During the coming month, we can expect to be enticed, cajoled, implored, dared and practically ordered to spend as much money on as many things as our bank accounts and credit cards will tolerate. There are stores staying open past midnight, sales beginning at four in the morning, and early-bird discounts for those willing to stand in line in the wee hours waiting for the doors to be unlocked. Some stores even offer to give you a wake-up call so you can be there on time.
I doubt that Linus Van Pelt from Peanuts will save us from all this insanity, no matter how sincerely he tries to remind us of what Christmas is all about. And I expect that my input will have only minimal effect on a few people who read this, but I can’t resist the urge to make the attempt. At my age, I’ve been involved in gift-giving for more than 75 years. Early on, even though my parents usually selected the gifts and paid for them, I was involved to the extent that I helped wrap the package, tried to keep the contents a secret, put my name on the “from” portion of the gift tag, and watched with anticipation as someone opened it on Christmas morning.
Once in school, we were further taught to give presents to classmates whose names we drew from a box on the teacher’s desk. Granted, there was a price limit on the gift– usually 25 cents– but that bought a coloring book, book of paper dolls, five candy bars, a fairly fancy yo-yo, a bottle of nail polish, hair ribbons, a couple of comic books, a fake leather billfold, a pretty handkerchief, or any number of other items at the local five and dime. The point is; the school reinforced the idea that Christmas was about material gifts.
At a fairly early age, I became acutely aware that some of the gifts under the tree at home were not destined to send the recipient into raptures of delight. I knew, because of my own reaction when the bright paper and pretty bow were found to hold only a pair of anklets or new underpants. I began to notice that a great many of those gifts were things that would have been purchased anyway because they were necessary. School supplies, clothes, bath powder, hobby supplies– things my parents would have provided whenever we needed them. The whole idea seemed to be just to have something to wrap up and call a present because– because you gave presents to everybody because they gave presents to you because everybody expected it. It seemed that all the best presents were from Santa Claus.
I must admit that I did the same with my own children when the time came. They received clothes, school and hobby supplies, scout and camping equipment, books and, yes, even toys that I would have bought them anyway but which were reserved for Christmas. Why such things were saved for Christmas can’t be explained except by admitting that I wanted to impress them with the overwhelming generosity of Santa Claus. Even when they were old enough to understand that it was their parents who provided this abundance, we all pretended it had something to do with Christmas.
There came a day when my kids had everything they needed and most of everything they wanted and I couldn’t think of anything to give them that they didn’t already have. I was shocked into admitting that the whole thing was a frustrating exercise in spending money I didn’t have for things that nobody really wanted. When the exercise equipment, kitchen gadgets and 5,000-piece tool sets on the infomercials start looking good, it’s time to reassess one’s values and quit shopping. So I did.
It took me a couple of years to convince everyone that I meant it when I said I was done buying Christmas presents. I baked favorite cookies or wrapped up jars of homemade jelly in order for everyone to have something to open when I opened the gifts I’d told them not to bring to me. Eventually, we all managed to whittle things down to gifts for the young children and only homemade things– if any at all– for the rest of us. And guess what? We still get together on Christmas Eve for a buffet supper, we play all my holiday CDs, talk, play some of those games from past Christmases, and generally enjoy each other’s company in the glow of the Christmas tree lights and logs burning in the fireplace. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not quite the same. I miss the squeals of delight when somebody opens a present that they actually wanted. I don’t miss the frantic shopping, the abused checking account, the bushels of torn wrap and ribbons to pick up and haul away. Most of all, I find that I like Christmas better this way. Maybe, Linus, I’ve learned what it’s all about.