I can still remember my brother waking me up one early Christmas morning when I was only 5 years old.
We snuck downstairs as quietly as we could and opened up our presents.
It was the last American Christmas I ever celebrated.
After we opened our presents our parents explained to us that this would be the last time. That the entire concept of Christmas was being corrupted by mindless consumerism so they were opting out.
Of course I didn't understand. I was only 5 years old, after all. But I never made a big deal of it in the following years. Exchanging presents for Christmas never became a habit in my life.
My parents weren't hippies or even idealists. They were simple working class folk that saw something that appeared sick and decided to avoid it.
It helped that both my birthday and my brother's were right around Christmas anyway.
It also helped that my grandparents on my mother's side were Jehovah Witnesses, and so didn't believe in celebrating Christmas (although I never understood the reasoning for that).
In the years that followed I always felt a little isolated and weird for opting out of Christmas. I tell friends that I don't want them to buy me presents because it would make me feel guilty for not getting them something.
Then, when I turned 30, I met a friend who was raised Eastern Orthodox. She told me that in her church people didn't give presents for Christmas, because Christmas was all about the birth of Christ and nothing else.
They give presents on "Little Christmas", the 12th day of Christmas, January 6, when the 3 Wise Men showed up with gifts.
It made a lot more sense to me than giving presents on Christmas Day. It seems much more in the true spirit of the season.
Nevertheless, I still don't celebrate Christmas. You see, I'm not a Christian either. I like the idea of a Gawd. I like what Jesus had to say. I just don't believe the Bible is the word of Gawd.
The vast majority of the world
Two years ago I joined the Peace Corps. They sent me to a small pueblo in the Dominican Republic, within walking distance of Haiti. I am almost finished with my service now.
People here are very religious.
Christmas is a very big deal here. The entire country goes on vacation for the second half of December. Almost every night there is much drinking, eating, and dancing.
What there isn't here is a tradition of gift giving.
Not for birthdays. Not for anniversaries. Not for Christmas.
You see, the vast majority of the world is very poor. So the mindless consumerism of giving and getting gifts because of what the calendar says is not an option. The money simply isn't there to spend.
This is the reality for 4 billion or so people in the world. The American-style Christmas is the exception to the rule. I've learned that I'm not the weirdo after all. You are.
That's not to say these aren't very giving people. A very poor society is based upon sharing. You are simply expected to share whatever you have with your family and neighbors. Doing otherwise is not even considered an option.
And the beautiful thing I've discovered is that the poorer the people are, the more eager they are to share what little they have.
For instance, I could show up unannounced at any casa in my pueblo around the middle of the day and they would insist on feeding me. It would be an insult to turn them down. It doesn't matter if they had no electricity, running water, or even a floor. Whatever little food they had would be shared.
That's why I've gotten into the habit of always having some fresh fruit with me if I plan on visiting anyone.
Concerning regalos and juguetes
This is Camela, my dominican neighbor. She's 7 years old.
I used to watch her play with this worn-out soccer ball that was missing large patches of leather.
I got the great idea of buying her a brand-new, good-quality, soccer ball the next time I went to Santo Domingo. I pictured in my mind how she would be excited when she got it, show it to her friends, and play with it all the time.
What happened instead was a look of confusion on her face. It was obvious that she had never been given a brand-new anything before in her life. She didn't know what to do with it or how to react. Why was I giving her this?
The new soccer ball vanished into her casa and I haven't seen it since. She has, however, continued to play with her worn-out ball.
So what do kids do about toys if their parents and relatives aren't spending themselves deeply into debt for Christmas, like in America?
These are a couple of my neighborhood kids that were playing out in front of my house one day.
These are common toys in my pueblo. They are made from old oil cartons. They put wires through them, and then put plastic bottle caps on the ends for wheels. They fill it up with rocks for weight, and then attach a string to the front so that they can drag it through the streets.
In other words, instead of using their imagination on Chinese-made plastic toys that their parents spent hundreds of dollars for, they use their imaginations to actually make the toys.
What a concept!
Plastic bottle caps are widely used with the kids in my pueblo.
For instance, everyone knows Dominicans love baseball. But what do you do if you can't afford a baseball and a baseball bat?
Then you use a tree branch for a bat and a plastic bottle cap for the ball.
Plastic bottle caps won't fly very far, but you can put a wicked spin on them, and are darn near impossible to hit with a tree branch.
How about those kids who are more artistically incline?
This is a guitar that another neighborhood kid made out of a 2X4, an old can, a plastic bottle, and 3 wires. I tried it. It works.
I've also seen kids here make go-carts (not the kind you see on TV, but simple and unsafe ones) and hacky-sacks.
So while you are putting hundreds of dollars onto your credit cards this holiday season to buy the kids in your life toys that they will get bored with inside of a month, consider what billions of kids that don't celebrate American-style holidays do every day.
Maybe, just maybe, the kids would be better off if you never spent the money on those toys.