Go tell it on the mountain Jesus Christ born! Thank God! Thank God that Christmas is finally here and we can all FREAKIN’ RELAX! Dear Lord, why do we do this to ourselves each year?!?!
The celebration of Christmas, more than anything since we’ve moved back to the US, has been an absolute shock. On what should be a high-energy, cheerful, Christmas morning I woke up, did the Santa thing, and quickly felt desperate for a nap. After breakfast, I excused myself and went back to bed because I was EXHAUSTED TO THE CORE. Feeling frustrated for lacking the capacity to participate in the festivities, I began reflecting on the past few days, the past few weeks, which ultimately led me back to the days following Thanksgiving. I closed my eyes, visualizing everything that had happened in December. Images flashed through my mind in fast forward: Black Friday mania. Nonstop Christmas music. Planning events. Making lists. Organizing gatherings. Shopping. Teacher gifts. Friend gifts. In-laws gifts. Family gifts. Co-worker gifts. Create, order, and mail the Christmas. Attend work holiday parties. Research and execute creative Secret Santa ideas. Buy and wear Christmas-themed clothes. Catch the flu and miss days of work. Amazon promotions emails. Inspire kids to make homemade crafts and write cards. Lefse day. Band concert. Gingerbread house day. School class celebrations. Sugar cookie day. Ugly sweater day. Watch temps drop below freezing. Theatre play. Violin recital. Oh! And Elf on the Shelf is America's new parental obligation (if you love your kids that is), so every day for the ENTIRE month you must remember to place him in creative precarious positions to keep the holiday magic alive and then post how brilliant your Elf is on social media!!!!! Snapping back to the present moment I concluded that, wow, I’m a horrible American because I resent so much of this, and that, wow, I sure as hell did deserve a nap! Jesus’s birthday is insanity! How did it get so over-the-top?
It’s been five months since we’ve been back after living in Spain for two years. I don’t know what the ‘norm’ is for the amount of time it takes to re-adjust to your own culture upon returning from living abroad, but I do remember being educated on the concept of “reverse culture shock” before I left to study abroad in Australia in college. Reverse culture shock deals with the psychological, emotional, and cultural aspects of reentry into your home country. Of course, there is always a shock when you immerse yourself in a new culture, but the surprising part is after you adjust/learn/change, the same thing can happen when you go back home…and this experience is more prominent the more time you’ve spent away.
I began preparing myself early on for reverse culture shock when we returned. Americans had elected a new president with, ahem, “unprecedented” ideas and plans. I had spent much of my time abroad defending Americans who, like me, didn’t vote for Trump, explaining that I was just as baffled as they were at the result. Europeans often viewed Trump as a joke, but as it directly affected me and my country, it was a painfully real discussion and hardly felt laughable. Black lives, women’s rights, immigration, healthcare, ever-changing technological advances, net neutrality, foreign relations, divide between the rich and poor, climate change etc - all of these issues are weighing on our nation and it was such a relief to escape them and the unrelenting American media for even just a brief period of time. It was physically and emotionally liberating to be separated from this negative cultural climate (not that other countries don’t have their own issues, it’s just more pressing when it’s your own). After five months, however, I can report that while I’ve had some highs and lows, I am doing surprisingly well at maintaining positivity, optimism and not letting it all bring me down. I am mindful of the news and media I consume. We hardly ever turn on the TV, therefore it hasn’t been as bad as I had been anticipating. Just when thought I had worked through all reverse culture shock and settled back into the American way of life… Christmas arrived.
The Christmas experience and meaning of the holiday is unique for everybody and I am not defining that for our nation or any individual. I’m simply sharing that experience of the American holiday that I witnessed from an outsider’s perspective was shocking to me this year. I was shocked by the consumerism, the advertising, the excessiveness, the go-go-go, the pressure to DO so many things, to have so many things, and the underlying message that all of the DOING and all of the STUFF will make us happy. And while I’ve always known this to be a lie, it was so much more offensive, blatant, and insulting to me this year and I felt angry that we’ve let capitalism define the holiday.
When I went to Target two days ago to buy a few stocking stuffers and groceries, I found myself standing in a line that stretched the length of the store and lasted for 45 minutes. I was caught unawares in last minute Christmas rush frenzy, another consumer feeding the fire and I couldn’t help but feel completely disgusted with myself, my fellow Americans, and our cultural obsession with materialism. How did this happen? I wanted to yell “EVERYBODY STOP!!! ENOUGH!!! It doesn’t have to be this way! In fact, in other countries, it’s not! We don’t need more stuff! We are drowning in crap! Can’t we just agree that Christmas is about being together? You bring the drinks, I’ll make the food, and we’ll simply BE and LOVE and share GRATITUDE for all the good things we have going for us?!?!?!” Why can’t wish each other Happy Holidays without feeling compelled to do so in tandem with impractical trinkets and/or ridiculous amounts of unhealthy junk food? I’ve witnessed so many teachers receive excessive amounts of things they will never use or eat. Then I imagine how the kids whose families can’t afford gifts feel when they walk into the class empty-handed. Yet, I feel compelled to jump on the bandwagon because I won’t want to look like the asshole if everybody is doing it...if it’s the cultural norm.
Moving to Spain gave us the opportunity to decide which holiday traditions were important to keep while incorporating new ones. It’s much more difficult to re-enter in the US and define your celebration if it is distinct from the cultural norm (and you’re American). This Christmas Eve morning it snowed. We had a warm shelter, delicious food, and family to share it with. Of course, my children received presents from Santa, but I found myself going out of my way in our dialogue to underscore the importance of gratitude rather than gifts because I don’t want the American mentality that 'more is better' to become part of their value system. Encouraging them to reflect on the difference between needs and wants, and to reflect about the long-term consequences of consumerism on our planet has been a priority. I’m not going to single-handedly change American culture. Really, who am I to judge? Much of our family income depends on Americans buying sports equipment so maybe that makes me a hypocrite?
I’m grateful for our Christmas in 2017. But I’m equally grateful it’s over.
To all my friends and family, I wish you a Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad. I pray that you are healthy and happy, that you find peace and balance during this holiday season madness, and that you can celebrate all of life’s simple blessings. PEACE AND LOVE, Jenny.