When I was sixteen I wrote a novelette about a large family living in the country in the 1800’s. They were a merry bunch and had the most awful names and I had a blast writing about them. In the story, one of the elder brothers has a very special protective relationship with a sister ten years younger than himself. I suppose that is a common fantasy of girls like myself who grew up as the eldest and never had a proper mentor.
I recall an incident in the story in which this eldest brother has a pretty necklace that he wants to give the little sister on Christmas Day. Because their relationship is so special even compared the generally loving atmosphere in the family, he seeks her out between sledding and dinner, in a private corner of their sunny living room, and gives it to her while no one else watches.
This concept, that gift giving is more private as it becomes more special, has stuck with me a bit. Many people have written about the commercialism of the holidays and how the mad rush of useless purchases has little to do with holiday spirit. I don’t think that people are really commercialists. We don’t buy gifts because we genuinely believe that buying things is better than other activities, or that merchants are a better class of people than others and deserve to be supported at the expense of our own budgets.
I think that the custom of opening presents on Christmas morning as a group with the whole family watching turns the experience of giving and receiving gifts into a performance. I think we go mad in the stores during the month before Christmas because we feel that we are going to be graded on our ingenious, expansive, and seemingly costly purchases. Thus generosity, the virtue supposed to be exalted by the custom of giving gifts, falls to the side in favor of showmanship – the ability to produce excitement and to appear generous.
I know some people who consider “the expression on the recipient’s face” to be their special repayment, the thing to which they are entitled in exchange for, their effort in purchasing the gift. Thus, the act of receiving a gift becomes as much a performance as the act of giving. Where are the real, human relations in all this?
I propose what will surely come across as my usual radical delusionality. I propose that we seek, not the ideal or the actual, but the real in our merry and worthy custom of holiday gift giving. (Why am I writing this now? Because thrifty folk all around are already buying presents. No, that’s an excuse. I’m writing it now because a sentence in an assignment at school made me think of it now.)
The ideal: On Christmas morning, everyone sits in a semi-circle around the Christmas tree, smiling, gasping, and saying thank-you a thousand different ways as they open their completely perfect and quite abundant presents. The children are especially enchanting their raptures of gratitude and joy, which of course is the tribute they owe their highly generous parents and grandparents.
The actual: On Christmas day (or shortly before or after) everyone nervously sits around the tree, comparing what they got and gave to what others got and gave, convincing themselves that their presents are good enough and that they spent enough, watching and trying to return a satisfactory smile and thank you for what they received. It’s stressful and it contributes to overspending and sometimes the kids have a blast and sometimes the kids are disappointed. If they are disappointed and show it, they are sharply rebuked. Still, the practice is persistent – not because of the bad things, but because of the good things. People really do show love and generosity on Christmas Day, and they really do hope to bring joy to their loved one’s hearts and faces.
The real: Christmas is a feast particularly dedicated to the virtue of generosity and pouring out one’s resources and love to others, in imitation of Christ’s self-emptying. Gift-giving is the specific custom which embodies this virtue, along with feasting and alms.
Proposal: Try dividing Christmas Day into three equal activities: gift giving, feasting, and alms. Try giving gifts privately, from person to person this year. I don’t mean that no one should be allowed to see what you gave or got, but that the transaction doesn’t need to be staged specially for the viewing of the whole family. Try to experience a genuine human transaction in which people, though courteous, are allowed to have a sincere reaction. It will probably be more quiet but it may also be more meaningful or personal. You may even find that a single gift for each person is enough to fill both giver and receiver with joy.