Giftless or Godless: Christmas on the Other Side of the Border — By Jennifer Shipp
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Giftless or Godless: Christmas on the Other Side of the Border — By Jennifer Shipp

Virgin of Guadalupe
There are lots of virgins in the Mexican pantheon. In the American pantheon we have big businesses like Walmart or Macy’s to worship instead.

When we traveled to Mexico for the first time several years ago, we thought we were going to a Christian country. And by “Christian”, I mean American-style Christianity. We had been to Buddhist and Muslim countries and were enchanted by the different holidays that were the same and yet different from what we’d come to know in our own culture. But we weren’t sure we’d be enchanted by spending the Christmas season in Mexico. Christianity and Christmas have somehow combined in the United States to produce a toxic sort of commercialism that we try to get away from in late fall and winter. It seemed that by going to Mexico, we wouldn’t really be getting away from the dreaded “Christmas Spirit” that ultimately makes Americans angry, sad, and sick at the holidays.

But Christianity is not the same in Mexico. Because Mexico and the Latin American countries were conquered before the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism in Europe, Catholicism took root rather than Puritanism and the varieties of Christianity that are prevalent in the United States. But the Catholic priests and friars couldn’t quite break the tenacious hold that the indios had on their native religious beliefs. The result was a melding of Catholicism and paganism. Since Catholicism melds well with paganism, the Spanish and indio cultures were able to make a good fit, or at least one that was good enough. It may seem offensive to say that Catholicism goes well with paganism, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. The two have settled nicely into a religion that the people here can accept and relate to.

The Virgin of Guadalupe and Santa Muerte may seem like heresy to American Christians, but while the variety of Christianity we sell in the United States may seem “pure” it absolutely is not. Indeed, the Catholicism here in Mexico could arguably be considered “purer” even though the indios have pasted their own deities over the top of existing Catholic ones. Perhaps the biggest difference I see between Christianity here and in the United States has to do with finances. Churches in the United States are business entities that are corrupted by the gods of commercialism. Instead of pasting pagan deities over the top of the Christian characters in the Bible, in the United States, churches and people have created commercialized fortresses, fellowship, and activities that pander to the public’s desire for stimulation (and, uh… God too). It’s hard to find God in all of the extras. Churches in the United States compete for more members because each member equals more money, bigger steeples, and larger fellowship halls. Parishioners worship the almighty dollar. Christmas trees and expensive decorations adorn the halls of our worship spaces in the U.S. The Catholic religion has some similar issues in Mexico, but that’s a topic for a different blog post.

Our family doesn’t buy gifts for each other at Christmas anymore. (Go ahead…take a  moment to gasp). Because both of John’s and my extended families were so preoccupied with money growing up, we decided that money would not be the focus of our relationships in our own nuclear family. Money is used as a tool for manipulation in our families of origin. Love for money and money for love. In the United States, Christmas gifts have come to symbolize happiness. Love. Things that can’t be bought. It’s a sick enterprise and one that I’m glad we’re not a part of anymore. I remember the first year that we didn’t buy those gifts or put up the stupid tree, though. It seemed like we were doing something wrong and very bad. It seemed like we were really missing something.

We weren’t.

Instead, we buy what we really want when we want it. It’s a novel way of doing things, I know, but what can I say? It works for us. We don’t hoard and hide gifts from each other. We think carefully about what we want (do I really want that?) before buying it. Lydian is very focused in terms of what she wants. Even though we always try to get her whatever she wants, she doesn’t ask for much. But, she also doesn’t have to wait until Christmas or her birthday to get the things she desires. If she decides she wants something, we figure out how to get it, no matter how little money we have, or how expensive the item is. There’s almost always a way to get the things we want (thrift stores, eBay, garage sales, etc.). It isn’t that easy to come up with things that we really want and thinking about these things only at Christmas is just a poor exercise in judgment, in my opinion. In order to get what you want, you have to know what you want. In our culture, we teach our children to only think about what they want once a year (or twice perhaps: at Christmas and at birthdays). What they want must be contingent on a budget and you have to be able to procure it with money and within a specified period of time.

Often, said child ends up with a gift that isn’t what they really wanted (i.e. typing paper instead of a sketch diary or a bongo instead of a drum kit). I think this is a bigger problem than people realize because the child who rarely thinks about what they want won’t know what they want. And the child who never gets what they want when they ask others for it will learn that they might as well not even ask. And further, the whole idea that what one wants is something that can be bought with money is crazy. Most of the time, what kids and adults want is something that can’t be bought. I can buy my daughter a guitar, but that doesn’t make her a guitarist. If what she wants is to be a guitarist, she needs more than just a guitar. She needs time, focus, human resources who can teach her things, and the willpower to practice. I can’t buy her the most important facets of what she wants.

But at Christmas in the United States, the ads on TV will make kids and grown-ups think that you can.

It may seem extreme to be gift-less at Christmas, but our family is together and we travel instead of spending our money on Christmas gifts. My daughter is taking Spanish classes at a local school in Guanajuato. This is what she wants to do. She’s excited about it because she wants to learn how to speak Spanish. I can’t buy that for her. I can buy her classes, but it doesn’t guarantee that she’ll learn. She has to want it, but the outcome ultimately can’t be bought.

There were so many times as kids or young adults that my husband and I wanted some solid advice or someone to help us understand ourselves or the world better and all we got was a check. We took the money and put it somewhere and then other people took it from us. Money can’t buy wisdom. It can’t buy willpower. It can’t buy love. In our culture, the gods we worship are those created by big corporations. There is no Virgin of Guadalupe per se in the U.S., but there is a Macy’s. And there’s Wal Mart and Amazon other big corporations that make it seem like in order to be happy and loving we have to buy each other crap we don’t want and don’t need.

Before we tried it, I thought that not giving each other gifts would be hard to do. I thought there would be something missing in our relationships. We tried it one year as an experiment. It was like we were exempt from all the advertising. We were immune to all the guilt trips. It was wonderful and it has continued to be wonderful. I mean, our lives aren’t perfect and we aren’t perfect, but it’s nice to not have to go on that yearly Christmas guilt trip anymore. Our relationships have to do with love or hate or other emotions, but not money.

Here, there, or somewhere else, it doesn’t matter. If you rely on money to buy you love, you never get it. And if you rely on money to get what you want (whatever it is), you never get what you want either. Some people want to be happy  (a new car), some want to complain (I can’t get that car because no one will buy it for me). Some people want to be sick (a turkey fryer), some wish for health (a new food dehydrator). Some people want success (a briefcase). Some people want attention (a drum kit). If you want something, figure out how to get it. More than likely, you don’t need money because it can’t be bought.

Crossing over to being a giftless family may seem extreme, almost heretical, but I assure you, it’s not. It’s possible to be happy without exchanging gifts at Christmas. This other, non-commercialized side of the Christmas season is infinitely less stressful and more pleasant than the commercialized side. If you don’t believe me, give a try and just see what happens.

Do it as a gift to yourself and all those poor folks who have to work on the holidays this year.

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