Not presents, but presence

Published 10:22 am Monday, December 4, 2017

We just received our first holiday card, a note from a dear college friend. The card showed an iconic Norman Rockwell image: Santa Claus asleep in his chair, his elves putting the finishing touches on the toys for the children on the “Nice List.” It’s a folksy and innocent image, calling forth nostalgia for simpler times.

It could be argued that Rockwell, who painted 29 holiday-themed covers for the Saturday Evening Post and hundreds of Christmas cards between 1916 and 1963, single-handedly defined what holiday hearth and home meant in mid-century American culture.

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Here’s the problem: Just like the perfect, overly-styled and filtered Instagram photos of today, Rockwell’s artwork reflects an ideal that existed only in his mind.

Rockwell was a talented, inspired artist but a tortured soul. He battled crippling depression and anxiety all his life, spending years in therapy under the famed psychologist Erik Erikson.

He was married three times. The first was, by his account, a loveless marriage. His second failed marriage was to a life-long alcoholic who was repeatedly hospitalized for depression.

To escape his despair, Rockwell sought comfort through his art. He said, “I don’t have anything else … When I was younger, I used to work night and day, possessed by a sort of panic that I’d lose everything if I didn’t drive myself…the drive is still in me. I can’t stop work.”

I would appreciate his art so much more if he had been willing to share a little bit of his real self in his paintings. It seems he lived vicariously through his art, sought solace in the idyllic because he couldn’t face his reality.

This resonates so much with me right now. The holidays are a time of unreasonable expectations. Christmas often sparks a desire that everything be epic, flawless and memorable. We want our lives to resemble a Rockwell painting.

We fall prey to that drive Rockwell spoke of, losing our minds in the bustle of wanting more. More gifts. More merriment. More parties. More food. More wine. More, more, more, until we’re bloated and brain dead.

But our hearts still aren’t full. Why does more leave us feeling less?

It’s easy to fall prey to the shiny but ultimately vacuous that surrounds us. We forget what the holidays really represent, risk disappointing the people that matter by overcommitting our time to mere acquaintances. Bombarded by images of the perfect Rockwellian holiday, we fall into the trap of the commercial, believing the marketing campaigns instead of listening to the calls of our hearts.

We envision perfectly-flocked trees, gorgeously-wrapped presents, merriment and caroling, flawless tables laden with perfectly-cooked food, everything Instagram-ready and picture perfect. If our homes look like the ones in the media, then we will be happier, more fulfilled.

This hunt for perfection is an unclimbable mountain, a wrestling match that robs us of authentic moments and leaves us exhausted. This hunt will ruin us.

The holidays are not about the perfect gift or tree or meal. The season is about family, gratitude, faith, love and peace.

It’s about celebrating the birth of an enlightened being; you needn’t believe that Jesus was the world’s savior to celebrate his stance on kindness as a worldview.

Christmas is about reflecting on the year that has passed and mindfully looking forward to the year ahead. It’s about counting blessings and slowing down long enough to recognize those blessings.

This past weekend, David and Izzie joined me in our annual Smith Family Holiday Meeting. We take turns talking about what the season means to us individually and as a family; we intentionally decide what we will say yes or no to this season.

A purposeful holiday is not one you can find or buy, but one you must actively choose. It might not look good, but it definitely feels good.

Turns out, my family wants less. Less noise, less bustle, less doing. We want movie dates, family couch time, deep rest. Our season is the smell of a real tree, even when it leans too far left and is covered in chipped, shabby ornaments.

Our season is cookies made by hand, even when the royal icing is a little too thin or the bottoms a little too brown.

Our season is carols sung joyfully, guitars out of tune and voices off-key.

Not Santa, but his spirit.

Not commercial, but connection.

Not mania, but meaning.

Not presents, but presence.

And pajamas. Lots of time in pajamas.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films.Send her a shout out at or play along at