Christmas has always represented a very mixed bag of emotions for me. Like many young children, my parents would take me to the mall so I could visit Santa Claus. I vividly remember the excitement of Christmas morning, opening gifts, playing with new toys and spending time with family. These are the joyous, innocent memories of Christmas. Unfortunately, there was a much darker side to Christmas in my house, the memories of which still elicit pain and discomfort. I’ve never before spoken about this unusual dichotomy, but for some reason, this Christmas, I feel compelled to convey why this holiday has been such a double-edged sword in my life.
My mother was a heavy smoker and, as a result, I was a sickly child. The smoke irritated my lungs and sinuses, which meant my nose was always stuffy. I also had a lot of digestive issues. Being a child of the 80s, almost every liquid I ingested was infused with sugar. The only time I ever drank water was out of a hose in my backyard. On top of constantly imbibing sugar, my diet consisted of a lot of fast food. Not surprisingly, the combination of inhaling smoke, drinking sugar and eating high doses of fried fat, meant that every few weeks, my body would relapse into a full-fledged sickness. I probably visited the doctor’s office at least once a month for the first 7 years of my life.
My earliest memory of Christmas morning was a night when I had been suffering from an illness. It had been a particularly rough evening and when the morning came, I walked into my parent’s bedroom. My father told me go downstairs. I remember traversing a few steps, kneeling down and peeking through the slats on the railing. A sea of wrapped gifts lay under the tree. I ran back into my parent’s bedroom and said, “There’s presents!” I had been so sick that I hadn’t even realized it was Christmas.
Every Christmas, my mother purchased an insane number of presents for Christmas morning. Indeed, her love language was buying gifts. As a child, this was a great deal. I grew up with a seemingly endless supply of toys. Little did I know that my mother’s propensity of constantly buying me gifts was placing huge strain on my parent’s marriage.
In the 1980s, my father was a struggling stockbroker who could barely afford to make payments on the mortgage. This resulted in frequent heated arguments about money or a lack thereof. Throughout their marriage, my father struggled to keep up with my mother’s insatiable spending habits. I have dedicated many hours to psychoanalyzing why my mother felt the need to constantly obtain new possessions. I have come to the conclusion that her behaviors were a means of filling a deep void inside of her.
My mother was adopted in the early 1950s. Although this was common knowledge among her friends growing up, she never personally told me this. I only found out when I became sick with a rare form of hepatitis in college. The doctors were considering genetic testing and wanted to know my family’s medical history. I asked my father if there was any history of liver problems on either side of the family. This is when he disclosed that my mother’s side of the family was a black box. My mother knew nothing about her biological family.
After her death in 2017, we had the opportunity to view some of the original adoption documents. My mother was not adopted as a newborn. She was nearly 2 and a half years old when she was handed off to my grandmother and grandfather. Raising my own children, I can’t imagine how psychologically damaging that would be if one day my parents left me at a huge scary house with people I had never met before. Not only that, but they changed my mother’s name from Sarah to Susan.
From what I can glean, my grandmother was a wicked woman. Hyper-controlling and prone to fits of rage, I have little doubt that she was physically and emotionally abusive to my mother. Indeed, I have vivid memories of her directing those same outbursts towards me when I was a child. When my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s, she would incessantly call our house. I recall picking up the phone one time and, on the other end, my grandmother was yelling an endless stream of profanity laced invectives that were so vulgar they would make a gangster rapper blush.
All this to say, my mother did not have a happy childhood. Feeling abandoned by her own family and unloved by her adopted parents, I believe she harbored a deep sense of unworthiness. This soul-crushing pain is what fueled her addiction to alcohol, nicotine and shopping. Rather than confront the brokenness, she masked her sadness with small infusions of pleasure. Unfortunately, over time, those small infusions became a constant flow that resulted in a perpetual numbing.
I don’t know if my mother ever truly understood what it meant to feel loved. In turn, her understanding of how to show love was influenced by giving me and my sisters the material possessions she never had as a child. Although my grandmother was well off, she rarely bought my mother gifts. Therefore, my mother was bound and determined that her children would possess whatever their hearts desired. Hence, the ridiculous number of presents under the tree at Christmas time.
I loved this arrangement when I was young. However, as I transitioned out of childhood, my intuition told me something about this game was off. Although I couldn’t articulate what was wrong, I knew these gifts were a sort of ruse; an illusion to buy my silence. These gifts were my mother’s way of proving to the world that she loved me, even though her actions suggested otherwise. She would constantly berate me, tearing down my self-esteem by hurling insults at me and then buying me gifts as a means of apologizing. By accepting this transaction, I became complicit in her mea cupla. As I was entering my middle teen years, I came to resent her propensity to buy presents in lieu of expressing love and emotional affection.
Whereas when I was a child, Christmas elicited incredible excitement and wonder, as a teenager, the thought of Christmas made my stomach churn. Waking up on Christmas morning, the presence of those gifts was a reminder of how unloved I felt throughout the rest of the year. This shift in my attitude towards Christmas was not lost on my mother, who noticed that her offerings of atonement were no longer appeasing my dissatisfaction. When she couldn’t buy me off, our already frayed relationship deteriorated further.
In part, this is what prompted me to seek out the true meaning of Christmas. I knew that Christmas was about Jesus’ birth, but beyond that the purpose felt elusive. At 17 years old, I made the decision to go to the 11pm service at my church on Christmas Eve. Listening to the scripture readings, for the first time I had a sense of what I had been missing my whole life. Christmas for me had always been about presents, but here I heard a story about God helping us to find light and hope in the dark corners of our lives.
Given that my own life felt quite dark, the story of Jesus’ birth really resonated with me. As I reflected on my own feelings of depression and loneliness, I caught onto a vague sense that the root cause of my affliction was how I had been conditioned over the years to believe that love was about gifts. Indeed, this belief had fueled a toxic need within me for finding fulfillment in materialism.
However, at 17, I lacked the intellectual and emotional maturity to put all the pieces together. The full realization would not come until four years later when I had the opportunity to study with monks and friars at Oxford University. These were men who were living a life free of the constraints of material desire. For instance, I was paired with a professor named Henry Wansbrough, a Benedictine monk. He once showed me a closet in his office with a small bed. He said, “This is where I live. You could fit all of my worldly possessions in a small box.”
At first, I was shocked. How could he get by with nothing but a few books and keepsakes from his life? But the more time I spent with him, the more I came to realize that this was the life I had always envisioned for myself. Here was a person who lived a simple life, devoid of worldly possessions. Unlike me, Father Wansbrough was a joyous individual who cared deeply for everyone he met. Rather than judge you for your shortcomings, he had the unique ability to look inside of you and draw out your potential.
This is how I wanted to be—free and joyous. For the first time, I could finally discern a path towards that kind of life. I recall my mother calling me at Oxford, anticipating my return from England for Christmas. She asked me what I wanted under the tree. Normally, I would give her a big list encompassing numerous items. This time I asked for one thing: A software program that would help me more easily study the Bible. This made my mother deeply upset, but I was insistent, “Please do not get me anything more than what I asked for.”
When I travelled home for Christmas, I sat in our living room, watching my sisters tear through present after present. Seeing all the gifts and wrapping paper strewn across the floor, I knew I had made the right decision. Surrounded by the trappings of materialism, I could feel that lost, empty feeling creeping back into my soul. This was all the affirmation I required. From that point forward, every Christmas, if asked, I would request no more than a single gift and, sometimes, nothing at all.
Over the next few years, as I studied to become a pastor, I would discover that Jesus himself was highly anti-materialistic. He taught how a person’s dependence upon objects and wealth compromised a person’s ability to form loving and meaningful relationships. (Mk. 10:23, Mt. 6:24, Lk. 12:13-21, 14:25-33, 16:19-31) Even though Jesus never experienced the excessive materialism of our modern capitalist society, Jesus managed to grasp the correlation between materialism and unhappiness 2000 years before it would inculcate our world. Today, when I am leading Christmas services in my community, I often stress how being with family and showing them love matters infinitely more than the presents underneath the tree. My life is proof that the gift of love is more valuable than any object will ever be.
For those who might be wondering, I did eventually reconcile with my mother. Even though she could never fully express in words that she loved me, I was able to express that I loved her. Another important element of the Christian faith is forgiveness and, although it took time, I was able to forgive my mother’s emotional abuse. Such forgiveness is what laid the groundwork to show my mother the love she was never able to show herself. When she passed away, although it was a sad occasion, I had no regrets.
More importantly, I have been able to rehabilitate Christmas by changing the feeling of the holiday with my own sons. Although we do give them gifts on Christmas, they are not inherently materialistic beings. In fact, for the last few years, my younger son often has no requests, which is unusual for a 9-year-old. He is content simply being loved. This reality brings tears to my eyes because his equanimity reflects an important truth: I’ve successfully broken a cycle that has ensnared my family for generations.
May you have merry Christmas filled with the love of family, friends and generosity!