Sunday, December 16, 2007

Holiday Gift Giving

In very modern times, the Christmas season has changed a lot. For me, personally, the consumerism and materialism of it has become very overwhelming and over recent years I've gradually withdrawn from it. To celebrate in the current and "commercial" way, of purchasing gifts for everyone and their brother, spending money that I don't really have for presents that people don't actually really want or need (or that they could readily and easily buy themselves) and becoming stressed out about it all, while spending time in busy and crowded shopping malls, where I don't actually witness much kindness or Christmas spirit, feels very disingenuous to me and leaves me feeling drained, not happy or particularly generous. Now before people start accusing me of being a Scrooge and shouting "Bah humbug!" at me, let me explain.

When I was in high school, my exceptionally healthy mother, very unexpectedly, suffered a stroke in the week leading up to Christmas. While it took me a few years afterward to finally and to truly understand it more thoroughly and appreciate it in its entirety, I realized that the timing of her stroke was no coincidence. At the time, my mother, then a mother of 10 and a grandmother of 2, was especially busy. Besides being a very busy organist, playing in multiple church services and school productions, was also overextending herself in preparing for the upcoming holiday; besides buying and preparing food for the big party on Christmas day, she was also running around trying to buy presents for all of us (her kids, their spouses and significant others and her grandkids) and ensuring they were all wrapped and that dozens of Christmas cards were in the mail. Did I mention that, at this point, she was already in her 60s and accomplishing all of this ALL ON HER OWN, without any help of any kind?

Holidays such as Christmas, I believe, should be celebrating times of peace, kindness and "goodwill toward men", reaffirming our faith and participating in acts of charity. Instead, Christmas now seems like a time of great stress for many people; very much a burden. Gift giving seems more obligatory than genuine, which to me, defeats the purpose of the season and the true origin and meaning of the day is completely lost. And you know what? We brought this on ourselves; we created this. We took a Christian day and made it into something very secular that promotes materialism over the spiritual. But we don't have to participate in that kind of Christmas anymore. We can choose to go back to our roots and celebrate Christmas in the way that feels most authentic to us and leaves us feeling peaceful and connected to others and to our Higher Power. We shouldn't allow clever and relentless marketing or feelings of guilt or peer pressure, bully us into participating in a holiday, in a way that doesn't feel good to us.

If you genuinely enjoy giving Christmas gifts, no one says you have to stop doing that. But consider giving something different, more meaningful, something that cannot be bought in a store, such as . . . . .

Time is the great equalizer. Time is a finite commodity. It's valuable, alright, but you can never trade it on the Stock Exchange. Each person is given 24 hours in a day; what we choose to do with those 24 hours determines the quality of our life. Have you thought about giving someone the precious gift of your time? A son or daughter may soon forget about that video game or that DVD that they received once it is no longer popular, but how long will they remember that weekend you spent together, where you had long heart-to-heart talks, reminisced and really enjoyed each others company? Another great way to gift your time is by volunteering for a cause you believe in. How do you feel when your friend opens that present that you got them? It is a fleeting joy that pretty much ends in a day or two. But imagine how you will feel when you spend time volunteering for a charity, working to create opportunities and happiness for people who are less fortunate. That joy, that sense of humanity, does not evaporate; it stays with you and reverberates where ever you go. An even better idea? Bring someone with you; a friend, a colleague, a family member. Make it an experience for the both of you, while making it an experience for the other people you are helping, to make an even greater impact. Anyone can send off a check to a charity or even donate online (what could be easier!), which is wonderful, but to give of your time is an even more generous contribution.

A sort of running joke with my mother was the perpetual question she was asked "Ma, what do you want for your birthday?" or "Ma, what do you want for Christmas?" or "Ma, what do you want for Mother's Day?". And what was Ma's perpetual answer?

"Peace and quiet."

Except, of course, this was not really a joke. Genuinely, that was what she wanted. (And I think she still might actually be waiting for it!) But as kids or teenagers, how could we give her that? I'm sure none of us realized how earnest her answer was, until we had matured and could really appreciate where she was coming from. Instead, we continued to give her more trinket boxes than she could ever use, more pajamas and slippers and more and more Heaven Scent perfume and Jean Nate. But now, as an adult, I realize how important, how vitally important, alone time and quiet time is. This is when we can stop, breathe, check in with ourselves and be on our own agendas and not be on everyone else's. "Me Time" is extremely important and most people don't get enough of it, if any at all. How can we recharge our batteries, if we're not allowed to slow down? Giving the gift of an experience to someone can be almost synonymous as giving the gift of time, but think of what else the recipient may get out of this. Do you have a friend who is overwhelmed with the demands of their job and family and running their household? Offering to babysit their children, while they go out and do something that entertains or nurtures them, is a priceless gift. Does your elderly parent have a hard time keeping up with their household chores? Going over and doing their laundry and tidying up, while helping them prepare a meal, while they take a nap or while the two of you chat, can make a world of difference. Never underestimate what a small act of kindness can do for another person's spirit.

Do you want to do a more "grand" gift of experience? Take someone to a show or lecture or to a beautiful place you want them to see (maybe a garden or to a stargazing observatory perhaps). Creating experiences and sharing them is what memories are made of. On their deathbed, does a person reminisce about that cool computer gadget they received? Or do they talk about that day you went to the lake and saw the beautiful swans and the baby ducklings and ate a picnic lunch?

Still want to buy a tangible, wrappable gift that someone can open up in front of you? Well, how about a gift of inspiration? Is there a book, magazine, music or movie that has inspired you? How about sharing that with someone else who might also be inspired by it? Pay it forward, as the saying goes. One of the favorite gifts I've ever given to someone was a book that I created myself. I took many inspirational quotes, poems and stories, paired them with art that I liked and created a book on my computer. I printed it myself, then brought it to a printer to be professionally bound and had the front and back covers laminated, to strengthen it and increase it's durability and longevity.

As already mentioned, this is the time of year to consider being more charitable. Instead of spending money on a gift for someone who could afford to buy it themselves (and who probably has more material possessions than they know what to do with), why not spend that money on someone who does not have the same opportunities and resources that we do? Giving money in your own name, or in the name of someone else as a gift (or anonymously) is always a good choice. There are so many charities, doing great work, that always need help; whether it's a local agency in your community or a national or international non-profit, working to help people, animals, the environment. Think about this: who needs your gift more? Your cousin who lives comfortably in a 3-bedroom home on an acre of land in a safe community, making $100K a year? Or the abused, sick refugee in Sudan? Or the AIDS orphan in Kenya? Or the homeless child at The Pine Street Inn shelter?

I hope we can begin to make more mindful choices with our time and with our money, during this season and throughout the New Year. Most people's hearts are in the right place, but our priorities have become mixed up, as we are bombarded with misinformation and our values have changed. Remember, material possessions do not create long lasting happiness or fulfillment the way that love, kindness, generosity, faith and interconnectedness does. Let's create more of the latter in our lives and the abundance that follows will quell our desires for more of the material.

Much peace, love, blessings and good health to all of you in this season and in the New Year!





It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.