I come from a large Irish-Catholic family. Needless to say, the holiday season has always been important to us, although less so for religious reasons than for festive ones.
But after a number of Christmases gone wrong, this year we're trying something different.
Growing up, my three younger siblings and I were bombarded year after year with toys and video games and other non-deserved treats, occasionally to the point of desensitization and boredom.
My parents shopped their way toward nervous breakdowns, anxiously fretting over whether they'd bought us the "right" things. They also felt a sense of competition with the other families in our neighbourhood. The eruption of gifts under our tree every December had to at least match that of our friends and schoolmates, lest Christmas be declared a failure.
This usually resulted in both of them attempting to drink away those niggling thoughts of January's credit card bills at my aunt's annual Christmas Eve party. Christmas morning might otherwise have been known as the start of Hangover Day.
It wasn't all bad, however. We loved visiting our aunts, uncles and cousins, close family friends and grandparents. We enjoyed the home-cooked meals, the games of Christmas charades and the off-key renditions of Silent Night.
My grandfather would fall asleep in his easy chair while the rest of us chattered and laughed and spilled drinks all around him. My aunt's dog would eat the Christmas ornaments. My grandmother would politely remind us every few hours that the next day would be Jesus's birthday. Even then, as spoiled children, we appreciated the warmth and magic of spending time with family and loved ones over the holidays. It was almost as good as getting presents.
Every Christmas was like this - until 2005, when my parents decided to separate. I was 23 at the time, in my last year as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. My two brothers, sister and I still lived at home, the three of them in their childhood bedrooms, and me in the basement apartment.
My mother moved out on Dec. 15. The holidays haven't been the same since.
Christmas was gloomy that year. Dinner parties were split into factions. People on both sides of our family who had exchanged gifts for decades suddenly stopped. Loyalties were questioned and unfairly tested, and my siblings and I were caught in the middle.
At whose house would we spend Christmas morning? Whose gift would we return if we received the same thing from both parents? The emphasis on material competition had grown. It was the season of grudges and gossip and false accusations. It was a Christmas I try every year to forget.
Three years later, our family's streak of bad holiday luck continued when my father became a casualty of the recession. He was laid off in early December by the company he'd been a part of for 30 years. We faced another period of difficult adjustment.
There was talk of cancelling Christmas, at least as far as my father was concerned, but in the end he couldn't bring himself to ignore the consumerist pull. Money was spent - too much, as always - and debts were deepened. Again. He eventually found a new job, but one that pays nowhere near what he used to make. Now both my mother and father live paycheque to paycheque, accumulating debt, unable to tame their spending habits.
So this year, long tired of our dire Decembers, we made a collective decision to not succumb to the materialism of the season. The plan is simple: There is to be no exchanging of gifts, the goal being to remove the pressure to spend and impress, thus eliminating the competitive impulse that almost always ends in someone being disappointed.
My mother, my father and my siblings are all on board. We live apart now, which should make things easier. There will be no Christmas tree to remind us of the gifts we won't be receiving. We'll experience no tiresome mall prowling, no half-hour lineups for socks, no last-minute scrambling for stocking stuffers, no bags full of discarded wrapping paper and, most importantly, no debt.
We are, of course, still going to spend quality time with each other. But we've shifted the emphasis and eliminated the headache. We'll still be eating and singing and celebrating - just not exchanging and opening gifts.
My family isn't cancelling Christmas, but we're changing it. Our family has changed, so why not? There's no telling whether this approach will alter our holiday fortunes, but it's worth a try.
I'm curious to see if somebody breaks. If they do, I won't hold it against them. They're family, after all. But I, for one, will not be spending a single loonie, and I ask that nobody spend anything on me. I won't wrap a single gift, sign a single tag or peel a single bow, and it is out of love that I refuse to do these things.
If it goes well we might even make it a family tradition. We've already seen some progress: My parents are on speaking terms again for the first time since they split. They've both moved on to happier, healthier relationships, and are letting old grudges go.
The shared experience of a non-Christmas could turn out to be our family's best holiday yet.
Stacey Madden lives in Toronto.
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