Holidays about more than stuff

Ah, the season is upon us, the shopping season, that is. Oh, I suppose the season has a reason, but judging by the Black Friday reports, TV ads and bumper-to-bumper traffic on College Avenue, it’s been drowned out by the annual frenzy to buy stuff.

I’ve lamented the commercialization of Christmas for years, but maybe this year we have an opportunity to stop measuring holiday success by the deals and gifts we score.

Of course, I’m torn. After Sept. 11, 2001, we were instructed to get out there and shop, to tell the terrorists no one would take away our American way of consumption. Am I still a patriot if I only buy groceries?

Who’s to blame for the Christmastime slap of credit cards on countertops? Wal-Mart, Harry & David and Old Navy make easy targets, but they’re off the hook. Even Santa’s predecessor, Father Christmas, was, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the bearer of holiday merrymaking and drunkenness, not whatever they handed out in the 15th century instead of iPods.

The blame lies with Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar, those Three Wise Men who trekked through the desert to present Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Presumably these three didn’t pool their gifts but rather presented individually, with the gold-bearing king looking smug when his traveling companion presented frankincense, the biblical equivalent of a Glade Plug-In. History records the first mention on that occasion of “it’s the thought that counts.”

The greatest obstacle to cutting back on holiday gift giving is children. The little mercenaries expect bounty because we’ve trained them to. A colleague of mine mandated a family-wide “no gifts” policy. That’s easy for DINKs (double income, no kids).

Children’s ages make a huge difference. The single-digit ages are easy. Our 5-year-old asked Santa for “men,” little plastic characters selling five for a buck at Target. The 7-year-old wants stuffed animals, without distinguishing between a $50 Steiff bear and a $5 Beanie Baby. This age considers a crayon creation or macaroni mosaic worthy of giving without apology. Sign me up.

But the kids with double-digit ages know their prices. They add up their annual haul, made easier by gift cards, those sinister little testaments to the fact that, indeed, the thought no longer counts, but rather the amount. I recently read that tough economic times will slash the sale of gift cards, but for an unlikely reason: the value of the card is visible, therefore the giver has no incentive to shop for bargains – a priority these days – and the recipient knows the precise dollars spent, i.e. how much the giver cares. Isn’t that sad?

Enough of this nonsense. Let the silver lining from the economic crunch be new awareness that these holidays are not about stuff. Grown-ups, it’s OK to proclaim to family and friends, “Thanks, but I’ve got enough stuff.” Moms and dads, don’t be afraid to tell the kids that tough times require sacrifices, and that maybe this holiday shouldn’t be about stuff but rather should be about… well, you’ll complete that sentence, guided by your traditions, your faith and so on.

At a minimum, this secular thread runs through the diverse tapestry of beliefs in this community: the celebration of family. Can’t put a price tag on that.

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