Archive for December 18th, 2007

In my circles, at least, an increasing number of people seem determined to escape the consumerism associated with Christmas. Instead of buying gifts, they’re making donations in the name of people. One man goes even further, telling those around him that he doesn’t want gifts. Intellectually, I am all for these ideas, and feel that I should emulate them more than I do. However, on another level, I wonder whether, in struggling against the tawdriness of the season, they go too far in the opposite direction.

Your feelings on this subject, I suppose, will partly depend on the level of consumerism you associate with the season. If you’re accustomed to buying one large gift and going deeply into debt, then cleansing yourself of these expectations will likely be a relief. Too many people see gift-giving as a kind of competitive potlatching, in which their extravagance assert their own status or worthiness.

If, however, you’re like me, and prefer to give small, carefully chosen gifts that don’t exceed your budget, then a completely anti-consumer Christmas risks being joyless.

From the point of view of giving, finding a gift for someone is an act of empathy and imagination. Except, perhaps, in the earliest stages of a relationship, industrial culture doesn’t have many customs that encourage these things, so we shouldn’t eliminate the few that do. For me, selecting a gift for someone I care about is a pleasure, and I consider a day well-spent as I try to imagine this person reading that book, or how that set of earrings might match that person’s skin or hair. And despite the chances of making a wrong choice, I admit, too, to a little pool of gratification inside when I see that my choice pleases the recipient – or, at least, that they’re pleased that I made an effort.

From the point of view of receiving – well, the inner child (as we’re calling Freud’s Id these days) always enjoys being pampered. For myself, I have to admit that an unread book can reduce me to a state of intellectual gluttony. Give me a stack of unread books, and I am in the same state of happy frustration as a parrot trying to choose between a playtoy and a millet stock. No matter how much I try to be an adult and socially concerned, I have to be honest and say that a card that says a donation has been made in my name just doesn’t compare.

Besides, a donation card seems reminiscent of of a gift card, that most impersonal of presents. Unless very carefully chosen, it can seem the gift of someone who doesn’t know you very well, or, perhaps, of someone who doesn’t want to know you. Either way, it seems contrary to the whole point of gift-giving, which is to claim or reaffirm a relationship. Gifts between strangers are sometimes useful or necessary, but, even then, they are more successful when they are chosen to given pleasure to the recipient.

And if that sounds childish, I agree. But we place such a premium on responsibility and maturity these days that maybe letting the inner child out for a brief romp isn’t so bad an idea. At least that’s better than repressing it until it escapes in the form of an entrepreneur’s greed for money or power.

I do make donations at this time of year, if only for the selfish reason that it’s the last chance to reduce the years’ taxes. At times, too, my gifts do include donations. But I much prefer to keep my charities separate from the art of gift-selecting. Insisting that everyone must constantly be an adult and act out of enlightened motives is simply too high an expectation to place on anyone.

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