The holiday season is upon us and I couldn’t be less thrilled. Television was bad enough with commercial interruptions, but it has gone into holiday overdrive as merchants everywhere try to get us to buy stuff we don’t need to give to people who wanted something else. I used to think that gift cards were pretty cheesy –the gift that says “I don’t care enough to actually shop for something personal.” But seeing the post gifting feeding frenzy of returns and exchanges that gets larger and larger every year, it dawns on me that maybe it’s best to just fork over your budget for someone and let them get what they actually want.
Of course, that’s a pretty crass approach to the holidays, but the holidays have become pretty crass in my estimation. I recall vividly that when a relative or friend gave us a gift, we would be obligated to keep the gift and make use of it, even the snow caps lovingly selected for those of us living in Atherton, California, where the temperature might dip to 45 degrees on the coldest night. Yet we would be attired in whatever clothing item we were given, marched into the back yard and posed for photographs to prove our deep affection for the gift and the thought put into its selection. The photos, just back from the developer (a place that turned photo negatives into actual prints, digital photos and ink jet printers still fifty years hence) would be tucked into the envelope that contained the “bread and butter” thank you letter we were required to write by hand, from our own hearts and imagination. Thus were born such literary gems as “Thank you so much for the mohair sweater. I don’t know what a mo is but its hair is very soft.”
The thing is, most of the gifts we received as kids were appreciated. I loved the idea of unexpected things revealed from gaily wrapped packages, someone’s artistic wrapping efforts turning into raining confetti. From the colorful mystery packages would come gloves, socks, sweaters, shirts, hats, ties, and (oh my gosh!) TOYS! Photos and flickering 8mm yellowish and scratchy movies would reveal us kids adorned in the gifts we would open, swelling in size because of the layers of attire we would pull on. The excitement of the holidays was rich and thick enough to cut with a knife in our home and began at Thanksgiving and sailed right through the new year. During our Thanksgiving break from school we would decorate the house. Up would go the lights and wreaths, snow flocking on the windows, placement of loads of candles that would not be lit, but return each year to provide holiday feng shui. A week before Christmas we would get our tree from a parking lot dealer my father had heard that carried good stock. We always went with him certain a Scotch Pine was the tree for us, but we’d return with a fir or spruce tree that would have to have a foot (or two) removed to stand erect in the living room. Tree decoration was a production, an occasion with its own foods and traditions that would result in what we always believed was the best tree ever.
On Christmas morning we kids would be up early, likely an hour or two after our parents had made it to bed after a marathon assembly of gifts from Santa. We would survey with nearly orgasmic glee, the bounty provided for us. From the time I was eight, we would grab a package that was wrapped and signed Santa, the contents of which we had no idea and set it off to the side. When our Christmas gift gluttony was appeased, we would take these gifts to the firehouse where they would be immediately dispatched to kids whose Christmas wasn’t as good as ours. My mother always cooked a turkey in addition to whatever our dinner would be, and replete with stuffing and cranberry sauce would be handed over to the firemen as well. When we got home, my mother or father would answer the phone (in spite of no one hearing it ring) and would say “uh huh. uh huh. Okay, thanks.” and hang up. “That was Santa,” they would say. “He was very pleased to hear that you gave little Johnny the dump truck, Mary the Betsy Wetsy doll,” or whatever it was that we handed over at the firehouse. We always felt good about it too. I remember when my sister had ended up giving a Betty Crocker oven that she had been desperate to have. She burst into tears –but said “That’s wonderful! I know how much I wanted one of those.”
Gifting was a lot different then than it is now. We really wanted to give the people close to us something and as best I know, they really wanted what it was we found for them. The holidays and gifting was a mutual admiration society so sickly sweet it could give diabetes, but it was on the level for the most part. Today it seems like there is such anxiety to include people, but a reluctant effort to find a gift. A lot of people run out and buy a bunch of odd items and then sit at home with a list to see who they can assign these things to. That’s why I say it’s getting better to just cough up a gift card and include a note that says “since I’m socially compelled to give you something, here’s the money I can spend, go get something you like.” On one hand it seems rude, yet on another it seems more thoughtful because at least you’re trying to save them a trip to the exchange counter.