Friday, November 14, 2008

The Giving Season

I'm not a person to send cards or gifts for birthdays or anniversaries and if I do, they are rarely on time. This in no way reflects my level of love for a person, it speaks only of my inability to follow through on good intentions. I'm not making a statement of any kind except for the obvious point that I'm a wee bit unorganized, but I will admit that I do have some issues with the concept of obligatory giving. To me, a personal gift, given primarily because it's expected, has little value for either the giver or the receiver.
So here we are on the verge of another season of giving and just like every year, I have mixed feelings about the whole deal.

One one side, I love giving gifts. I love giving gifts more than I like getting them. (Although, getting them is fun too.) I love making a list and thinking up just the right thing for each person. I love the busy, crowded malls filled with traditional music. I even love the traffic getting to the shops. I love making things, my studio all a buzz like Santa's shop. I like wrapping paper and ribbons and tags. I love boxes full of secrets sent in the mail or placed under the tree.

But it's not all fun and silvery bows. I don't like trying to balance how much time and money and - if we're talking kids - number of boxes -I spend on each person. I don't like trying to "even it all out". I don't like spending too much. I don't like buying something I have no idea whether the person needs or even likes just because they have to be on my list. I don't like "going with something safe". I don't like the stress of trying to do it all, whether bought or made. I don't like.... well, I have mixed feelings about wish lists. Kids making wish lists are adorable. I appreciate a few hints from a person or someone who knows them well if I'm truly stuck. On the other hand, an unsolicited phone call saying "Have you bought anything for so-and-so yet? You can buy them a widgawocket." just annoys me.

The only gift is a portion of thyself. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Long ago when I was a fresh young adult with no money, I bought delights and surprises for people through out the year and felt happy and proud. I picked one or two people a year to make something handmade for, since time didn't allow me to make things for everyone, and I felt good about that instead of guilty, knowing I'd work my way through everyone over the years.

When we had a house full of kids and still very little money, I worked hard to come up with a few special gifts for everyone and knowing that was the best I could do, I felt good about those years too. Even though I spent far less than I do now, the spirit of giving seemed to fill the air. One or two years during that time we found a way to splurge and, instead of seeming commercial, it felt special and in the true spirit of the holidays.

But over the years things have become muddled and ..... less fun. I feel as much dread as excitement at the task of making lists and buying gifts. It's all started to feel too obligatory and now that we have a bit more disposable income, the boundaries of what is expected have become vast and blurred and unclear.

I've tried a lot of different approaches over the years to make things feel right again. I've tried to go back to making everything homemade. Of course that's easier for some than others. A teenage boy is hard to make something for, a mom or sister easier to please. A few years I've succeeded in making a lot only to be frustrated when the supplies or, more so, shipping, costs more than the items themselves. I would have saved myself a lot of time and trouble and expense by simply spending a few hours setting up gift certificates for everyone and calling it a day. Not that a gift certificate can't be a perfectly lovely gift, in fact it can be just the thing on occasion. And honestly, if you suspect (or know from past experience!) that someone is going to simply stuff your lovingly handmade item into the back of a drawer or closet, why bother wasting your time? But it seems to defeat the whole point of giving if the whole thing becomes a task I "check off my to do list" with little personal thought. If it becomes more about giving "something" than giving..... of yourself, why are we doing it? Everyone on my list is perfectly capable financially of buying "something" for themself.

You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. ~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Some families try the "pick a name" idea to help reduce the cost and stress of giving to everyone. Although it's a practical plan, I don't like the idea of getting stuck with Uncle Bignose who I have no idea what to buy, and not be allowed to make a gift for Niece Smileyface when I have the perfect gift idea for her!

My mom called me the other day and asked if I was planning on exchanging gifts with extended family this year. We've always exchanged gifts, although over the years, as the nieces and nephews have grown up, I've stopped sending gifts to Hubby's family as, honestly, we're just not that close. (although sometimes I miss doing so) None of my siblings have kids so the only family they do exchange with is me and the folks. I hate to think of them not getting anything. And I do love getting packages in the mail throughout the holiday season, even if it's just a box of tiny cheeses or a video for the family. It's not what is in the box, it's getting FUN MAIL that's the best part of the gift!

And yet, it strikes me as silly that I spend $XX on my sister and another $10 to ship it and she does the same thing for me, when we could have just bought the same items for ourselves, sent each other a lovely card, and collectively saved ourselves $20. I don't know what to do. There's only so many ideas one can come up with when the person you love has a life a thousand miles away and you don't know a lot about it. But, I'd miss those boxes arriving in the mail. Sigh.

My mom really wanted an answer, yes or no. I told her to let me think about it, but why does it have to be a yes or no? When did a gift become something we only give if we get in return? I didn't think a gift was supposed to be conditional, or come with strings attached. "Here's yours - what did you get me!?" Honestly, I think my first choice would be to say "let's not exchange" and then just send a gift if I feel like it, if it comes from the excitement of finding an idea or a gift that matches that person exactly. Or, if nothing comes to mind, skip them by only to send them a surprise in June for no reason at all. Or skip gifts entirely one year and not the next with no expectations that I might not coordinate my giving to match up with my getting. I'm not worried about it. Have we learned, as culture, that we should? If so, are we still truly practicing the gift of giving or are we simply practicing the ritual of exchanging? True giving should be a gift to both the gift giver and receiver, a complete alchemical equation that works backwards and forwards without another equation, a gift received, factored in.

Love is, above all, the gift of oneself. ~Jean Anouilh

For immediate family - kids and grandkids - it's more a matter of money management than WHAT to buy them. Each year I remind everyone, including myself, how much we spend in "invisible" gifts. Or should I say, "unboxed" gifts. We spend money on travel expenses so we can all be together. We spend extra money on food for the hordes. We spend money on decorations to create a holiday mood and activites - dinners out and stops at Starbucks. Before I spend a single dollar on packaged gifts, we've already spent more money than we can pay for without whipping out the credit card. I have to remind myself that all those things ARE gifts and if push came to shove financially, would be the only gifts I'd try to salvage. Being together and creating memories are more important than unwrapping boxes for a few hours in the holiday season.

I tell my family every year that I'm not going to spend a lot on gifts, in part to forewarn them, in part to convince myself, and in part so they don't feel they need to spend a lot of money in return. Every year though, by the time I've bought this and that and just this little thing and then something for that person because I bought those for that other person..... it adds up anyway. I have fun doing it, but when the wrapping is all ripped and the gifts are all put away, the bills come and that part is no fun at all.

Christmas is the season when you buy this year's gifts with next year's money. ~Author Unknown

I'm not complaining. No one else complains either. (Okay, maybe Joe complained the year I somehow managed to forget to give him a single personal gift - it was so funny sad. I was totally shocked that I could do that armed with all my lists! And I've been making it up to him for years!) I think all my kids have a good attitude towards gifts and giving. Probably more so than me. I've had decades of different issues and situations built up, complicating my intentions.

If that's not enough confusion, warring with my intentions to give homemade or less or create a less commercialized holiday, is my guilt for not plunging into the shops and infusing the bad economy with lots and lots of money. I feel the guilt but yeah, I'm not gonna act on that. I don't believe we can or should maintain an economy that depends on overconsumption. We might shore up our immediate crisis but only by creating more and more imbalance with our planet and ultimately causing more damage in the long run. It's not good for anyone no matter how good it feels in the moment.

The Christmas season has come to mean the period when the public plays Santa Claus to the merchants. ~John Andrew Holmes

So, here I am at the bottom of another longwinded post, no closer to discovering how to balance fun and frugality, commercialism and spiritual meaning. Maybe there's no balance to find, only the lesson, the gift of juggling, of giving and receiving, of finding meaning somewhere between the magical, perfect life we imagine, and the warty, confusing, imperfect life we muddle through each day.


Anonymous Dawn said...

wow! yeah that is definitely a lot to think about, and all issues I think we all wrangle with this time of year. I agree with a lot of what you said, but that last quote about us playing Santa to the merchants really hits home when you think about how this country has been behaving over the last few decades.

7:15 AM  

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