It’s the middle of November and folks at home in the U.S. are already complaining about the presence of Christmas decorations and advertisements on TV. In the past, I’ve tended to agree with the stance that it’s too early to celebrate Christmas if it’s still before Thanksgiving. For the past four years, though, I’ve been in other countries during the Christmas season and so my sense of Christmas Rights and Wrongs has been somewhat softened. When we got to Iceland in early November and saw Christmas trees and decorations adorning every nook and cranny in the country, it didn’t seem strange at all to me. In fact, I enjoyed the festive lights and greenery everywhere. At home there’s a big debate though, about whether it’s right or wrong to start decorating for the holidays before Thanksgiving, but abroad, it’s clearly appropriate to pull out the Christmas tree as soon as the first sign of cold weather hits.
Which got me thinking about how Christmas decorations in the U.S. cue people to go shopping. And how that stresses people’s time, energy, and budget.
Our family doesn’t exchange Christmas gifts. Not exchanging gifts is heretical in the United States. As American citizens/consumers we’re supposed to spend everything we have in the bank to bring big businesses into the black. But don’t give each other gifts on Christmas or on our birthdays.
The reasons why we don’t give formal gifts are many and varied. Originally, we stopped giving gifts because John and I were so poor at times in the early parts of our marriage that we couldn’t even afford to buy eggs sometimes. When Lydi was little she got things from us like a home-made cardboard dollhouse for Christmas. We learned that she was very happy with small things like this because she knew that we loved her.
Over the years, the decision to not give gifts was supported by observing other cultures and listening to our own kind going through the macabre and unnecessary motions of Black Friday. Americans intuitively know that our gift-giving behaviors in the United States are wrong and out of tune with the rest of what we claim Christmas celebrates, but folks just keep doing what the TV tells them to do anyway.
Not being able to afford cable TV for a few years really helped us kick the gift habit.
Not giving gifts changes the Christmas dynamic in a big way. We haven’t celebrated a traditional Christmas in many years because without gifts, it’s often hard to get family members to gather around a common purpose. Instead of gift-giving, we’ve traveled at Christmas as a family, to various places throughout the world. We’ve been privy to alternative views of Christmas as well as views that don’t include Christmas at all. The idea that Christmas is optional is something that rarely occurred to me before we traveled internationally. It seemed like a requisite part of my existence.
And how do you celebrate Christmas without gifts? Macy’s would like for us to believe that it simply isn’t possible.
The idea of giving gifts is sticky in my opinion. Psychologically, we’re all cued to respond to a gift with the natural inclination to reciprocate. This reciprocal back-and-forth is a simple and remarkable human phenomena when it occurs in a natural context within limitations that are reasonable. But when the gift-giving is amplified beyond its natural limits, which is what’s happened in response to mass marketing and media, as humans, we naturally respond by becoming stressed out. We don’t want to receive a gift that’s bigger than a gift that we give back. And we don’t want to receive a gift that’s smaller than a gift that we receive. In either situation, a debt is incurred, but it’s unspoken and difficult to quantify.
Children are the only creatures who are immune to this innate psychological trap that the department stores have been preying upon for years. And they’re the ones that can benefit most from the smallest Christmas gestures and kindnesses. It’s fun for adults to give fun little items to kids. But once a child hits puberty, what they really need to know is how to get what they want for themselves. Gifts are somewhat anathema to the development of personal volition which is why getting gifts can be profoundly depressing during adolescence instead of uplifting.
I know a lot of parents who resent the fact that their older teenage and twenty-something children still depend on their Christmas and birthday gifts in order to survive. There’s nothing worse than celebrating Christmas with angry gift-exchanges and the breed of generosity that comes pre-packaged with a multitude of strings attached. But as parents go about the Black Friday ritual, they teach their kids that they can only get what they want during this one season of the year. It’s a bad habit that has negative repercussions for everyone.
I love to give gifts, but I don’t like for people to feel obligated to me in an unnatural way. So I try to choose the gifts I give to people outside of our family carefully so that they reflect a balanced, reciprocal exchange.
John and I are collaborative in how we spend money and time. This is the basic “gift” we give to each other. We do almost everything together because we want to. I always have someone to go with me when I want to do something, no matter how crazy it is and vice versa for him. It’s a natural, reciprocal process that happens between us. We go shopping and buy things as a team together but gifts for us extend beyond the concept of money or things.
Our gift-giving behaviors toward Lydian are different though since she’s our kid. We still give her gifts, but we don’t necessarily categorize them as such. Her gifts are rarely “wrapped”. Rather, we support her sometimes with money, sometimes with time, and sometimes with advice or guidance. Money certainly can’t replace a good mentor or the knowledge that your guardians have your very best interests at heart. Without a good mentor, money is easily squandered on foolish things. And without family to fall back on for support, certain necessary risks in life may never be taken.
We don’t save up our support for Lydian for just one season of the year. It’s available to Lydian all the time or at least this is our philosophy and what we strive for. Anyone who knows us and Lydian knows that we’ve invested plenty of money and time into Lydian over the years, but I’m very proud of the fact that she’s never misused our generosity perhaps because she has access to it as an ongoing opportunity. I assume that she won’t misuse it and I assume that she’ll use what we give her (things, time, advice) to get what she really wants in life. If she does, that makes me happy. And I’m entertained by how she uses what we give her.
I’m speaking in ideals, of course, because we don’t always live up to our own expectations, but I’m glad that at least I’m not still trying to live up to the expectations of major department stores on Black Friday. Christmas trees and decorations don’t generally make me feel angry and stressed out in part because I’m not partaking in the American version of the holiday anymore. It’s interesting and worth noting that people in other countries aren’t stressed out about Christmas trees and greenery either.
I always raise my eyebrows when Americans-I-know go through the Black Friday-gift-giving-craziness and can still talk about things like the True Meaning of Christmas with total unwavering seriousness. The magic of Christmas was never meant to be about adults giving gifts to each other, but rather adults giving little meaningless trinkets to kids. Notice that I’m talking about “magic” not “meaning” because these are two different things according to my worldview. Kids can receive meaningless trinkets and can turn them into super-fun-play-things that are really amusing to adults who lack that sort of imagination. You can put a storyline to the whole gift-giving charade (in some cultures, for example children will receive small gifts from the wise men in a shoe left by the door, in the U.S. kids leave cookies for Santa by their stockings). It’s great fun to build up a child’s anticipation and imagination and to me, this is the magic of the holiday season. Depression-era folks seemed to get that idea, but everyone after them, not so much. When the world turns dead and grim and dark, I can tell a little kid a story and make him believe it completely to brighten things up for all of us. I can wrap funny-shaped-things up in pretty paper and ribbons and make that child wonder what those things are for my own entertainment.
In this vein,it doesn’t matter what Christmas is or isn’t about. That’s been a confusing racket for quite some time. What does matter, at this confused juncture in our history, is that we can make ourselves and the people around us happy in the bleakest, most desperate times of our lives. I know I can’t depend on Walmart’s low prices to make me truly happy, but I’d hope that if nuclear fallout ever happened and only a few of us in western Nebraska survived that I’d be able to seek solace from neighbors.
Our current gift-giving behaviors and traditions at Christmas are not remotely related to the spiritual aspects of the season though we’d be less hypocritical as Americans, I suppose if they were. As the need to give big gifts becomes ever more absurd and out of proportion with the natural back-and-forth of human relationships, the sense that there is No Meaning in Christmas will continue to grow as well. And that makes me sad, but I can’t compete for airtime with the big box stores. And places of worship can’t either. Change has to happen bit-by-bit as individuals make different choices independent of what the media tells them to do.
While everyone else is running from department store to department store in a frenzy this season, I’ll be in Tunisia on the cusp of the Sahara Desert listening to the call to prayer five times a day.
There will be no gifts under our tree inside the house. (We probably won’t even have a tree this year).Though I may decorate and put up an enormous light display in my yard, and we may have a turkey for Christmas dinner, Christmas gifts won’t be on the agenda for us; at least not until we have grand-babies someday. Then you can bet that I’ll have the stockings hung by the chimney with care…
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