I just came from the mall. Fellow Americans, we need to talk about this.
I usually groan or cluck dismissively when people ask me what I want for Christmas, because I really dislike this grossly distorted ritualistic trading of stuff we call “gift-giving.” I would estimate that somewhere in the realm of 90 percent of these so-called gifts are merely economic exchanges. I’m not saying this to be a grinch, but because I think, as a society, we need to reconsider the definition of the word “gift.”
What do I want for Christmas?
I want to spend time with you. I want to celebrate your presence in and influence on my life. I want to laugh with you. I want to press you closely and be filled with warmth by your familiar scent, touch, and love. I want to be silly with you. I want to remember with you. I want to learn something new with you. I want to have an adventure with you. I want a lovely note that reveals just how well you know me. I want a better understanding of the delicately woven strands in the fabric of your soul.
What? Oh. An Amazon.com wishlist? With hyperlinks… yes, of course.
The sad truth of the matter is that what I really want for Christmas, or my birthday, are not socially acceptable “gifts” because they don’t much help the economy. And nothing says “love” like retail and two day delivery.
In my family, the adults (as defined by possession of a college diploma) participate in a Secret Santa exchange every year at Christmas. We alternate between donating to charity and buying gifts every other year. Personally, I’d like to skip the gift years altogether and just stick to the charities. None of us really need any of the “stuff” on our lists. Years ago, the list-making used to be the best part of the whole affair. Some memorable highlights include: my uncle surgically inserting every list item into fortune cookies, my aunt writing her list on a golden ticket and wrapping it up in a homemade label with a bar of chocolate, clever poems and songs, my aunt’s “Mission Impossible” presentation, and my Mom’s puzzle (assembled to reveal a list). Every year, everyone tried to top each other, and it was my favorite part of the holidays. Lately, because people have more kids, longer hours, and generally less time, we’ve downgraded the ordeal into a list of hyperlinks, or, in the case of my uncle, just one hyperlink to his favorite socks. It’s not the same.
Most of my favorite gifts did not come from a store. In fact, some of them were probably not considered “gifts” by the givers, and a few of them have come from strangers.
At Homecoming this year, I had the opportunity to meet with a former professor, who had agreed to write me a letter of recommendation. It also happened to be my birthday, so after we sat down, he put his hands behind his back and told me to pick one. I chose the empty hand, but he gave me the present anyway: a little bauble from a vending machine. It was a “crystal” pendant on a black necklace. Since it was a bit small, I tied it to my wrist. After a few months of showering, yoga, and general life-living, it’s been reduced to a ratty piece of black string. I love it. Every time I glance at my wrist, I remember that someone believes in me, and that is a gift.
When I was younger, Pop and Grandma took us three oldest grandchildren into New York City to go to dinner and see a Broadway show every year for our Christmas gift. It was a time-honored tradition and these trips are surely the early roots of my love and adoration for the theatre and all things Manhattan. The true gifts here, though, were the car-rides. We three climbed onto the smooth leather seats in the back of Pop’s car and immediately checked the seat pockets. Pop always had three or four varieties of Nips hard candies tucked amongst the maps. The sweet coffee flavor is forever linked in my mind to smell of leather and the sound of my grandparents laughing. When I miss my grandfather, I buy a box of Nips. This is a .99 gift I can enjoy on any old day.
I have a box of notes and letters in my childhood bedroom. When I visit, I stay up late and re-read them. They date as far back as 7th grade and the authors range from coaches to boyfriends to directors to best friends to passing acquaintances. Letters are lovely little Delaurians, reminding us who we were and why we are.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate giving or receiving gifts. I just don’t enjoy the forced social and monetary constraints of giving gifts at the holidays. Personally, I’d rather give a gift on, say, July 17, just because I saw something while I was out and about and thought you might love it. There’s an authenticity in that process, which I think gets lost in the practice of listing as many people in your life as you can afford to spend money on, then frantically scouring websites and stores to find something that is appropriate to their tastes and your budget.
This year, I was delighted to see that my brother caught on to the crazy:
Brother: Wanna just skip gifts this year instead of exchanging giftcards?