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“’Tis the gift to be simple / ‘Tis the gift to be free / ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.”
Elder Joseph Brackett Jr., a Shaker church leader, wrote these lyrics and the familiar tune that accompanies them in 1848. His tune would later be called Simple Gifts and would become an American folk standard, arranged by numerous composers, and appreciated by the religious and secular around the world.
Taking a page from Elder Brackett’s book, the theme of my family’s past holiday season was simplicity. For us, the end of 2019 was marked by lots of what I call “good stress” and “bad stress”: multiple unanticipated deaths in the family, marriages, breakups, buying new homes, job loss and, for myself, finishing a grueling graduate program that had nearly broken me many times over. Because we all were experiencing situations that were so emotionally complex and even more costly, we decided we would not have a “Consumerist Christmas” this year and would scale down gift-giving big time.
Admittedly, this probably would be harder to pull off if there were more younger people around. Picture it: Orlando, Florida, 1997. My mother tells 7-year old me, “No, you cannot start playing with the revolutionary, digital Tamagachi pet that you already have in your hand and you’ve been begging for for months and that all your friends have already been bragging about.” Could you imagine the teenage rage this could cause today with new iPhones and social media? Oh, the angst!!
Our solution: Presents had to be below a certain price point and, if they were gadgets or digital gifts, would be given to the recipient only after our designated “family time” on Christmas Day.
Since there was only one young child in attendance (my lovely Laina, the 5-year old diva-in-training and the light of my life) we easily avoided the cataclysm of teenage Christmas FOMO. Much like I had suspected, Laina was more than pleased with her gifts from mommy: the board games Candy Land and Chutes & Ladders.
Why is this important? Well, what mommy didn’t suspect was that these simple, children’s games would become everyone’s favorite gift that Christmas. My grandmother, my mother, myself, and my child, along with all of our siblings and extended family were eager to shout “I got next!” and have their chance to win the race towards Candy Castle. That encouraged a side game of dominoes, and a third game of Tonk all happening at once. That’s 4 generations, excited to put the phones down, to congregate, and to legitimately enjoy each other’s company.
We did a lot of good talking, actually. My grandmother had just lost her cousin and her aunt within a week, and on Christmas Day we couldn’t help but to feel their absence acutely. Still, we laughed as I got yet another pesky Chute, and talked about recipes that my great aunt always cooked for Christmas. These were recipes that only she was allowed to make, because no one else could smoke a turkey or make deviled eggs and really “put their foot in it” like she did. This year, the spot next to the dressing where the deviled eggs would go was empty. My great aunt had suddenly died only 2 days before Christmas. She passed from complications from her kidney disease, and she also had other chronic conditions that run in our family. For this reason, we all talked about how we should all aim to make health our family’s New Years resolution, and how we might better plan for the unexpected.
When I reflect on Elder Brackett’s song, I imagine its sustained popularity is because it continues to remind us about the beauty of getting back to basics; by keeping life simple, we can lift the veil that the stress and excess of our modern lives puts over our eyes, and allow ourselves to reflect and re-orient ourselves to what matters most. Indeed my family, despite the grief and exhaustion that accompanied our holiday season, had one of the most engaged and memorable Christmases we’ve had in many years. This was our true simple gift.
Most importantly, we also elected a new egg-maker: me.
When you next gather with your family, consider taking advantage of that time to discuss what matters most to most of us: our health, and the dignity that comes from being heard.
A change in health or an accident could happen to any of us, just like it did for my great aunt overnight. That’s why it’s important for everyone to have these conversations with loved ones, and to document their health care wishes in an advance directive like Five Wishes where you’re actually prompted to think about those simple gifts in life. I’m taking the opportunity as the new year begins to give copies of Five Wishes to everyone I saw on Christmas Day. For you and your loved ones, why not do the same?