The Thought that Counts

As Christmas rapidly approaches, I have regularly found stress dampening my Christmas spirit. Just over a week ago I thought I was set for the season: abounding with Christmas joy to spread around, and emblazoned with enough cheer to brighten a village. My Christmas cheer has also been tamped down by homesickness that kicks in every time I listen to Neil Diamond’s album - The Christmas Album, or connect with loved ones back home.

But frankly, Christmas always stresses me out, and that stress is starting to tell me a little bit about myself. Having the same stress in a new country and a new culture makes it all the more apparent something is amiss. Instead of being in the spirit of giving, I may always be in the spirit of impressing the recipient of my gift, or of feeling inadequate about the gift I give. How can I possibly expect to get the perfect present for someone I have only known for 4 months, do not speak the same language as, and come from a completely different culture than? I cannot! But I have added a lot of pressure and stress by taking gifting, turning it around, and making it about me.

That feeling of generosity I talked about being so happy to be reconnected with in my early post An Essence of Generosity, this is where I learn that the disconnect happened because of me. My relationship with the things that once made me feel generous changed. I took the generosity out of Christmas, and slowly replaced it with vanity and selfishness. The stress of my dysfunctional relationship with (the activity formerly known as) generosity, eventually pushed me even further away into the realm of obligation. For me, there is no feeling of generosity or joy in obligated gifting. However, I think generosity, selfishness, and obligation are almost always involved, but which one is the driving force will determine the health of my relationship, stress level, and enjoyment in the process.

Please excuse the interruption, but here is a sample of my Christmas Eve Midnight (8pm mass) -

Although not a holiday story, I think a selfless gift from me to you is to share the story of the worst gift I remember giving. The gift was to my, then, 2-year-old niece on her birthday. I arrived at the party early without a gift and chatted briefly with my brother who informed me that she was loving music at the moment. He recommended a music DVD (I am sure something in a genre he could tolerate). So I ran to the nearest superstore and started perusing music DVDs that might work. To say the selection was poor would be an understatement, but I was undeterred.

The way I remember it, I wanted something different for her, and I wanted to expand her musical interests beyond the genres she would be continually exposed to. Apparently, I wanted to make a total fool of myself. I returned and wrapped a DVD of music and videos by none other than Marvin Gaye; an excellent musician, but perhaps not very age appropriate! I can still remember the feeling of embarrassment I had when that gift was opened in front of a crowded room of actual adults.

          The Sisters enjoying Christmas! From left to right - Sister Pranee, Sister Sutisa, Sister Sudhpatra, Sister Kumari (visiting from India), and Sister Virginia

          The Sisters enjoying Christmas! From left to right - Sister Pranee, Sister Sutisa, Sister Sudhpatra, Sister Kumari (visiting from India), and Sister Virginia

On the other hand, we had tonight’s Christmas Party #3 - The Work Party. We started with a brief meeting (and it was the shortest meeting I have attended since I arrived here) where everyone had an opportunity to address any or all of the following:

  • apologize for any specific actions/work conflicts that were weighing on their conscience
  • speak briefly of what they were thankful for
  •  acknowledge specific sacrifices by others
  • renew our determination in our mission to serve
  • or just mention they were happy to work for the Sisters

and then Sister Pranee said a brief prayer for each of us. 

Next, the gift exchanges began. We each brought one small gift for the “lucky gift exchange”, where each gift was assigned a number and everyone picked a number out of a cup. Then there were some who gave gifts, but there seemed to be no expectation that everyone would. For a moment, I felt guilty for not bringing something for everyone, but then I just let it go. 

After most gifts were exchanged, Sister Pranee had a "lucky dip" gift draw (because as Antonia put it “Sister Pranee loves lucky gifts”) in which she picked cards off the tree. Each card had a name, and then the person picked a number corresponding to a gift that was on the table. But my favorite part of the evening was next. 

At the end, Sister Pranee brought up 2 gifts and placed them on the table. As she was hanging paper ornaments on the tree, Antonia asked “Pranee, how does this one work?” to which she dryly responded “It works by luck.” Oh, have I ever mentioned that Thai culture doesn’t seem to ask a lot of questions! Each of us picked a paper ornament and 2 of them indicated winners on the back. The winners had a small gift with 1,000 baht included. We then left for a Korean barbecue buffet dinner, a lot of laughter, and at least 2 ice cream cones per person (which I like to think I inspired). Okay, maybe eating and laughing was my favorite part of the evening.

So 3 parties down, and 4 more to go! Most of the shopping is done, but I already have some thoughts I hope I can remember when Christmas time rolls around next year. Maybe I can expend a little less emotional energy on anxiety about the gifts, crowds of people in stores, the amount of money I’m spending, about how the gift I am giving will reflect on me, or how much the recipient will like it. I hope I can save that emotional energy for spreading the love with my family, and spreading and receiving Christmas cheer. Especially around the holidays, the pursuit of simplicity seems impossible, but when all else fails I hope I can remember to try to ‘Just Love’ or ‘Lucky Gift’.

Merry Christmas everyone. I hope your stress levels are dropping so that you can be present and attentive as you connect with each of your communities of loved ones. 

Oh, and please don’t post comments if you have an anecdote about the worst gift I have given you - I am not sure my psyche or conscience can handle it!

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