Gifts, power and money

The holidays can be hard times. With all the hopes and expectations of the season up, disappointments have more room to play. And when we most want our attention to be on loving and giving, it can easily slide toward getting, proving and comparing.  The pervasive materialism of the season, and the expectation that we deploy our money to show our love, can be hard on all of us, particularly when money is scarce or unevenly divided.

One of the ways I have tried to protect the spirit of giving from commercialism and competition has been to make gifts. Luckily I love to make things, and could find ways to help my children do the same.  Art work, creatively presented, is full of possibilities. Once I made an unusually delightful drawing of my son’s into postcards, and his father, grandparents and aunts were thrilled. A friend and his son did striking wall-hanging sculptures out of odd bits of hardware, caulk and spray-paint. And I still remember a paper-weight that my father had on his desk all through my growing up, made by an older sister when she was very young. It was a smooth, round stone with lots of bright colors (paint? melted crayon?) dripping down the sides. When children make gifts, they get to feel like legitimate and valued players in the giving department—and the whole tone of the holiday can shift dramatically.

When our boys got too old to be managed in their gift giving, and as we struggled to help an older foster son participate as an equal, we hit upon a stunningly successful plan, now a cherished tradition.  We all pile into a car a day or two before Christmas, and hit our favorite thrift store.  We each have $10 with which to purchase gifts for all the others.  We prowl around the store, have whispered conversations about taste, artfully point out items that we wouldn’t mind getting ourselves, hide things under our coats, make elaborate pretense of not seeing, and generally have a fine old time together (and all the money we spend goes to the charity that the thrift store supports).

When the time comes to open gifts, it can’t go wrong.  Some evoke laughter because they were bought as a joke, others because they didn’t turn out quite as the giver expected—like the cool old record cover with quite a different record inside.  Some hit the spot and become well-used, well-worn or otherwise treasured possessions. Our wildly different financial abilities have become irrelevant, trumped by individual perception and creativity.  Nobody is expecting that much from the gift itself, so our focus can be on our love for each other, and our pleasure at being together.

I have found that making gifts also helps me find my own place of peerness in interactions with extended family members who tend to spend more money.  You just can’t compare the value of a home-made or home-grown item with something that was bought from a store, and to the extent that I can create with love and give with confidence, my offerings can stand with the most expensive gifts.

There are other ways to avoid the moneyed aspects of the season. While a trip to the lights and displays and department store windows downtown can be a treat, I’ve had success turning our family’s attention toward the open spaces at the edge of the city. Rather than immersing ourselves in the glitter and glitz, with lures on every side to buy, buy, buy, we have explored fields and marshes and woods, collected pinecones and seeds, then come home to spend a quiet evening together tying them up with bright ribbons and putting them on the tree.

I remember the year my mother gave the children an Advent calendar with an activity for each day. Along with “learn a carol” was “feed the poor.” This was a great impetus to think about how we could participate together in this part of the tradition—packing baskets of food, sorting through their toys for ones that another child would love, collecting aluminum cans to make money to share. One year when they were older, I corralled our whole family to a little trash-strewn vacant lot I had been passing by every week.  Within an hour or two it had been transformed into a place where the eye could rest, and I felt the gift of their love.  More recently, I have baked an enormous batch of cookies and we have walked the neighborhood, delivering bags to all the little businesses we frequent, many run by immigrants, wishing them joy of the holidays.

We all need this part, as much for ourselves as for those with whom we share.  As we separate our expression of love and connection from our purchasing power, we contribute to wholeness—of ourselves, our families and our community.