to focus more on experiences as gifts rather than packages under the tree. During the holiday break, we go see or do something that we can all enjoy. Be it an extended trip out of the country (last year we were in the Capetown, SA area, enjoying all that that part of the world has to offer. Which is a lot.), or an in-country trip to see a new corner of our current-country-of-residence. These trips gift us with memories that we can share together as a family. We still laugh about the never-ending hike that we went on last year on Christmas Day where literally we were all starting to think that maybe we’d be spending the night on the mountain instead of in our cozy beds (navigational error coupled with poor timing… it all ended fine, don’t worry!), or how we traipsed about the city in western Spain, not realizing that really, on the holiday EVERYTHING would be closed (Christmas dinner in the Spanish gas station, anyone?).

Some other suggestions for helping your kids see past the getting:

-Give them some quality time. More than anything, your kids love to spend time with you. (Yes, even when they are being angst-filled and angry teens.) Pick a few nights, for the older kids tell them in advance so they can plan for it, and do something as a family. If you have the time, spend quality time one on one with each of your kids. My eldest and I love to go to holiday markets together. Everyone else in the family loathes it, but we think it’s awesome. So we go, wander around together, enjoy the beautiful things people have created. We don’t even have to buy anything to make it a worthwhile outing. My middle guy loves to help with some of the more mundane parts of the treat-making process. We make caramels and he and I will be the ones wrapping each one in parchment, chatting about pretty much anything. My youngest loves to help get each dinner on the plates. He’ll set the table, help assemble salads, get drinks… every night I get to chat with him as he wanders around the kitchen doing his self-assumed meal-prepping tasks. These little windows with each of my kids is a gift to me, because I get to spend one-on-one time with them doing something they are choosing to do with me.

-Give them some extra patience. Listen to them as they detail the toy-of-the-moment that they want. It doesn’t matter what the item is; to them it is IT, and they may very well feel like they can’t live without IT. Listen and let them know you hear their request. Let them know that that toy does indeed sound amazing. Sometimes they just want to be heard. If they are a little older, you can help them understand why that particular item might not be under the tree, but maybe you can come up with a plan together that would help them save money to buy it themselves.

-Share the little things that you did as a child that you really appreciated. Give your kids the gift of a glimpse into your past and it will help them better understand why your current holiday traditions are important to you. Better yet, perhaps listening to your stories may give them the incentive to start something similar in your family. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have your kids suggest fun family traditions rather you always having to come up with them?

To us, it’s not about the getting. It’s about the spirit of Christmas. The more the kids see it, the more the kids will believe this, too. Our tree may not be surrounded by gifts, but more and more, our family (big and small) is realizing that being surrounded by the gifts of the season means more than having many packages under the tree. The memory of experiences together as a family last long after the physical packages are open.

Happy holidays. May the spirit of the holidays be with you and yours, too.

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