Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Gift

This season really brings out the bah-humbuggish curmugeon in me, primarily because of all the noise emitted from the television, the sound systems in stores, and the consummate waste generated in the newspapers by all the advertising.

The older I get, the less I like Christmas--and this isn't just because I'm a Jew. I was, after all, raised by a passel of nuns and a more-or-less believing mother. I don't like Hanukkah hype any better, since this once-simple, lovely holiday has become a Christmas clone.

What dominates the modern notion of Christmas is the sheer excess of it all: shoppers camped out overnight on Thanksgiving to snag a bargain at Buy More on "Black Friday"; the incessant, stale, monotonous Christmas carols played endlessly in all public spaces; the wreath-laden SUVs and Hummers in this region; the constant pleas for overindulgence in food, drink, and buying in general. There are reports going around that people are spending less this year because of the economy, but this town doesn't seem to have gotten the word.

I'd much rather celebrate the Solstice, and welcome the sun back, with its promise of longer doses of daylight. I'd much rather have a few people over for good, simple food cooked slowly and lovingly. I'd much much rather sit in front of a fire on a cold morning, snuggled up to Beloved Spouse and/or dogs, with a good cuppa to warm my frigid hands (it never does get above 60F in this house during winter). I'd much rather read a good book than watch another crappy Christmas "special" on the telly.

Apparently I'm not the only one who's getting annoyed by the situation, and especially about what has happened to the idea of a gift.

George Will's column for November 26 hit the old mole on the nose: The Gift of Not Giving, in which he reviews a book by Joel Waldfogel called Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays. The bottom line here is that we do such a bad job of choosing gifts for people that it's actually bad for the economy and bad for our relationships as well because the process generates both ill will and a net loss in value. We'd apparently be better off simply spending the money on ourselves.

The most disappointing thing about the season these days is the way gift-giving has deteriorated into filling a list of demands or bad ideas about who might want what. In Judith Martin's Miss Manners column last Saturday, one writer mentioned the absurdity of having relatives ask for a list of what she wanted for Christmas. Now, I can understand why a parent might ask a child to "write to Santa" so that said parental unit might be able to fulfill a wish or two. But if one is exchanging gifts with friends or relatives, is it too much to ask that they know you well enough to be able to buy a suitable gift?

I once had a mother-in-law who was always spot-on in her gift-giving. But that was because she had tons of money and an equal amount of time to shop the catalogues. She always got me "earth mother" presents, and was equally good at sussing out what other family members would enjoy. I usually tried to make stuff (jam, flavored olive oil, baked goods) because we didn't have much money to spend. Occasionally we'd try something different, like the year we bought old books for everyone (an aged medical text for a doctor, vintage kids' books, that sort of thing), but eventually we ran out of time and ideas.

So we decided to donate what money we had to spend to a charity, settling on Heifer International and presented everyone with Christmas ornaments that matched the animal chosen that year: chicken ornaments the year we gave flocks of chickens, llamas when we chose a llama--this year it's water buffaloes. Miss Manners isn't sure she likes the idea, because the donor gets a tax deduction (good for us--but it's a drop in the bucket), and the recipient might not approve of the charity. But, no, we don't send a check to Planned Parenthood or some such organization that might well annoy the few folk we still give gifts to. Heifer is safe because it can't offend conservatives or liberals; it's actually a great outfit because it does real good and was founded on good Christian values.

Although we still give our children gifts, they share our social values and appreciate gifts that don't exploit the environment or other people. We buy them durable things we know they will enjoy, and we actually enjoy shopping for them. The big difference between now and when they were younger is that, except for the Solstice/Christmas/Hanukkah season, we don't buy for specific occasions. Instead, when we come across something we know they will enjoy, we buy it and give it then. This way everybody gets something out of the experience, and we don't have to endure the holiday crush, cranky children, and stressed out parents in stores.

As Lewis Hyde describes in his wonderful book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (now subtitled Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World), gift-giving among tribal peoples is a cultural exchange of meaning, not of capital: the gift must always move, as Hyde points out. "You may keep your Christmas present, but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away."

Ideally, a gift comes from the heart; even better, it comes from the hand: the best gifts I have ever received have been made by hand: warm afghans knitted by my grandmother, a pair of stone bookends made by my grandfather, a scarf my daughter-in-law made for me, a handy carrier for casseroles sewn up by my step-mother, things baked or canned by friends. But many of us can't make much any more, being, as we are, so remote from craft traditions that would once have allowed for the gift of a carved bowl, or a thrown pot.

So the next best thing is to choose carefully. And this is my proposal for future gift giving in my immediate family. Keep up the Heifer donations and the ornaments. But for spouse and children, a single gift chosen for its pleasure value: a bottle of great Scotch, a book, a beautiful object (preferably with a use), a dinner at a good restaurant, a beloved film on Blu-ray.

If more of us did less, we might gain back a little of what gift-giving meant to us as children (as long as we weren't spoiled silly by over-indulgent parents). If I had grandchildren, they'd get hand-made stuffed dragons or Froebel gifts. And they'd be invited into the kitchen to revive a tradition of holiday cookie-baking and decorating.

I really do think that by refusing to buy in excess and buy into over-indulgence we'll actually enable ourselves to enjoy a much more uplifting season--and I just might smile occasionally, and perhaps even shed a bit of my grinchy demeanor.

Image credit: Once again I find that Carl Larsson's wonderful paintings of family life in Sweden at the turn of the nineteenth century evoke some of the qualities missing from modern life. This is Christmas Eve, from 1904, via Wikimedia Commons.


jabblog said...

This definitely chimes with me! Christmas has become a cynical celebration of commercialism and excess - there's little spirituality in it. People develop a siege mentality and stock up for weeks, or so it seems. The days of shops closing for more than a day have long gone so this is completely unnecessary - and do we really eat - or need to eat - three times as much on Christmas Day?
Bah humbug indeed!
Is this why Thanksgiving seems to my uneducated eyes to be a more enjoyable feast?

Linda said...

I do feel much the same. My ideal for Christmas is the way it's celebrated in Norway. Lots of candlelight, hardly any electrical decorations on the exterior of houses, very few inside, firelight, lantern light, sheaves of corn outside front doors as a Christmas gift for the birds, traditional home baking...Our most precious gifts are the intricately patterned hand-knitted gloves a Norwegian friend made for us one year.

Martha Z said...

I have heard interviews with Waldfogel and agree; how wasteful to give gifts that wind up filling closets or landfills. If I had grandchildren other than Michael who cares not for toys and doesn't understand the concept of presents, I might feel differently.
I would rather frame some of my photos or make a quilt. To my children a check as well so that they can choose, young people always have more needs than money.
One son longs for a lathe so that he can make gifts of wood, for his nephew he makes a donation to the Davis Mind Institute which researches cognitive disabilities.
I find it much harder to think of meaningful, creative ways to celebrate the holiday than to shop on Amazon, but I keep trying.

Dave Coulter said...

Several of my gifts this season were handmade - mainly because there are now people in my life who appreciate them. It's great fun!

MJ said...

Such a thoughtful post with interesting perspective and insight. I also noticed that some of your later posts are titled with the same songs as Windham Hill's "Winter Solstice" recording -- my favorite music during the holidays. :-)