If I think of Christmases gone by, a few memories stand out.
What I Remember
I remember lying under the tree as a child, looking up through the branches to watch the lights reflect off the ornaments. Which was a fine idea, until a stray needle fell into my nostril and went like a tiny dart straight up my nose until it lodged high in my sinus cavity.
I remember the year I first realized what the fuss was about yellow snow.
I remember the year soon after we moved to Florida when we had a Christmas tree that kept falling over. It literally fell over several times a week, scattering ornaments across the living room and scaring the dog half to death. Dad eventually wired it to the bookcase (which fell in turn, scattering National Geographics) and then to the wall.
I remember the year that I was in high school, and Mom didn't feel like putting up the fake tree herself. She paid me $20 to do it, and I spent the entire time of tree assembly, light-stringing, and decorating listening to Garrison Keillor's Tales from Lake Woebegone, which I had checked out on CD from the local library just to keep my brain from dying during the mundane task. I remember that in the evening, she came and sat on the couch and watched me decorate, and we listened to the stories together.
I remember the year when some of the adult children had already left home, and the few of us who were left decided to toilet paper the tree on Christmas Eve (in reaction to our Dad making a big deal earlier that week about something in the neighborhood having been "vandalized"). This is one of the few pranks that involved Lisa as ring-leader. I seem to recall something else about shaving cream on the back window of his van, but that part is fuzzy.
I remember the year Bethany got the Horse Clock early in the present-opening rotation and celebrated the unveiling of each new gift by announcing, "That gets.... four neighs!" before pushing the button on the back of the clock.
The year that I sneaked into everyone's bedroom on Christmas Eve to wrap up their own possessions to be put under the tree and opened with bewilderment on Christmas morning.
The year after nieces and nephews had started to arrive so that we ran out of beds at Mom and Dad's house, and I slept on the couch Christmas Eve, which was fine until Nathan woke me up by putting a smelly diaper in my face.
The year this happened:
The year that everyone, and I do mean everyone, got violently sick, and while the kids bounced back fairly quickly, we adults spent days texting each other our symptoms as we huddled in our separate pools of misery.
The year I tried to take Christmas photos of my brother's family and we wound up with about twenty shots like this:
...and then he and Dawn decided to use them anyway. "This is our family," they said.
The year we had a Star Wars Watch-and-Quote-a-thon on Christmas Day, and Eric absolutely schooled us all by quoting A New Hope literally word-for-word.
The year I tied up presents in plastic bags with bows on top because I'm so bad at wrapping gifts that I decided I just wouldn't do it any more.
The year we all decided to forego buying each other presents so that we could pool our money and rent a vacation house for a week, knowing that the time spent together would carry more value than any present ever could.
What I Don't Remember
When I look back at Christmases past, I barely, if ever, remember presents that were given and received. I certainly remember the act of gift-giving: the sitting around in a circle, calling Bethany our "Present Girl" and demanding that she divvy out our gifts to us because we were all too lazy to get up and get them for ourselves. Being excited to see someone open a package that I had been especially thrilled to give. Taking ribbing about what a bad wrapping job I had done.
But apart from a few stray oddball gifts (the year I got three one-pound cheese wheels, for example, or the year someone enrolled me in a bacon-of-the-month club), I really have no very clear memory of the gifts I received.
Take a moment to engage in a similar exercise. Think back over past Christmases to see what you remember and what you don't.
If what you remember is the time spent together with family and friends, and if what you don't remember is the type of gifts you have given/received, perhaps it's time for you to shift the focus of your Christmas season to ensure that you spend the bulk of your time attending to what matters.
Remember that the entire purpose of the giving of presents is to represent the gift God gave to us when he sent Jesus to earth as our savior.
Gift-giving was never intended to become a moon-sized burden that eclipses the meaning of the holiday itself.
I'm not saying that presents are bad, or that you shouldn't use them to commemorate the holiday, or that the busy bustle of the season is wrong. For many of you, the packed schedule of festive activity is half the fun.
What I am saying is that one aspect of the curse of sin involves the possible twist of abuse on anything intended for good.
If you find that the task of shopping and gift-giving takes away from your spiritual focus during Advent--if it has come to feel less like a commemoration and more like the purpose of the season itself--then it might be time for some re-calibration.
In the meantime, I'll be over here trying to wrap my presents without accidentally taping my own hands to them.