Holidays and Hard Times

Anthony and I were both raised in the kind of economic background I’ve come to think of as “broke, not poor.” Hardworking people with middle-class values and sensibilities, without two nickels to rub together. Every year at Christmas, I’m struck by how much of the way we handle the holidays, which minimizes our stress and maximizes our peace, is due to the example they set – the gifts they left us. Let’s unwrap them.

Make the small things big. It’s a cliché because it’s true: the things you remember most about the holidays aren’t likely to be things you unwrap. It’s fun to make a tradition out of watching your favorite holiday movie, complete with PJs and popcorn (and nobody on their phones!), baking cookies, looking at holiday lights. These kinds of delightful (cheap or free) activities can save your holiday if you’re broke, and if you’re not, they’re still a great way to make the holidays more about feelings than things.

Christmas comes on the same day every year. Whenever someone asked my mother how she managed the holidays, this was her wry response. In other words – you know it’s coming, so plan ahead. Even the ‘basics’ – like a holiday dinner, or baking – require money. Every September she would begin, week by week, to stock up on food she knew she would need during the holiday season. She could never have purchased the ingredients for baking and the holiday dinners in a single month. But ten or twelve weeks of one or two extra things with each visit to the grocery store, she could do. Extra flour and sugar one week, dried fruit the next, nuts and sweet potatoes after that…this meant that by the time she arrived at the big day, the only purchase required was the turkey or the ham – which she had planned for. I still do this, just because it’s nice to spread out the cost.

At the house of a childhood friend (similar economics, a lot more kids) it wasn’t unheard of to find a Barbie in the freezer or a Tonka truck hidden in the basement – her mom bought presents all year long. This was easier, of course, in the days when what we got for Christmas was whatever was in stock at K-Mart. The digital age and the media onslaught that now tells children what they want for six relentless weeks before the holiday makes this more challenging.

Debt: don’t. You have to be at a certain economic level to even have a credit card, and sometimes our folks were there and sometimes they weren’t, but ain’t nobody put Christmas on the Visa card in my family – chiefly because if the future financials looked the like current ones, there’s no conceivable way to pay it off. As a result, Anthony and I don’t debt for the holidays either, didn’t even in our brokest days. Remember Christmas Club accounts? They were dedicated bank accounts that would skim a little off of every paycheck of the year, and you couldn’t access the money until November 1. We did this until we had the discipline to do it ourselves, which took awhile. We have done many regrettable things with our money because we didn’t know how to middle-class, but this is something we did right, from the get. And it’s because of the example we had.

When in doubt, bake something. Having a stash of goodies in the house is a hedge against that thing where someone gives you a gift and you don’t have anything for them. In higher economic circles this is merely awkward, but when there’s no money for last-minute gifts, when you don’t have a choice, it can be a big, dripping shame sandwich. When you can respond with a plate of holiday cookies or a tin of homemade fudge, it just feels better. Baking also goes a long way in adding a feeling of warmth and tradition to your holiday and your home when things are feeling bleak.

One December, Anthony came home from school and announced, in the way kids do, that he had to bring a treat the next day for the class holiday party. His mom was home alone with the kids, no money and a bare larder. This was the 70s, y’all. No internet. No Pinterest. And any mom who couldn’t produce baked goods on demand was getting a close-up look at that shame sandwich. So she stirred up cornflakes with melted marshmallow, added a crap-ton of green food coloring and shaped the mess into wreaths. Whenever she would see actual recipes for these in later years, in magazines and on the backs of cereal boxes, she was all, “Pfft. I invented those.” Necessity is a mother.

Help someone else. This time of year is packed with opportunities to do kind things for other people – and many only require time, not money. Write to deployed soldiers. Visit people in nursing homes. Walk dogs at the animal shelter. Finding something you and your children can do together is a great way to get the focus off what you don’t have, and on what you do.

Keep your perspectacles on. Christmas can feel so freighted with emotion and expectation that it’s hard to see past it. But it will pass; so don’t do anything that, one way or another, you’ll still be paying for once the holiday has come and gone.

So if you’re an imperfect parent, raising your kids in imperfect circumstances (and aren’t we all?), take heart. The gifts you’re giving your children will last far longer than whatever’s under the tree this year.

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