The Christmas season includes financial anxieties for many of us.
So if anyone close to me ever reads this, here are the three best gifts I can ever receive: a loved one’s presence, not their presents, which is wholly sufficient. If a tangible gift must be given, then pictures of loved ones are always a favorite. And if someone really wants to impress me, then they could take the time to type a page or two of our shared memories as seen from their perspective. The photos and the typed memories will be kept for good. Any clothing or electronic item will be appreciated, but I’ll forget within two weeks who gave me what. I always do.
As I’ve written before, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I like that the focus is on appreciation for what we have rather than what we might get. The holiday is not commercialized, though the Christmas shopping craze is now encroaching on the day. In fact, I fear we’ll soon begin acknowledging “Black Turkey Day” or “Black Thursday.”
When I visited the Vatican back in the summer of 1996, I stood in St. Peter’s Basilica and thought about the obvious troubling juxtaposition: on the one hand, I knew of the teachings of Jesus who held on to nothing in the material sense. On the other, I witnessed the overwhelming opulence in Rome, the terrific fortune acquired in the name of Jesus. The incredible wealth in front of me didn’t meld with what I had learned from gospel, that Jesus was not interested in material gain. I wondered what the actual Jesus would have said had he physically stood where I did. I imagined more tables overturned.
I get the same feeling these days from all the Christmas craze, the pounding on the doors of mega-stores with half-off electronics. The wild rush to spend money is not something that seems connected to the story of Jesus. I can’t picture three wise men pressed up against a soon-to-open Wal Mart door, using mace to back off fellow bargain shoppers. Well, actually, on Youtube these days, I guess anything is possible.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Christmas morning and particularly watching children get excited. I certainly wouldn’t want to put an end to that, but I do wish there was a little more perspective regarding the commercialization of Christmas. We live in an age where businesses aim to create a shopping frenzy at holiday time. And we seem all too eager to blow large wads of cash in inefficient expressions of love.
Don’t we all wish gift giving was simple? Don’t we all know it’s not?
For instance, we’re all familiar with these questions: Are you getting me a gift? You’re not going to overspend and make me feel bad like last year, are you? Shoot, I hope not. Maybe I need to go overboard on your gift in return. And are we buying gifts for all 20 nieces and nephews this year? If so, how much are we spending? Do I have the money to buy gifts for everyone? No, well how much can I put on an already stretched credit card? Man, Christmas is going to kill me.
I liked a story I read recently in The New Republic called “Commerce Claus.” The authors, George Loewenstein and Cass R. Sunstein, talked about Christmas from a big-picture economics standpoint, how the gift giving is a massive example of “value destruction” — given that gifts are often far less valuable to the recipient than what they cost the buyer.
That’s because we tend to equate the amount of money spent on someone else with their importance to us. If we spend $100 on something a loved one may not like, well, hey, at least they know we spent considerable money on them. But we’d never act this way ourselves. If you spend $100 on something you don’t want, then you feel like you just took a Bic lighter to a green Ben Franklin. Gift giving is thus terribly inefficient economically. People are constantly getting and giving items that aren’t really useful. And we’re constantly encouraged to do so, because we believe these gifts are signifiers of our love and care. In this way, the ripping open of wrapping holds as much for the giver as the receiver. Don’t you know I love you?
Consequently, if you’re socially aware enough, you recognize that you’re being watched as you open a gift and you may feel pressure to exaggerate that smile and “ooh and aah” with extra gusto. But the fakeness will often be transparent to the gift giver. These are under-the-surface tensions in so many homes.
I say, give kids a great Christmas as best you can. Let them enjoy those early excitements. Then as you get older, make sure that people know you love them well enough on days without shiny wrapping paper. Gifts on holidays are just no substitute for that.
And please, let’s never have a Black Thursday.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
Thanks for this reminder of what really matters and the truths about how most people view and experience this time of year. In our attempt to celebrate a religious holiday, we have been led so far from it's true meaning (by capitalistic commercialism and our own emotional weaknesses) we should just stop and start from scratch. ".... a loved one’s presence, not their presents ....." is a great place to begin.