[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” and other books. His blog can be read at www.ChristopherNyerges.com. He can be contacted via his site, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]
When I was around 10, my brothers and I were particularly bad, belligerent, and misbehaving one autumn. My mother gave us several warning and threats and a few “beatings” in her ceaseless attempt to get us to obey. I don’t recall what was “wrong” with us that year. It was as if we were afflicted by some unseen infection. Or maybe it was what all teens go through when they believe they know more than their parents. So my mother said, “Keep it up and there will be no Christmas this year.” Of course, my mother didn’t control the calendar. She just meant “no gifts.” That threat did at first affect our behavior, but then we’d go back to our nonfeasant and malfeasant ways. There were numerous threats, as November rolled into December, but things didn’t substantially improve.
Now, I was at the age where I began to think about things, and the relative unfairness in the world, and the questioning of authority. But I also wondered why we should receive gifts at Christmas. By this time, I was aware that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time, and that it was primarily a religious holiday. I just didn’t get the whole gift thing –not that I minded receiving. But because I lacked an understanding of the whole picture, the idea of “no gifts” didn’t seem that threatening to me.
Thinking back, our bad behaviour that year was likely the trickle-down defiance from our oldest brother. David was never a defier, certainly not an open defier, but the defiance of Gilbert the eldest would have trickled down to Thomas, to Richard, to me. We were not an ideal family, and I am sure I have suffered my entire life due to unnecessary defiance and the disrespect that I showed to my parents. Did my parents deserve respect? In retrospect, possibly, though the question would have been irrelevant then – like the pot calling the kettle black.
We were not saints, so who were we to point out hypocrisy in our parents? Anyway, by mid-December, the word was out: No Christmas this year. We were schizophrenic about this. “Oh, we don’t care,” we sassed, but inwardly I believe we each felt a deep dismay at our own inability to live up to our household’s very simple standards. I felt particularly dismayed that I had been no better, and that I was swayed along with the tide of my older brothers’ mob mentality. No Christmas. “She won’t follow through on it,” Tom told us with assurance. But inwardly, I felt my mother had to follow through, otherwise her word would mean little to us, and she’d gain little by “being nice.” I don’t recall what my father had to say about this, but it wasn’t much.
So, sure enough, Christmas came, and we went glumly into the living room to a fire and the usual Christmas tree, but there were no gifts. We went to church and we talked with our schoolmates. When they talked about what they got for Christmas, we just found ways to change the subject. We had a quiet Christmas dinner.
One of my brothers told his friends that my mother was mean, but I never did that. I knew we deserved nothing, and I felt a certain euphoric sense of justice in her actions, and I respected her more because of it.
Interestingly, in certain ways, I felt closer to my mother after that, was more obedient because I simply felt better doing what was expected of me, and I never complained. Despite a seeming lack, it was actually one of the best Christmas’ ever, where I received the most fitting possible “gift” – the ability to quickly experience that my choices and actions have consequences.
The story about my mean mother gradually got out into the neighborhood, and my mother once again became the topic of conversations, mostly criticizing my mother. I always remained silent, trying to listen to both sides. But I only heard one side—no gifts – from those who truly lost the meaning of Christmas, whose sole focus for Christmas seemed to be the acquisition of things.
So I was “given,” slowly, a second “gift” by my mother’s action – a unique insight into the all-too-common mundanity of most people’s very narrow thinking. And I was allowed the rare opportunity to try and experience the meaning of Christmas without the over-focus on material things.