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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Does Spending Money on Gifts Corrupt the Giving?

Shall we ask Sarah? No, not the kind of question that perks up her ears. I'll just tell you what I think and how I feel, and I'm interested in your thoughts and feelings on the subject, too. 

For me, giving a holiday gift is akin to writing a letter because, whether giving or writing, I take a lot of personal pleasure in the process. I’ve been thinking about gift-giving lately, in this season of holiday shopping and preparation, and wondering where my pleasure in buying and giving comes from. As with most questions involving holiday traditions, my answer can be traced back to childhood.

My parents were not big shoppers, in general, so our at-home family Christmas was hardly an orgy of materialist excess. Gifts were modest. The thing is, my mother and father were not routinely buying things for us twelve months of the year. We usually got a few new school clothes in September, along with school supplies, and there was always a cake and a special gift for each girl’s birthday, but we were not continuously showered with new clothes, toys, games, records, or even books. We were not deprived, but neither were we overindulged by any measure, and I think this is why gifts at Christmas were so special.

When we were little, the “Santa Claus” presents appeared unwrapped under the tree to greet us on Christmas morning, while presents officially from our parents and grandparents were wrapped in colorful paper. We could get at the Santa Claus gifts right away but had to wait for our parents to join us in the living room (all of us in pajamas and robes) to open wrapped gifts. And when we started unwrapping, it wasn’t a free-for-all. We sat around the living room – no hurry to get breakfast that morning! – and one person opened one present at a time. We all paid attention and enjoyed the opening, no matter who was doing it. As I’ve said, we didn’t have presents and treats every day of the year. Neither was the dining room sideboard all year long laden with cookies and fudge and divinity and a sugar-cube cottage and bowls of oranges and nuts in their shells with nutcrackers laid carefully on top. The holiday was a special time, and part of what made it special was presents, things we’d been wanting for months and were now to be given. 

One gift I’ll never forget, one of my very favorites, was a new hardcover copy of Marguerite Henry’s Black Gold, a story – yes, about a horse! -- that still gives me shivers just thinking of it. I remember one grandmother giving me my own first alarm clock, too, a windup Baby Ben, and the other grandparents sending a long-playing record, an anthology called “Great Hits on Dot.” All these gifts had been bought, rather than homemade, but they were precious to me. I say “but” because there seems to be a feeling in some quarters that gifts purchased with money don’t come from as deep in the heart as something the giver has made by hand, and that doesn’t fit with my experience. I’m not saying that purchased gifts are better. I just don’t think they must be seen as inferior.

Let me come at this from another angle. Even as children, we were encouraged by our parents to give as well as receive. Without a lot of spending money, again, our gifts to each other were modest, but each one was chosen with the recipient in mind, and my sisters and I were proud to choose, buy, wrap and give presents to each other and to our parents.

One year as a young adult, barely able to afford the trip back to my parents’ home for the holiday, the gifts I gave were all homemade. There was a jar of spinach noodles for each relative and a poem written for all to share. It was all I could do.

For several years more recently, I fixated on the idea that no one in my family “needed” anything, and I coerced them (there is no more accurate word) into giving donations to charity in each other’s names and calling those “gifts.” Don’t get me wrong. My family is not “needy,” and plenty of people in the world are, and charitable giving, whether for the holidays or any other time, is important. But I’ve gone back to giving my family simple gifts, things in packages to be opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, depending on the tradition of the individual nuclear family involved, because I like doing it, and so do they.

Certain people are easier to buy for than others, but when inspiration strikes for hard-to-buy-for relatives, I am overjoyed. Yes! “Do you want gift boxes?” Yes! “Do you want us to gift-wrap them for you?” No! I want to do that myself!!!

(There are no pictures here of gifts I’ve sent off to family or squirreled away for David (some wrapped in reusable cloth, others in new or even re-used paper), because the former lot have gone out in the mail, and the latter are not yet wrapped, and anyway, they are surprises, and they are just for the people getting them, not for my blog readers. Yes, some of the gifts are books, but by no means all. Some presents are practical, some inspirational, and some are edible, either homemade -- those mostly to local friends -- or gourmet treats my relatives would not buy for themselves.)

Here’s another thing. We don’t travel on holidays. In the past, I spent many white-knuckled hours on dangerously ice-covered roads, praying I wouldn’t join the jack-knifed semi-trailer trucks in the median ditch. Weather is always a possible issue. Days are short in December, too. Driving expressways in the dark? No, thank you! Then there is the expense of travel, a sure thing, and add to those negatives my wanting to be in my bookstore open the day before and after Christmas, the last time people will be coming “home” to Northport until their summer vacations. It all adds up to staying home. Our kids and grandkids have busy lives downstate and in Minnesota, as do my sisters and mother in Illinois. The upshot of all this is that we don’t hop planes or hit the road in December. Instead we call and talk to each other on the phone. We also send presents. It’s yet another way of “being together” across the miles, and it means a lot to all of us, as I’ve come to realize more and more.

No one in this country is obligated to observe any holiday, and every one of us is free to celebrate or not in whatever way we choose. The day may come -- may it be far, far in the future! -- when I can no longer shop for holiday presents, but while I can I am going to enjoy it! And I must say, if my family has one-quarter as much fun opening their presents as I had buying and wrapping and sending them, I will have my pleasure all over again in theirs. Clearly, there is an aspect of self-indulgence here. Is that a bad thing? All I can say is, I feel very, very good about it.


Karen Casebeer said...

Sarah looks like she's just about to fall asleep or, maybe, she has just (been)awakened. It's a sweet picture of her, regardless. I too enjoy gift giving at the holiday time. Are all the gifts you give reciprocated with the receiver giving back to you? If not, how do you feel about giving, but not getting back? Karen

P. J. Grath said...

I hadn't thought at all about that aspect of giving gifts, Karen, so I guess it's a good question, but I generally don't look at the giving as half of an exchange. I certainly don't want anyone to feel obligated to give me anything. Although now that you've brought it up, there's always a hint of that, isn't there? If I could, with some friends I would love to be Santa, sneaking in and leaving anonymous surprises so that no one would feel the need to reciprocate. When groups of friends do a gift exchange, that's different. Everyone knows the ground rules then.

Dawn said...

I enjoy buying (and occasionally making) gifts for family members too. I rarely see anything in return and I never noticed that until recently. Not that they don't care...they just aren't that organized. I like to find the perfect thing and sometimes that means I find something in July. This year for whatever reason I was uninspired and sent traditional stuff that I am sure will be appreciated but certainly wasn't unique. Ah well. Next year! :)

Have a wonderful holiday, safe at home, cozy and warm. Perfect.

Kathy said...

I enjoyed reading your holiday gift-giving thoughts, Pamela. Especially liked your childhood memories--made me think of our unwrapped Santa presents (had forgotten about that.) We're heading out to Georgia on Christmas Day. I don't like traveling this time of year but, heck, we haven't seen Barry's parents in two years and they're getting up there in years. Chris and his wife are joining us. Have a very Merry Christmas!

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, nice to hear you enjoy giving gifts, too. Childhood, Kathy? You're both reminding me of presents I gave my parents at various times. My father was easy, as he was a reader and loved short stories. O. Henry and Saki were favorites, so a book of stories by either author was bound to be a hit. One time I wandered into an expensive gift store in search of something special for my mother. When I opened the door, bells tinkled to alert the salesperson that someone was on the premises. She hurried to my side and stuck like a burr! She would NOT leave me alone! There was hardly anything in the store I could afford, but at last I made the purchase of a candle snuffer (we always had candles on the buffet and dining table for special occasions) and made my escape. My mother still has the candle snuffer, and we still laugh over what I called, telling the story of the gift shop, "those horrid little bells!"