The Gift Exchange On Christmas

Illuminairre
10 min readJan 11, 2021

By Michelle Boon, Programme Director at Illuminairre

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locations, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Last Christmas, I went back to mum’s hometown after months of isolation in the city. I haven’t seen my family and friends in months and I found myself yearning for connection and bonding.

The journey was made all the more pleasant with my husband and brother. We laughed as my brother shared funny TikTok clips for most of the drive. Once or twice, the conversation would nosedive into contemplative territory as we pondered the state of our national politics, lives lost due to the pandemic and the harsh reality it has brought to people all over the world.

One of us would lighten the mood by talking about a funny clip we’d watched on YouTube again just to break the silence. Not long after, both husband and brother slept and I was left with my thoughts.

“I can’t wait to be with everyone…”

Soon, we were minutes away from arriving and as I drove the car by the house, I gave thanks and was just grateful that we all got home safe and sound. We carried our bags and made our way to the front door and my uncle was the first to welcome us. You could hear ‘Hey!’ and ‘Welcome back!’ echoing throughout the living room.

Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

Thankfully, we were in time for dinner and the entire family i.e. uncles, aunties, distant relations as well as young cousins sat down at the dining table for a Christmas Eve dinner. The mood was high as we passed plates of sumptuous dishes, shared stories, jokes and memories that were neglected to us while everyone was apart. I couldn’t help but notice that everyone seemed to speak up more than usual. Uncles and aunts were sharing a lot more about their daily activities, at work, the latest fashion and entertainment trends, and so on. Not that sharing was strange, but the intensity and volume that came with it was… new.

Soon, it was time for bed and for the uninitiated, the house only has three rooms. Imagine fitting about 15 people. So it is only natural that the older relatives would get the rooms and everyone else would sleep on mattresses on the floor in the living room. You’d see heads popping out of blankets, all lined up in a row. Sleeping on the floor was a rite of passage for everyone growing up. Oddly, I love it very much when you can see everyone huddle together.

But that night was different.

As most of the men were in the kitchen having a few drinks and laughs, I laid in bed looking up at the ceiling while my mind wandered. I thought about how my family had been doing since we last met. I thought about who would be doing the cooking tomorrow and what if we all got sick and died. Suffice to say, I had a lot going on in my head.

A few feet away, I could hear whispers exchanged between mum and Aunt Jenny saying she couldn’t sleep. “What a wonderful opportunity to have some grown-up female bonding time!” I thought to myself. Quickly, I rose to my feet and made my way over.

Truthfully, mum had been filling me on some of the major events that happened in the past year, especially about Aunt Jenny and how she was going around helping mum and dad to distribute food to homeless families and to refugees. Once in a while, I’d call either mum or Aunt Jenny just to catch up real quick. I was aware that they were going through a very challenging year so I took it upon myself to hopefully bring some positivity to this late-night chat.

The Exchange

“What were you all talking about?” I asked while trying my best to keep my voice low so as not to wake dad who was already asleep like a log.

Both mum and Aunt Jenny sat crossed-legged on the mattress while Aunt Jenny sighed. She said she couldn’t sleep because she had some things on her mind. Mum was having the usual gas built-up that would cause her to burp incessantly. Her response would always be: “It’s my gastric. I just need to quit coffee.” But she never can quit coffee, can she?

Then I asked, “How’s everything been so far? How’s business?”

They both said things were fine. Alright. But their body language revealed otherwise. They weren’t smiling. Their eyes seemed to be hiding a secret that was dying to be divulged. But I guessed they might not feel it was appropriate to discuss anything serious nor want to create a sombre mood since it was my first night back.

Looks like I would have to go first. So I went, “I have a lot on my mind too. This year had been tough. I was worried about money and how my business would grow. My business partner and I organised this online learning thing and we had zero sign-ups. It was brutal.”

All of a sudden, the energy in the room changed. Perhaps they appreciated the frankness, or maybe they could relate. Either way, it was as if a weight had been lifted off their shoulders and the lump behind their throats disappeared. Aunt Jenny chimed in, “Oh, I didn’t know that. Business was really bad for me too. I couldn’t go out and meet customers for their clothing measurements. I thought I would be broke by now.” Aunt Jenny’s a seamstress. She owns and runs a clothing business for more than two decades now, around the same time mum and dad started their trading business too.

Following that, mum joined in and said that business has been extremely slow as well and customers have been owing the company money. But there was nothing she could do because their businesses were suffering too.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Aunt Jenny told us about the housing loans she had to pay off and not being able to afford her car anymore. She would fall asleep for an hour or two and suddenly be wide awake in the middle of night. Unable to sleep, she found herself staring aimlessly at the four walls of her living room. “Every night, I’d imagine what if I couldn’t make the loan repayments and then be evicted from my home. My daughter is under strict lockdown in England and borders are closed. What if this virus gets harder to beat and I will never see my daughter again?”

More sighs were let out. But the night was still young. Faint laughter could be heard from the kitchen every now and then. Once every few minutes we’d hear glasses clinking too. The boys must be having a splendid time.

‘I still have time to turn this whole conversation around.’

Before I could get a word in edgewise, mum immediately interjected. “What are you talking about? You have me, your sister, who lives two doors down from your place. We’re not well-to-do but if you need money, you have me. You have your other sisters and brothers too. Your daughter video calls you every couple days. That’s better than nothing!”

Woah mum!

At this point, Christmas Eve couldn’t have been more bleak. As each of us took turns sharing about our lives, it seemed that one story was worse than the other but then mum took a deep breath as if she was preparing herself for an intervention. She spoke about the times she worried about everything and it was, for lack of a better word, hell for her.

Through the years, there were plenty of highs and lows and when it rained, it poured and when it poured, you’d watch yourself drown in your thoughts.

“But what good did it do for me?” she said. (Obviously, she knew the answer. That’s why she’s mum.)

Nothing. Well, it made me feel less than nothing. I was worried about the future and the uncertainties of what is to come. All of a sudden, it didn’t make sense to invest all that energy into something I cannot control. So why bother worrying? If things were meant to happen, they will anyway. We can plan all we want, try to do what we can, but look at when Covid struck. Everything was halted. Things changed in a matter of months.

Mum was right, again. If we had that much energy to worry, might as well channel that into something positive that can add value not just to our lives but to others.

Sure, talk is cheap but we can start somewhere.

Then Aunt Jenny expressed how she couldn’t stop worrying about things. She was also uncomfortable asking for help and described how upsetting it would be for others if she did ask for help because they would feel obligated instead of sincerely wanting to lend her a hand.

“Why would you think like that?” mum asked in disbelief.

Somehow, I understood where Aunt Jenny was coming from. I felt exactly the same way too. But I felt it was important to share from a place of honesty so I talked about how I’d recoil from the idea of asking people for help. Even if I really needed a hand, I’d be too proud to ask or feel that I’d be an inconvenience. “This could be the end of any friendship if I go around asking for a shoulder to cry on or for someone to just listen to me speak,” I said.

They both nodded. Perhaps they understood where I was coming from because the one thing we all had in common was worry. It was second nature to all of us. And the problem was how much we let worry affect us in our daily lives because we were worried about things like people might be annoyed if we asked for help or to be seen as weak because we had created this image that we could do anything on our own. To be honest, it may have gotten out of control to the point where we buy into the lies we feed ourselves.

We started believing that we were the only ones going through a difficult time, we were the only ones who could get us out of anything, and we were alone.

The lies become real as we internalise them. We deceive ourselves little by little and before we know it, we allow our anxieties to grow into this gigantic bottomless black hole with no escape route.

What I Learnt on Christmas Eve

That night, we left no stone unturned. Nothing was off limits. Again, this felt strange to me because I’ve never sat amongst my elders and be heard; like I was one of them.

Despite the low points, I could tell that we were feeling a little better. Just then, mum asked Aunt Jenny how it felt to help those in need, a random question posed to offer her a brief reprieve from the tiresome worry on her mind. Aunt Jenny recalled the tiring but amazing experience that made her see how fantastic it was to focus on something actionable instead of being burdened by thoughts of what she had no control of. Both of them exchanged inside jokes and giggled. That warmed my heart. Well, the night was no Schadenfreude but just hearing each one of us sharing about our struggles didn’t make me feel so alone anymore.

I think it was cathartic for me as much as it was for them.

Had my problems been solved? Will I never worry again? Of course not. But I now know that I’m officially a member of this non-exclusive club of worrywarts, a group that not only supports each other but also provides solutions when needed.

And at that moment, I was reminded of the power of community and family; just the chance to talk, to be heard and to be understood made everyone feel that they belonged. We belonged.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

So, as I penned this, I wondered if I could share how I had benefitted from a sharing session with others who are also going through something similar.

1. Be aware of your worries

2. Realise that your worries do you no good

3. Focus on what you CAN do instead of what you could have done or what you cannot control (like the weather, for instance)

4. Be kind to yourself and seek help when you need it

5. Be kind to others and actively help those in need

Bringing It All Together

You see, despite my family being Catholics, we have never really celebrated Christmas i.e. putting up Christmas trees, getting presents for everyone or even sitting down for any meal together, let alone a turkey dinner. But that night, the exchange of stories and experiences was the best Christmas gift for me and I dare say, for mum and Aunt Jenny as well.

As we finally allowed ourselves to have a peaceful night’s sleep, I was already looking forward to a blessed Christmas morning because I knew I have always been surrounded by people who love me. And so are you.

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