This Holiday, Give More Love, Less Stuff

For the past month, I’ve seen houses in my neighborhood losing the battle against Early Decoration Syndrome. Christmas has been slowly invading the neighborhood, with a fringe of Hanukkah for good measure. I’ve decried the unwanted invasion, the insidious nature of the Holidays months before the date actually arrives, the constant barrage of Christmas commercials and ads starting just before Halloween. But here’s the thing, as much of a humbug as I may seem with my hard and fast rule against singing Christmas carols until after Thanksgiving, with no decorations on my own home until mid-December, and with the vast amount of shade I give to my wife every year about going out to cut down a real Christmas tree, I actually really like Christmas. From the corny songs to the ever-present pine needles, there’s something about this time of year that is sort of magical (despite the vast rise of depression, suicide, and theft). I feel myself getting all nostalgic and filled with cheer, despite my outward grumbling. Honestly, sometimes I can’t stand myself.

What I also love is that around this time of the year my family always has wonderful conversations about what Christmas means, about the spirit of giving, about helping those less fortunate, about the lessons that can be found in world around us as well as places like the Bible and the Torah, the teachings of Jesus and Buddha, and most importantly, the lessons we learn from being around family. Yet even with all of that, the main stress of Christmas often seems to boil down to what are we going to get each other? Did you make a Christmas list for the kids and yourself? Don’t forget gift receipts!

For these few months it is a constant litany of: “I want that Santa!” or, “Oh, can I get that!” or, “Mom, can I put that on my wish list!” even, “Honey, I only have a few things left on my wish list, what else can I add for people.”

Every commercial break my kids watch produces as many “I wants!” as any trip through a toy store.  It’s nearly a month before Christmas and the requests from my children’s plethora of grandparents for more gift ideas is a near constant din. This running commentary of requests and complaints I’ve been hearing in my house for the past month only serve to reinforce my belief that we have too much shit. We are not a wealthy family by any stretch; we barely break even every month between my school loans, my medical expenses, and daycare for the wee ones. However, we somehow have more stuff than we know what to do with. Especially my children. Much of it is well worn hand-me-downs or gifts and they have tons of it. I have to wade my way through the kids’ areas in order to get around my house. My kids are fortunate to have four sets of grandparents who are all more or less healthy and fairly well off.  And as there are not a ton of grand kids to spread the wealth, they spoil them. A lot.

This is a far cry from my own upbringing.  I really had only one grandparent growing up, my Gram, my mother’s mother, and she is the mother of eight children, grandmother to eighteen, and at last count, great-grandmother to twenty seven (though I may have missed a few, those catholic Irish pop them out like Pez). My Gram’s love and attention was never spread too thin, like too much bread and not enough jam, but there are limits to material representations, like presents, with that many ankle biters running around. At Christmas time it was one present during the family Christmas party and you had to take a number to see what order you got to open yours. Sometimes, it was nearly an hour before you got to open your present. As for my father’s parents, they lived in Puerto Rico, mi Abuelo y Abuela, so I almost never got to see them growing up but I counted myself lucky for a card, some money, and a few kind words in a language I could not read. I didn’t get much, but I never suffered for it. If anything, I appreciated those things I did have even more.

And now here we are, we have our children who actually get tired of opening presents. On several occasions, they just wanted to play with the presents they got before they opened the ones they have left.  I told them to quit whining and be thankful for such loving family, but lately it’s gotten me to thinking.

Before I clarify, I do not say all this to boast.  Like I said, we are not well off, but I also realize how very fortunate we are to have what we do. I’ve danced on the poverty line most of my life, as have my parents and my in-laws growing up, and we’ve all wanted for many things.  Now that we are all relatively doing better, we all want to provide the opportunities we didn’t have the chance to before, but often that desire to provide equates to all of us buying lots stuff and things.  Hence the explosion of presents and wrapping paper around every December 25th. And birthday. And Easter. But how is that helping our children?

I see it too often in my children and in the students I teach, this sense of entitlement and the devaluing of the immaterial. They too often value their possessions yet they don’t appreciate the life they lead. They don’t realize how lucky they have it and how, just by being born in our country, by having food and the ability to read, they are better off than the vast majority of the world. Instead they complain when they don’t get what they want when they want it. They get toys, phones, computers, ecetera and set it aside for other things within moments, yet try to take away these things and all hell breaks loose. But time and again, I see my kids play with the simplest of items: a stick, a box, some string and rocks. These will occupy hours in their days while their pile of stuff becomes dusty.

This Christmas, I am asking that all of my family, friends, and all of you reconsider what you plan on doing this Christmas for your loved ones, especially the children. It’s time to do put aside this culture of buying things and instead, why don’t you get opportunities? Provide the experiences and memories someone cannot afford on their own, not junk that will end up in some landfill or yard-sale. Buy a week at a space camp, tickets to a play or musical in your local city, a kit they have to build themselves in order to play with it. Better yet, give them the gift of compassion. Have them choose toys and clothes to take to a local shelter, visit a hospital and have them play with sick kids, volunteer their time in a retirement home. We’ve done several of these things and my kids will often talk about them. I’m not saying don’t buy any presents, because watching a child’s face (and mine) light up when they get that toy they really want is so special, but after the third or fourth special gift, it becomes less special.

America spends billions on the holidays every year. What else could we do with that money? How may lives could we change? Or save? Not to get preachy, but if we want to be the nation of good Christian/Jewish/Muslim/etc. people, shouldn’t we act like it?We all want a society that is more compassionate, understanding, and respectful of others, yet our practices don’t always reflect that. Perhaps that may be the best present of all. And if I could end up with less stuff in my house, that would be great too. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Peaceful Solstice, and a Joyous Kwanzaa to you all.

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