“Two-thirty in the morning? Are you mad? I think the only reason I would willingly get out of bed at 2:30 in the morning is to use the toilet or escape a burning house. In fact, at 2:30 in the morning dying in my sleep in a burning house might not be a bad option if it meant I did not have to get out of bed.”
“For a good deal, if that’s what you’ve got to do,” was my cousin’s unruffled response to my shock over her early morning Black Friday shopping excursion.
It was Thanksgiving weekend and we were sitting at my cousin’s dining room table reviewing highlights of the previous days. She recounted with excitement the various gifts she purchased for her children, parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews. My head was spinning trying to keep up with who got what, and what she wished she could have found or afforded.
“This is all too overwhelming,” I finally said. “I can’t do it. It is just madness.”
I used to try to write seasonal holiday cards for everyone in my address book and give gifts to everyone on my list, but it always felt so perfunctory, and I could never get through my lists. I would start at the beginning of the alphabet to write cards, but I could never get through to the end of the alphabet. Some time in January (every year) I would box up my efforts and put them away until the following year. Since I could not get something in the mail to everyone nothing went in the mail at all until I could complete the process. The following year I would pull out my box of half-written cards and start from the end of the alphabet to work my way backwards through my address book. Somehow, I either never managed to catch up with the previous year’s effort, or when I did I felt compelled to write fresh cards so that the thoughts were warm, once again. Consequently, there was no chance for me ever to get through the list. Gift giving followed a similar pattern, only with the added complications that I could never really determine who was suppose to be on the list, and I had to count my pennies to boot.
After several years of this nonsense, one day I pulled out the box of half-written cards and miscellaneous trinkets and tokens I’d purchased over the years, and all I could see in it was a pile of insanity. In that moment I asked myself why I go through the motions every year when I know I have neither sufficient time nor money to get through my lists. I had long ago figured out by the end of the holiday season all I accomplish is making myself feel like a failure because, once again, I cannot complete the project. It suddenly seemed like an exercise in self flagellation.
Gazing into the box of lunacy as if it was some kind of a crystal ball I tried to find a compelling reason why I should continue the annual ritual. The only two reasons I could come up with that I had ever gone through the card and gift routine were because (1) I was taught you are suppose to write cards and buy gifts for Christmas, and (2) everyone else does it. These are not compelling reasons to do anything.
I took a step back from the details of the act of cards and gifts to reflect on what it means to me as a giver. Giving cards and gifts is a token my appreciation for kindness or friendship, or a favor extended to me. It is because I think someone would enjoy having a particular item, but would not likely ever treat her or himself to it. Giving a gift is an excuse to spend time with someone, especially when the gift involves sharing a meal or a cup of tea. I give because I want someone to remember me, as when I send cards to new colleagues or acquaintances. Giving a gift means someone does not have to do without basic subsistence, like food or clothing. It is an acknowledgement of someone’s experiences, as when someone has a baby, or a family member dies. It means I want to help someone feel good or let someone know I am thinking of him or her. All of it feels good to know that something I did might have made someone smile.
I give gifts and write cards year round, for all these reasons. So why is it so tough – and so perfunctory – to do it in December, en masse, to ensure no one gets left out? My perception of solstice holidays has changed and matured a great deal since I was a young child hoping with all my might that I had been well-behaved enough for Santa to stop at our house and leave me a gift. Pragmatically, I am challenged by both the financial constraints and time constraints of getting through everyone on my lists all at once. I also lack the motivation to participate in the rabid consumption economy that depends on consumers buying stuff for the sake of buying stuff. Creating demand for a consumption economy in no way emulates spending time with someone, appreciation or love, sustenance, acknowledgement of life cycle events, or even human surprise and warm feelings. Buying into a consumption economy means putting money into the pockets of shareholders.
Since I gave up on my annual masochistic custom I have put a conscientious effort into doing a better job acknowledging and appreciating the people around me from January through November. I have given myself the liberty to buy a gift occasionally, for no reason, instead of contemplating what might be possible in December.
Still, it is socially awkward not to participate in gift and card exchanges so conscientiously. My decision to skip the December derangement makes it difficult to be gracious in accepting gifts. When I do receive a card or gift the heightened sense of gratitude I have developed through my reflections leaves me nearly breath taken. I suspect I am not the only person who is uncomfortable with the cultural expectations of the annual December exchange.
Not all solstice traditions are dependent on gift exchanges. When gifts are part of the tradition, often, though not always, traditional gifts are in the form of treats and sweets, symbolic gifts associated with different kinds of good fortune, or collections to share with the community or those who are in greater need than we ourselves might be. Anything a friend wishes to share is a gift to me. This might mean there is no silken ribbon to untie, and no glittered paper to unwrap. Write me a poem, sing me a song, pour me a cup of tea, walk with me. If you absolutely must spend money for a December holiday gift, write a check to one of my favorite causes and change the world.
The winter solstice represents the gradual return of the sun, and with it the cycle of life and human resilience. As my cousin reminded me that afternoon in her dining room, everyone has their own values, beliefs, and priorities that shape their perceptions and practices around the solstice events. We are, thus, all entitled to our own traditions and interpretations. For some that means participating in American-style Christmas gift giving. Other traditions work better for me.
Happy Holidays, however you may observe them.