When bedroom doors fly open on Christmas morning, my kids drink in a vision of a picture-perfect Christmas — an explosion of bright colors and shiny coils of ribbons in meticulously wrapped presents. Family members amble through the front door with more gifts, so the kids form a gift-opening assembly line that starts from youngest to oldest. For hours, there is a fervent tearing of paper, a hoisting of new objects in the air, shouts of glee and the creation of piles and piles of stuff.
It’s the Christmas of my childhood dreams, promised in Norman Rockwell paintings of what the holiday season should look like: wholesome and free from worry and want. But every year, the overabundance of our real-life holiday celebration causes me discomfort, because I see myself reflected inversely in my children’s excited hazel eyes.
The dissonance exists because poverty is part of my identity. Even when in the rear view, the feeling of want lives close to the surface. It informs my existence and makes me wonder whether all this gift-giving is necessary.
The Christmases of my early childhood passed just like any other day for our family of five, trying to find economic and social stability after a disjointed journey from war-torn Vietnam to a refugee camp in Malaysia, where I was born in the late 1970s. In my childhood one-bedroom home, Christmas morning was accompanied by the staccato whirring of my mom’s Juki sewing machine, which she used to sew notched jacket lapels or to attach shoulder pads to blazers.
To do this, we kids created a different kind of assembly line. Using our little fingers, we flipped the corners of the lapels inside out, so my mom could complete the understitching. For every completed lapel or set of shoulder pads, my mom earned as much as 25 cents. For a work-from-home garment worker, it was a bounty she would later take to the neighborhood market and bargain with for beef bones.
Back in the holidays of my not-so-distant youth, there was no room to deck the halls or time to exchange gifts. There was no Santa suit buried deep in a drawer for me to discover and feign shock about. There were just piles and piles of jackets with unfinished lapels. I like to tell my kids this story at bedtime when we are reading seasonal books, often with illustrated pictures of perfectly decorated Christmas trees and homes filled with gifts. Oh, the gifts, gifts, gifts, gifts!
In this story, the protagonist is their mom, and her home doesn’t have any of the holiday objects pictured in the books, because her family is too busy surviving. I tell the story with a cheerful and matter-of-fact tone to avoid the archetype of poverty — the cautionary tale of a noble, down-on-their-luck family that needs pity. Other families, I tell my kids, may have different lives and different priorities. No matter my attempt, I often see the shadow of pity cross over their little faces.
“I’m sorry,” my 7-year-old says, not able to fathom the possibility of a Christmas without gifts. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Truthfully, I once felt sorry for myself, too. I longed for the traditional gift-giving experience — the freedom from want in which by just opening my eyes in the morning, I earned Cabbage Patch Kids and scored a Teddy Ruxpin animatronic toy to read me books in English, a language my immigrant parents couldn’t decipher. The younger version of me coveted all the spoils of the holidays, because society and television commercials told me our family life — which inherently felt inferior — would change if we had the experience of opening gifts. It’s a very black-and-white kind of thinking that falls short of expectations for me as an adult. Now, with more economic capital, taking part in the excesses of gift-giving culture feels like coming to a buffet after a long period of hunger. At best, it’s overwhelming, and at worst, it’s nauseating.
But my past also richly informs my present. I get to instill more nuanced definitions of holiday traditions in my kids. I want them to be fluent in the languages of both want and abundance. In our home today, we have frequent conversations about the difference between a “want” and a “need” and acknowledge that these feelings can feel similar in the face of the gleaming objects of desire at the store. We also talk about the big lie — that is, the arrival fallacy that commercials, toy and tech companies sell: If we buy this new product, we will feel happy! My kids know the neuroscience behind the feeling — a temporary moment of joy created by a burst of serotonin that fades.
Every year, I still question the necessity of gift-giving. Is it necessary? The answer has always been no. It’s a privilege that I can take part in now with an awareness of temperance. I can’t control what others give my kids, but I can control our understanding of material objects and values. I remind them that walking into a room filled with brightly wrapped presents, which feels like a normal tradition to them, may not ring true for others. Then I can hope that, armed with this knowledge, they feel balanced and a sense of freedom from want and have compassion for other experiences beyond their own.
Often, on these boisterous multigenerational family holiday celebrations, the conversation inevitably turns toward nostalgia. “Remember when even buying bones was a special treat for our family?” my mom says with eyes twinkling. Yes, I respond every time on cue. Those were good times, too, because we were together. Often my words unlock memories in my brothers: like the one time when we raked the piles of jackets in heaps to take turns jumping into them like they were soft piles of snow.
We fall into one another, laughing. Then, late at night, the humming of the sewing machine in my memory lulls me to sleep.