See, there’s a part of me that mourns that THIS is the question that pops up like a jack in the box. The country I was born in – the one that doesn’t exist in atlases any more – was a SECULAR nation which simply shifted the gift giving extravaganza onto New Year’s Eve instead and I grew up opening presents on January 1 of every year – which kind of felt fine, it was a brand new year, and there were all these new THINGS that got rescued out of shiny wrappers to go with it.
But that was many years ago. Since I left that place at age 10… it’s been CHRISTMAS. The unrelenting Christmas that starts glittering in its flickering tinselly manner in stores before Americans have finished eating the Thanksgiving turkey, sometimes well before they’ve put away the spooks and ghouls and ghosties of Halloween.
People get bombarded with “gift suggestions”. You get catalogues in the mail that offer up… things… that you would never even consider spending money on under normal circumstances but for those people in a relatively privileged living position, people who already have everything they arguably need, it’s the never-ending angst of finding a “present” of something that you know that your giftee doesn’t have. Quite possibly it is something that it never occurred to them to have or to want and which – after the initial Christmas morning exclamations of surprise and delight – will be put away to molder in some cupboard unseen and un-thought-of, until it is rediscovered in a closet purge four years later and regifted to someone else to pursue its existence of oblivion or taken in a fit of “generosity” to a place like Goodwill where it can be inflicted on someone else for a bargain price.
When did the culture of more more more become the thing? When did consumerism consume us? When did the idea of an experience, a memory, something to carry around inside for as long as you had the capacity to think and feel and remember, become subsumed in the idea of “Oh, I have to find the perfect gadget”? Even The Grinch, while touting his epiphany about Christmas, brought back all the “boxes, ribbons and bags” which he had stolen.
My mother remembers growing up in an era where simple things were sometimes exchanged at Christmas – but in her childhood, the kids got… an orange. Or maybe, in a village or a more rural area, a pet rabbit (which would eventually end up, inevitably, in the soup at some point…) I remember getting a doll, maybe, for a (new year) present. Clothes. Books. Always books.
These days, I’m back to that. I love the idea of Christmas packages lying wrapped up, a promise of something, the solid evidence that someone somewhere thought of you and wrapped up a gift for you… but my husband and I have wrapped (aside from the BOOKS, always books) practical things that we would buy/need anyway. Things like socks and flannel shirts (for him). Kitchen gadgets (a funky little garlic press, for instance, last year. Love that thing.). On occasion, it will be something more traditionally gift-like, a new printer, for example, simply turning a necessity into a present.
But the best presents don’t come big and useless and expensive and nattily wrapped with bows on top. You know what the best present was that I got last year? It came in an envelope, which contained three pieces of paper: a receipt, a set of directions, and a picture of a wolf. The present wouldn’t eventuate until April – it was a chance to go and spend a few hours in a local wildlife preserve, and actually *meet some wolves*. Wolves, who have been haunting my heart for years – for decades. I would get to touch one, hold one, hug one. I would get to let my spirit speak to a wolf’s when I looked into those golden eyes. When I found out about the possibility of this I flew upstairs to where my husband’s office was and I said breathlessly, “I want nothing else for Christmas. Only this.” So the wolves – the day with the wolves – were what I got. No piles of presents, Nothing new to clutter cupboards with. Just that, the experience (If you want to know how it went, I wrote about it here: https://www.almaalexander.org/the-day-of-the-wolf/)
I suppose part of it is that nature abhors a vacuum and American homes have ballooned over the years. I started married life in a house my husband’s father had built himself, something just under 1000 square feet. Even ‘starter homes’ today start at 2000 square feet. That’s a lot of room, often filled with “Christmas presents’. You know. Cushions. Throws. The latest tech gadget (Nest, Alexa, Roomba, whatever…) Tchotchkes. Stuff that becomes a burden, eventually. I am not talking about legacy stuff here, the things you carry with you because they hold the memory of a spirit of someone you once loved (like for instance me holding onto my grandmother’s “glass menagerie”, a clutch of porcelain animals that include a deer, a cat, a couple of variants of dogs, and a sad looking rabbit with an ear that once fell off and was glued back on – inexpertly, probably by grandpa – with the crack showing…) I’m talking about the kind of thing pounced on when discovered on one of those “the perfect gift for those difficult to shop for” lists, the white elephants trotted out at Christmas because at any other time of year it would be hard to justify spending money on that stuff. But there’s all that space to fill.
What’s your favorite Christmas present? Ever? The one you always remember, never forget? Is it something you own? Or something that lives, immortal, in your heart…? I suspect it’s something simple, given with love…