Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas, family, and being a good neighbour

Merry Christmas everyone, have a great holiday.   I hope everyone is safe, warm, and happy.  The holiday season can be a stressful and depressing time.  There are many people suffering financially right now and the near-mandatory consumer aspect of Christmas can be quite a burden.

I should have posted something a little sooner but to all you parents out there who can't afford to buy your kids the latest and greatest toys, don't worry, they'll be OK.  Don't feel guilty, be honest with your kids - even if they don't understand now, they will (hopefully) someday.  I did.  I'm sure you are all doing the best you can.  And don't be afraid to accept help if you need it, it doesn't make you less of a person.

My parents grew up somewhere between dirt poor and not too bad, depending on the seasons and such.  Mom was the second of 4 kids and lived in a small town in BC, my grandfather operated a small sawmill and did other work.  Dad grew up on a farm in southern Alberta, he was the second of 6 kids.  They both learned what doing without really meant.

My parents were poor when they met and stayed poor for some time but were able to provide us with food, shelter, and everything I needed - I never wanted for anything of physical importance and things improved for us a lot financially by the time I was old enough to remember much.  After my Dad graduated university, things got better for them but they never were focused on spending a lot of money, they were focused on paying off their debt - student loans, house, etc.

When I was 6, Dad got transferred (the old move or you're fired deal) and we bought a new house under a grant program that was going on in Saskatchewan.  It was  very nice house, very big* and in a nice neighbourhood.  I was lucky.  However, to afford that house, certain things had to be "sacrificed" - we made do with less, we bought used, and we accepted (and gave) help as needed.  My clothes were hand me downs or from the discount bin at Zeller's.  Starting around age 8, I began to separate from my peers in three ways:

  1. Religion - I grew up in the Mormon religion which was not well regarded where we lived.  I have a very clear, and sad memory of my best friend (Catholic) telling me I was going to hell for being a devil worshiper.  Yep, the old days, before Catholics and Mormons found common cause.   Christmas is a good time to teach your children about tolerance and a great time to discuss beliefs, history, and culture.
  2. Appearance - As mentioned, my clothes were either of low quality, handmade, or dated/used.  We shopped at thrift stores and I got a lot of hand me downs from other church families.  If you didn't have the right shoes back then, you were of low social status.  I doubt that has changed.  I also was small for my age and my mom cut my hair...
  3. Grades - Scholastically, I was years beyond my peers, especially in reading and mathematics.  Doing well in school is not a recipe for being popular.

Why do I bring this up?  Because it meant I spent more time with my parents than most of the kids my age and that was a lot more fun than expensive shoes or whatever.  Your kids may cry if they don't get an ipad or something but that will be in the garbage sooner or later, it's not worth it.  Focus on what you can give, even if it's just a hug and an I love you.

My four favourite Christmas gifts as a child:

  1. A set of blocks my Dad made for me.  I would spend hours and hours with them, even when I was "too old" for them.
  2. A pair of wooden swords my dad made for me - that was good for countless house of whacking people  :)  
  3. A swiss army knife from my maternal grandfather.  I got that when I was 8? or so, I had a lockback knife before that.  Good for a lot of fun projects though you might get arrested these days *sigh*  I brought mine to show and tell at school, good luck with that one.
  4. A bag of marbles.  I could spend all day shooting with my friends!

Something that can engage your child's imagination doesn't have to be expensive - I know, easy for me to say that, I used to get a pretty expensive Christmas list from our kids too....

Really though, the best gift that you can give is your time - as much as you can.  For example, some of my fondest memories of my Dad are going to work with him.  With my mom, I still remember her reading to me, it was very precious.  Those are the memories that can last a lifetime and can really hold a family together when the children get older and become evil teenage monsters  (jk, sort of).
Being a good neighbour:
The holiday season is a good time to reach out a little to the people around you and try to build some bonds.

Say hello to your neighbours, bring them over a plate of food, offer to shovel their walk - sometimes people can be hard to approach and saying "Hey, it's Christmas, so we..." can be a good ice breaker.

Think of any older neighbours in the area.  They may not have family close by and could use some assistance.  Check that their utilities are still turned on (sometimes crazy stuff happens over the holidays) and that they have enough to eat.  If you can, try to invite them over for dinner, you might end up with some free babysitting and some good company  :)  One of the best things about the Mormon church was the time we spent in service activities.  I got to spend a lot of time with people of all ages and backgrounds, do a lot of useful volunteer work, and spend time with my family.

It's also a good time to reach out to estranged friends and family, again using the season as a reason can make things easier.

Community bonds are valuable from a survival standpoint, a safety standpoint, but also for health and happiness.  The Winter Solstice/Christmas/whatever period should be about happiness and family - whether that's the kind we have or the kind we want to create.

*It's funny what people consider a big house now.  Our house was 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms (1 full, 2 half) and had a full basement with a good-sized yard that was all garden in the back.  I would guess it could have been as much as 1500 sq ft, which really is enormous for 4 people.  And then I look at some of the houses people buy  I really don't understand the love for McMansions.

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