Lasting Values

December 2002


Thoughts on the Christmas season, what and why we give to others and how we can become a part of Christmas for others.

The Christmas season gives many people an opportunity to reflect upon their lives and upon the world in general. This is probably why so many people get depressed at this time of year. It has become the principal season for consumption, cynicism, and denial. Crass commercialism bombards us from all sides -- my favorite example this year is the clothing store that sells mostly garments made in 3rd world sweat shops by what amounts to slave labor -- and the tune they chose for models to lip sync? Love Train. Yes, it is very easy to be cynical. And people hate feeling cynical, especially in this festive season of joy; hence denial.

I was reflecting on all the things we buy at this time of year. It is very interesting and revealing to look at what people of a given culture and time frame give as gifts to others. It would be a fascinating project to analyze the gifts that people give and receive year by year, starting in the 1950's and proceeding to the present day. Memories are deceiving. Like most folks, I know that as a child I never received anything but socks and underwear for Christmas. That is an exaggeration, but with very rare exceptions, I cannot recall exactly what I did receive. My birthday is four months from Christmas, but after all these years, I can't honestly say whether a favorite toy arrived in December or April.

I think I do a little better recalling the gifts I gave to other people. I remember the paring knife I gave my mother, wrapped in a long paper tube for Christmas when I was ten. You remember things you made with your own hands much more clearly than anything you buy -- even when you have to admit that you could buy a better example of the thing at KMart. Most of my Christmas shopping as a child was done in the local "five and dime." We went downtown to the big department stores, but I don't remember buying anything but perfume in them. I was much more titillated by the old junk stores on Cherry Street, when I wasn't in a used book store. I may not remember the objects we were shopping for, but I clearly remember interminable hours spent shopping. We may not have bought a lot of gifts, nor spent a lot of money, but we sure took our time to do it slowly and carefully. I think that was an unspoken tenet of my family: no gift is ever really worth giving unless it resulted from at least 20 hours of shopping.

Sometimes, I rebelled. There was one notorious incident in Sears when I was eight. After purchasing a variety of gifts, my mother looked around and I was not there. She started to look for me. She enlisted the help of the Sears sales staff. They were on the verge of calling the local police when my mother caught a glimpse of a child mannequin in a display, that looked very familiar. I did not get coal in my stocking that year, but I should have.

We spent so much time finding, debating, choosing between and presenting those gifts. I wonder how many of them are still in the possession of those to whom we gave them? I know I have practically nothing I ever received as a youth that has survived extant. Life doesn't stand still and things fly away from you when you're young -- it's like walking in a hurricane: it's a wonder you ever arrived at all without worrying about the stuff you thought you'd brought with you.

I suppose that the only really persistent gifts I give are books. They may not remain with my intended recipient very long, but I can take solace in the fact that they may be in somebody's possession. Most other things break, wear out, or get superseded. Everyone over 50 I have ever known has moaned at Christmas about how nothing is made well anymore. When I was a kid, everything was made better "before the war." My mother was an exception to my over 50 rule. She did admit that tons of things were as cheaply and shoddily made in her youth as in her dotage. She maintained that no automobile she encountered before 1960 would run reliably for more than a month without trained mechanical intervention.

In the final analysis, the things we give and receive don't matter so much as the feelings they inspire in us and in others. Advertisers know this very well, which is why they spend so much time showing us people receiving their products. We aspire to produce that kind of reaction in our recipients and we shyly hope other people feel that way about us. It is a pity that we live in a world where strangers know more about us than we know about ourselves. What a wonderful world it would be if we could turn that understanding away from a venal pursuit of profit and into the achievement of Christ's vision for humanity: brothers and sisters supporting one another in the spirit of love. The worst expression of denial in this Christmas season is our collective denial that Christ's aim could be achieved. It is our fault that it is not.

So take a step away from denial. Make an effort to do something you do not have to do for another person. Turn the tide in your own life by turning the tide in someone else's life. Give without expectation. Accept without consequence. Love one another.

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