They are already playing Christmas music.
It began yesterday, on what has come to be known as "Black Friday", the biggest shopping day of the year in the U.S. Not 24 hours had passed since we sat at the table and gave thanks for our abundance, before we pushed back our chairs, and raced out to add to it. It is almost impossible to avoid the onslaught of advertising, unless one swears off all forms of media and avoids most any public place between now and the holiday. It seems to me a kind of madness, one from which I am not entirely immune.
And so I find myself asking, "How will I be?" in relation to all of these messages that compel me to "buy more, save more!", "spend less, get more!". It seems implicit - both in the advertising and in our culture - that not giving material gifts during the holiday season is not a viable option. In fact, just yesterday on public radio, I heard someone say that what we spend/buy during the holidays is a signal to ourselves of how well we are doing. On one level, I get that, I understand how it could be so. And yet, I can't help but wonder how we have allowed our minds to be hijacked by this one-dimensional evaluation of our well-being. And it makes me want to resist.
As I contemplate ways in which to protest rampant consumerism, I think to myself, "I will only make charitable contributions on behalf of my loved ones." Or, "I will only give gifts that are handmade by myself or ecologically conscious artisans." Or, "I will give gifts that are service-oriented, whether the service is provided by me or someone else." And just as I begin to give myself over to these ideas, up rises another set of voices: "What will they think? Will you really deprive everyone of having something to open? How impersonal, handing a loved one an envelope with a message inside that says you spent your money on some organization instead of on them."
As I said, this is a madness to which I am not entirely immune.
What I would love to do is start a new tradition entirely, one that honors abundance and generosity in ways that do not manifest in the form of concrete objects or material goods.
Before proceeding, I must first say that I am truly fortunate, and deeply grateful, that in my family, our being together has always been paramount to the gift giving. And that our gift giving has always been very thoughtful, generous but not ostentatious, a source of pleasure for the givers and the receivers. At least, it has always seemed that way to me.
Yet I find that increasingly, as the gap between the Haves and Have Nots widens across our country and the globe, as the basic unmet needs of so many becomes more apparent, I am yearning for something different, something perhaps less tangible but more sustaining than the traditional presents under the tree. I find that it is increasingly difficult for me to buy things without questioning where they originated, under what conditions, and at what cost to the planet and its inhabitants. I am increasingly called to discern between "want" and "need", and still too often, indulge my wants because I can. I am working on this, one day at a time.
At Christmas, however, I am truly uncomfortable with receiving gifts that I do not need. I am incredibly fortunate right now to be able to provide for myself when it comes to basic and other needs. I recognize my good fortune and feel it deeply. So what I really want is to see our abundance shared with those who are not so fortunate. Yet I also know that others genuinely derive happiness from being able to give something to me, and to deprive them of that stirs up some guilt in me.
So I feel a bit caught, but not so caught that I don't have a vision of what I would love to see and experience on Christmas day:
I imagine my family gathered in my parents' living room, their fat little tree glowing with simple white lights and cranberry-colored velvet bows my mom has tied to its branches. And instead of a floor strewn with gifts - and the cards, ribbons, paper and bows that are the "necessary" accompaniments to those gifts - the air is filled with stories.
I would love for us to gift each other with stories that illustrate why and how much we love each other, that tell the ways in which our lives have been enriched and enlivened because of the other people in the room. Some stories might be of non-family members who have touched us, and to whom we have made an offering of reciprocity this holiday season. I imagine stories of gratitude and celebration, stories that shine a light on the power of love and others to sustain, heal and transform our lives.
Instead of searching madly in stores or online for "just the right thing", I would like to spend the next several weeks reflecting on what might be "just the right story" to share about my sisters, my husband, each of my parents. How did she or he open my heart, encourage me to think differently, show compassion, encourage or inspire a passion within me? Perhaps it is a funny story, or a poignant one, or a seemingly mundane story with a surpise ending. Maybe someone tells a story about how they are hurting, and we are gifted with the opportunity to help hold their suffering. Or maybe a story is told about one or more of our dead, and in sharing it, we invite the departed loved one(s) into our midst.
In my imagination, all of this story telling ends with each of us having a renewed and perhaps deeper appreciation for every other in the circle. Instead of the ritual unwrapping of the presents, the ritual becomes the unfolding of stories, and the gifts are in their telling. There is no wrapping paper to recycle, there are no boxes to break down, batteries to insert, mechanical parts to collect and re-pack. There is just us, a unit, a family, a community - sharing good food, enjoying the blessings of our good health and the ability to be together. The only "new stuff" between us is stuff of the heart.
So, "how will I be" in relation to this dream for a new tradition? Will I tuck it away in an imaginary box until next year, to be taken off the shelf earlier in the season, before the mad rush has begun? Will I brush it aside as something silly and trite, not worthy of its own imaginary box, let alone a mention to anyone else? Or will I gather the courage to offer an idea for a new way to consider celebrating the holiday, come what may?
Maybe my idea will spark other, better ideas from my family members. Perhaps this year, we will have a combination of things - traditional gifts, stories and charitable contributions. Maybe I will bring stories and a few envelopes, and let everyone else decide for themselves how they want to express and experience the holiday.
Whatever the outcome, I do not want to succumb to the cultural messages that tell me how to show my appreciation for others in my life. And I don't want to stay silent just because it seems like too much trouble to offer a new way of thinking or celebrating.
Despite the temptations that assail my eyes and ears everywhere I go, I do not want my offerings to be mass-produced and for the benefit of some large corporation's quarterly earnings report. I want them to be personal, to have meaning that extends beyond the here and now, beyond my ego-need to feel that I met my cultural obligation to help stimulate the economy. I want my offerings to reflect an awareness of how my choices have ripple effects that extend beyond me and the all-too-simple swiping of my credit card.
I want to engage consciously, deliberately, in an exchange of the heart.