How My Illness Taught Me to Focus on Presence Rather Than Presents During the Holidays


Before chronic pain nestled into my body like children nestled all snug in their beds at Christmas, I enjoyed every part of the holiday festivities. I was someone who enjoyed shopping and spending way too much.

I also enjoyed decorating, cooking, listening to music, wrapping presents, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” while drinking hot cocoa with Baileys.

Now, the decorating, cooking and wrapping presents is something I do very slowly, if at all. I have to get help with those things. I’ve had to cut the Baileys from my hot cocoa due to my kidney disorder and overall nutrition approach to staying as healthy as I can. I can deal with asking for a little help in those areas.

Thank goodness for movies and music – I can still enjoy them. Sticking to movies with life lessons like “It’s a Wonderful Life” resonates more now than it did when I didn’t struggle. The underlying messages are throwing themselves at me, making me appreciate what I already have.

It’s been five years since I had to leave my corporate accounting position due to the chronic nature and pain of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Needless to say, the major decrease in income has been very difficult. I now realize that a combination of different beliefs and life circumstances is something that can make the holidays difficult for people. My family was poor growing up so I should understand but when I got my first “taste” of money, I went nuts for the holidays and then I always felt the need to follow suit.

Presents (before chronic illness

Gift giving is a tradition that many people enjoy. Research shows that giving gifts make us happier than receiving. I absolutely agree. I love the smell of the mall, people watching and finding gifts for those I love. I could make a day of it with short breaks for lunch, meet-ups with family and friends and hot cocoa in hand. I didn’t even take a moment to think about how my over-giving was making some of my family feel bad when they couldn’t give. The good part was I never cared to receive. However, the flip side is that some people feel awful receiving without giving – especially when it’s very obvious the difference in price. I am one of those people. I feel uncomfortable receiving presents, in general.

Presence (with chronic illness) 

It’s taken me five years to figure out that I need to really find happiness in ways where I can’t spend money. My friends called me a shopaholic and I never thought it to be true since I always paid my bills first. However, when I could only afford my bills and no longer had the same discretionary income, I found out that too much happiness was being derived from shopping. It just intensifies during the holidays when I want to do what I’ve always enjoyed. Now, we pick an adult name in our growing family and we set a small budget for the kids and college students. My oldest son, who has a different dad and a very large family, participates in a Yankee swap for anyone who wants to participate.

Buying on a tight budget made it a new challenge that can be equally as fun. Showing my husband just how little I can spend on a gift is satisfying. I know I’ve lost money but what did I gain? Time. I now have time to look for deals. Do I miss the rush of dedicating a day to check off my list while not worrying too much about what’s spent? I sure do. Focusing on that will not make the holidays easier. I have to come to terms with my reality and find the “silver and gold” linings.

I’ve had to cut my Christmas budget significantly so I’m getting my kids mostly what they need or would require me to spend money on. Still, there are others who have no additional money for this. I’ve had those years too. It was a good opportunity for family to understand that we need to be grateful for the holiday presence and not presents. It’s what I should have taught them before. I choose to look at what I’ve gained instead and embrace that. The gift buying has now been limited to mostly kids, including college students. I also buy/make something for our elderly parents/grandparents. It’s all up to you and your budget.

I want to talk about Christmas present hacks that have helped me when buying for my kids.

Buy necessities that you would have to spend money on regardless:

1. Wrap boxes of their favorite cereal. I do this for several reasons. First, I would buy food anyways, however, I don’t buy sugary cereals but once a year. This is the time. It started out when my kids were very little and it’s an inexpensive tradition that they love.

2. I put together a basket of necessities to include favorite toiletries, such as a new toothbrush, toothpaste, razors and deodorant for my older boys, body wash, shampoo and conditioner. My college son especially appreciates this.

3. I give them a box labeled “Zombie Apocalypse” and it includes all the sugary snacks that I don’t like my kids to eat often. I put pop tarts, favorite candy, Jerky, chips and soda. They love this as well.

4. Movie tickets or gift certificates for places they frequent and need you to pay for. This is a gift that I typically wait to purchase until the end so that if a family member asks then I have something to save on.

5. Money. I no longer give a $50 or $100 bill. I’ll take $20 and get one $2 bill and $18 single dollar bills and stuff their stockings with it. Sure, it’s not as much, but it’s fun having a stocking full of cash.

6. Socks, underwear, t-shirts or any clothing/ shoes you would typically have to buy.

Donate to a charity and/or volunteer, if possible. You can tell/show the family that you donated to charity X for Christmas. This is another opportunity to teach them. It doesn’t have to be much and, if it applies to your family, it’s a tax deduction.

Have the kids put together a list for family. We get asked by other family members what our kids want so we send along the list with vast difference in price so that if someone has a little extra and it makes him/her feel good to buy a more expensive gift then they can certainly do so. We request that they all check in with us first so I can check off the list and no duplicates are made. At the very end, if I can, I pick something from their wish list to put under the tree.

When kids want to give, I tell them to practice a song on their guitar or think of something they could do to help a family member. It could be coupons to mow a lawn, babysit or help grandma organize her basement. There is always something more valuable than money for them and that’s time.

Most importantly is the opportunity to teach the kids that the focus is spending time as a family. We have fun playing games, eating a nice meal and appreciate each other’s presence rather than presents. It’s a lesson that goes a lot further than Christmas as we prepare our little humans to be compassionate, loving adults with great values.

A few years ago I was saying “Bah Humbug!” but now I’m saying “c’est la vie!” and “happy holidays!” since I’m so happy to see my college senior home for the holidays and I realize that all of us being in the same house is the biggest gift.

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