When I was a kid, Christmas gifts were the mecca at the end of a year’s pilgrimage. (To avoid confusion: I am from a Jewish family so profoundly secular that we didn’t even bother to call our Christmas tree a Hanukkah bush.) I’d spent several weeks in advance of the day imagining what I might get, sneaking into my mother’s closet (where she kept our gifts wrapped and not at all well hidden) to shake and feel and otherwise hope.
Although I’m sure I got some pretty good stuff over the years, I mostly remember that I never got what I really wanted — a pony. (A real pony.) One year, the year of Greatest Pony Hope, I was convinced that one was forthcoming … and was devastated to find a wrapped package under the tree rather than a blanketed horse out in the snow in the front yard. I just couldn’t understand how my parents could have gotten it so wrong.
(Of course, I knew not to blame Santa, as my soul-crushing older sister had long since disabused me of that fantasy — right about the time she told me I was adopted, which I’m not. Would I have been happier in life had she lied about Santa being made-up and been right about the adoption? Hmmm.)
These days, I find Christmas gift-giving to be a grating reminder of how our consumer culture is so wildly out of touch with the physical realities of life on planet Earth. It’s not what you get, it seems, but how much — so that, come Christmas day, your house is strewn with the wreckage of dozens of opened gifts, the ruined shreds of wrapping paper requiring their own garbage bags for extra trips to the trash bin outside. Most of what you get you don’t want and certainly don’t need. It just seems like a colossal waste of resources, both the ones used to make the objects you don’t want, and the money used to buy them. Junk, junk, junk.
Now, I do understand that a lot of businesses depend on holiday shopping to stay afloat, and I am not joining the Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude (to borrow from Stephen Colbert). Nor am I on a crusade to enforce the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion by complaining that Christmas gets too much entitlement from the public sector — although I’m mightily amused when Fox News Christians bemoan their victimization as celebrators of Christmas, as if they are martyrs in a world hostile to their faith rather than privileged members of a society in which Christianity still dominates daily life. (As a Jew, I can testify as to how few places there are to eat out on Christmas Day that aren’t serving a Christmas feast or Chinese food.) I think it’s nice to have a holiday that celebrates giving, and if more Christians lived even vaguely like the person whose birth they are celebrating, I’d be all over Christmas like — well, like wrapping on a Christmas present.
Several years back, I decided I just couldn’t take the annual waste-of-money-trying-to-buy-gifts-for-people-who-have-everything-they-need any longer. I told my family to make charitable donations on my behalf in lieu of gifts and that I would do the same for them. They cheerfully complied — most probably because it saved them the aggravation of trying to find me a present. It didn’t, however, stop them from showering each other with gifts, so my impact was pretty narrow in scope — limited to me, in fact. Indeed, it was kind of a bummer to watch other family members poring over new sweaters, jewelry, and other toys, while I sat in saintly fashion and watched, thinking, “Damn, I could have had that.”
Granted, I am deprived of the fleeting pleasure of ripping into packages to uncover the mysterious new object of possession within. On the other hand, the hassle of Christmas season is a thing of the past. No longer do I wait in tedious checkout lines, battle for parking, and hump heavy packages to the car, to be badly wrapped later at home. Instead, I make donations from the comfort of my keyboard at home — no trip to the post office required. And I know with certainty that the money I am spending is going to help someone who actually needs what he or she is getting, not to some affluent American whose house is already full of superfluous material objects.
Happy/Merry [insert your holiday here], everyone!