Monday, December 15, 2014

Life Simply Is... Holiday Giving

I am done participating in the consumeristic madness that dominates this time of year.

I suppose I’ve been spared some of the internal struggle because of the combination of a non-existent discretionary income and an unwillingness to be in debt. So I’ve had practice not having the means to buy gifts for my son, nieces and nephews, friends. It is in fact easy when you don’t have a choice. Far more difficult when you can, but choose not to.

Our economic system isn’t sustainable. It relies on people spending ever more on an endless supply of disposable toys, using up finite resources, and in the process destroying our fragile natural resources.

But more than that, it amplifies a rift in the human condition. We are straying further and further from feeling compassion for our fellow humans, all of whom face decisions, struggles and heartaches that – were they good friends – would prompt us to give them a hug and a kind word. By filling our holidays with busyness, obligation and spending, we are doing the opposite of what is most needed. What the world needs from us, what our family and friends need from us, is face-to-face connection.

I recall chatting with a coworker a couple years ago. She was quite stressed as the holidays approached, recovering very slowly from the flu, talking about late nights and not enough sleep. She had to clean her entire house, top to bottom, and decorate every inch of it, and prepare a feast, for a few close family members’ visit on Christmas.

I asked her what would happen if she gave herself a break this year, perhaps didn’t clean everything, or maybe only decorated one room, or supplemented the feast with some take-out. She looked startled, and then insisted that her very judgmental sister would have harsh words to say about that. I gently suggested that her health was most important. Her mouth tightened in resolve, as she told me she had no choice.

A few days later when she complained again about how she couldnt shake her illness, in curiosity I asked if perhaps it made her feel good to take care of her family in this way, to work hard and prepare such a nice event for them. She insisted that there was nothing enjoyable about any of this.

I don’t mean to tell stories on someone else. Her situation is a dramatic example of something many of us do to a lesser degree. It’s one thing to work hard, get up early to start baking, clean until we’re exhausted, if we feel good about this gift we are giving others. But if it only feels like obligation? If it makes us angry, resentful or ill? If our only incentive is to avoid being judged and criticized?

And back to consumerism. How many people do we buy gifts for out of a sense of obligation? Because they will expect it of us? Because we can afford to? Because we don’t want anyone to know we really can’t afford to? How many years do we buy useless crap for Uncle Steve, because we really have no idea what the guy likes, but we don’t want to risk hurting his feelings by leaving him out?

And how many gifts do we feel our children really need? How do we decide that? What are we comparing this against? Certainly not against past generations. When I was growing up, traditionally my siblings and I would get one special gift each, and possibly one or two little gifts. When my parents were growing up, there was definitely only one gift; in my dad’s case, any new gift required that he give up an old gift.

What is the value of these masses of gifts, when the pile of them takes hours to unwrap? When they clutter our children’s rooms, stack up in piles throughout our homes? When we have so many, we don’t remember them all? And then can’t find them when we do remember them?

How many hours do we spend shopping the department stores and specialty stores (treating other humans like enemies), perusing online, comparing prices and reviews; hours that instead could be spent making real human connections? How many hours do we spend at jobs earning the money to pay for these gifts; time that instead could be spent with those we love? Yes, for most of us we don’t get to choose how many hours we work; we can’t put in a shorter work week just because we are buying fewer presents. But over the course of our work life, we can anticipate more time connecting with people if we spend less money on things no one needs.

How much do our children, our friends, really benefit from the gifts we buy for them? Absolutely, sometimes we find the perfect gift at the perfect time, something that brings joy and lasting value. But what about the rest of the time, when those gifts are simply stand-ins for our affection?

Wouldn’t our time and attention be a far more direct, and much better appreciated, expression of our affection?

Think back to your childhood, to special family memories around the holidays. In my family we celebrated Swedish Santa Lucia Day and a secular Christmas. I can’t recall what gifts I received. I remember how beautiful the decorations were, Swedish ornaments and a well-tinseled Christmas tree. Most years we lived in snowy climates, and I loved the coziness of being inside while it was snowing outside; or bundling up and playing in the crisp fluffy stuff. I remember not being able to sleep Christmas eve, and the utter excitement when it was finally deemed time to get up and see what had shown up under the Christmas tree. It would still be dark and chilly. My parents would light candles. Our stockings would have been moved from the mantle to under the tree, stuffed with nuts and oranges, interspersed between brightly wrapped packages. The Swedish Tomten would be strategically placed on top of it all.

The whole family gathered. All of us. A time before cell phones or personal computers. No TV on. No business trips taking dad away. A morning that was a unique combination of tranquil, undistracted togetherness and the excitement of Christmas presents to be discovered.

Then we would have breakfast together: eggs, some traditional Swedish rolls, hot chocolate. Some of us kids would have helped mom make the Swedish rolls the day before. The table would be adorned with several adorable gingerbread cottages, one decorated by each of us on Santa Lucia Day, that we would break apart on New Year’s Eve.

Family traditions, whether “family” is defined by blood or choice: time spent creating memories, doing things together, or doing for others. These memories fill my heart. And still, I cannot remember a single gift.

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