Christmas guilt
A scene from Christmas past at the house of the author's future in-laws illustrates a typical volume of presents. (Provided)

Five years ago this Christmas, I proposed to my wife. Around the same time, I spent my first Christmas with my wife and her family. In my own family, gift giving is very light between adults. When I was a kid, of course, I got plenty of presents from Santa Claus and my parents. I spent Christmas morning ripping through wrapping paper like a wolverine, voraciously attacking until the paper was gone and the prize was revealed. Now that my brothers and I are grown, we give and receive one small gift between us and our mother. We are also sure to spend a Christmas night together whenever our schedules align.

My wife’s family celebrates differently. My wife’s parents, in true Christmas spirit, shower our children with gifts — boxes and bags stacked like mountains around the tree waiting for Christmas morning. There are so many presents, in fact, that, when my son was 2 years old, he was too tired to continue unwrapping them when he was only halfway through. He had to finish up the following day.

This practice in my wife’s family continues into adulthood. Much to my surprise, they gave me my own small mountain of gifts as well. Not as many as my son, thankfully, but much more than I expected, and so much that I did not know how to react. My family was poor growing up, and this was more than I had even gotten as a child.

I was overwhelmed and self-conscious. I felt that I did not deserve all of these gifts, that it was too many things, too much money spent on me, and that I owed them some reciprocation. My wife reassured me that this was how they did things, that I was a part of the family now, and joked that her mom was “just crazy.” While this helped, it still did not settle that uneasy feeling in my gut. Call it “Christmas guilt.”

A matriarch’s relentless dedication

The following Christmas, I hinted around the subject with my mother-in-law, told her about my family, and then I asked about hers. Some things I already knew — her mother was an absolutely dedicated, vigilant parent and homemaker — but I learned more. Every morning, she would get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to start a load of laundry and cook a full breakfast, from-scratch: biscuits, eggs, bacon, gravy, coffee, etc. All prepared and plated, ready for when her children and husband woke up so they could get their day started right.

After seeing her husband off to work and getting the kids dressed for school, she would head to work herself. She worked a full-time job in Pauls Valley, about 15 miles away along Highway 19. After work, she would come home and cook a full dinner, clean up, finish laundry and whatever else needed to be done, and see that the kids had done their homework and were ready for bed. Sometimes she would fall asleep standing up against the wall above the floor furnace, still in her work clothes. She stood there to warm her bones in the cold months after she had given all of her energy to others.

At Christmas time, she showered her children with gifts. Present after present, which she had gathered over the course of the year, all of them personal and thoughtful, handpicked for the individual and their preferences, needs and desires. When the children were grown, the giving continued in the same manner.

When my wife’s parents were married, my would-be father-in-law got the same treatment as her own children, because he was a part of the family now, too. My mother-in-law and her siblings, and all of their spouses and children, would go home to their parents’ house every Christmas Eve to stay the night and wake up together for their Christmas morning tradition: breakfast and gifts, cookies and treats, all prepared with love and care. They spent their morning crowded into a living room overflowing with presents waiting to be opened, and my wife’s grandmother waiting just to see the joy on each person’s face as they unwrapped each one chosen especially for them.

Give and give, but keep a little

My mother-in-law learned a lot from her mother before she died: how to give, how to love, how to be a strong woman, and how to be a mother herself. She also learned how to hold on to certain things. She learned that you cannot give all of yourself away to others, or live your entire life for their benefit — even for your own children. If you empty yourself over and over, exhausting your body and mind every day so that others can rest, then you might one day find that there is nothing left of you and nothing left to give.

My mother-in-law has become an important person in my life since I married into the family. I enjoy spending time with her and talking to her — we have a lot in common. She gives me advice, encouragement, love and respect. She helps with our children, babysits them, plays with them, feeds them and teaches them. When my wife and I need help, they help. When she and my father-in-law have plans or they are tired or simply don’t want to, they say no — and that’s OK with me.

‘Happy in light of it all’

Still, every year on Christmas morning, they give us presents galore, many of them things I needed but never asked for, all of them thoughtful and personal to me. I now look forward to Christmas at their house every year. I enjoy the presents. Opening them all really does make me feel like a kid again, but mostly I enjoy it because I know the history behind the giving. I know that my mother-in-law is channeling some part of her own mother: that self-sacrificing generous woman who is still making Christmas special for another generation, even if she is only there in spirit.

These days, I don’t feel Christmas guilt or self-conscious when I open all of my gifts. I feel lucky that I am a part of a new family that loves me and expresses that love in a different way. They have shown me what the holidays can teach a person, and where they have come from — their pain and their joy. They have taught me the importance of family history and celebrating the holidays in a way that make you happy in light of it all.