Here's how I want you to feel about the Christmas present I have given you: You know that part in Little House on the Prairie (I’m talking about the book here, not the Michael Landon hair-fest) where Mr. Edwards staggers through a blizzard to bring the girls their gifts? They each get a tin cup, a penny, a piece of candy, and a little cake made with store-bought sugar. And then, they proceed to drag out the use and consumption of these items for infinity because they are SO PRECIOUS and so EXACTLY what they wanted? That’s it right there. I want you to love that book/scarf/bedazzled lampshade/Fimo necklace I gave you so much that you will understand how much I adore you and how perfectly I understand every hair on your head. Have I set the bar too high?
Let’s not be confused – I do not actually give gifts that meet this standard. I’m not one of those clever souls who collect perfect items year-round and socks them away in a special Christmas cupboard. I don’t really pore over catalogs and magazines, and tear pages out to remind myself of fantastic ideas. I do not attend artisan craft fairs, craft house parties, or craft anything with the sweat of my brow. Not a real go-getter in that regard. Who has time for all of that, really? But the Christmas elf in my head murmurs relentlessly that I must find the right thing, the perfect expression of you, the object or service or tickets to an event that will demonstrate my insight into the needs of your soul. Maybe it’s actually Gollum talking, I don’t know. Suffice to say Christmas shopping is fraught for me.
I come by my obsession with meaningful gifts naturally. My mother has long embraced the notion of "concept gift-giving" which is kind of like a concept album, but with less LSD. She has given three significant gifts to represent the Three Magi. She has given gifts gleaned from her travels around the country and abroad. She has given gifts that are meant for the very best version of yourself that you are hoping to be, even if you don’t quite merit it at the moment. She gives nice stuff. Not that she is unerring – I've received tremendous mileage out of an incident in my early teens when Santa brought me a Billy Idol cassette instead of the Wham! album I’d asked for because she’d, “heard bad things about them.” Who, but my mother, would know that I really needed a magnetic shopping notepad with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy on it, purchased on an excursion to Bath. No, not Bed Bath & Beyond – Bahth, in England. And I did need it.
Which leads me to my problem. Have you been in a big box retailer or a mall during the holidays? Never mind that simply trying to park the car invariably destroys my faith in humanity. Never mind that the Bieb has a holiday album out this year, and it will be playing in every store, which tears to shreds the tatters of my faith in humanity. And, never mind that people are so singled-minded in their pursuit of bargains that they have trampled each other to death to buy TVs, which ain’t so hot for my faith in humanity either. The problem is there is nothing in the stores that my loved ones do not already have, or will not simply purchase for themselves should the need or desire arise. Sweaters? Movies? Kitchen implements I don’t know how to use? None of these things can be truly new, they can only be more.
I don’t mean to suggest that my family and friends roll like Kardashians, rewarding ourselves with Bentleys after a long day of posing for paparazzi. It’s just that we are all lucky enough to have all that we need, and then some. It is, as they say, a First World Problem. Many people in this country are hurting financially right now, but in real terms we live in a time and place of extreme abundance. If Mary and Half Pint were around today, they’d smile politely at Mr. Edwards and then fill their tin cups with pens on their desks (who knows what kind of lead poisoning those things can cause?) and return to swigging from their Camelbak bottles. They’d throw the candy and cakes into the Tupperware with the leftover Halloween candy to begin the inevitable decline to compost, and chuck the pennies in the garbage like I do. Not worth the weight to carry.
Buy a goat for a family in Sudan! Give to the Red Cross! Adopt a white cheeked gibbon! Yes, these are lovely ideas. We do in fact give charitably during the holidays, including providing those very items I sniffed at in the mall as "excessively pedestrian" to needy families who don’t have the luxury of taking them for granted. It’s the right thing to do. We don’t do enough of it.
However, there comes a time on Christmas morning when my heart wants each of us to open a box and breathe a sigh of pure bliss. You deserve to be gifted with an object of sublime softness or surpassing wisdom or breathtaking utility, and to feel that if you were an action figure, this thing would be your only detachable accessory. Also, I defy you to give a three-year-old the idea of a goat for Christmas.
And p.s. – they don’t actually take your fifty bucks, buy a special goat and truck it out to the family, who then, name it in your honor. That’s what you were picturing, isn’t it? No, they’re pretty clear that your money goes into a fund from which they may or may not buy a goat. Or build a latrine. Again, worthy, worthy goals, but a little abstract for that moment in your pajamas with Johnny Mathis in the background and a cup of holiday blend coffee in your hand.
So what is it I want to give you, exactly? I don’t know. I’m stuck between a goat and a Snuggie, which sounds kind of great in a tactile way, but isn’t, because it’s a metaphor. Most of all for my girls and my nieces and nephews, who are only slightly jaded by the excesses of the holidays and our consumer culture, I want to figure out a third way, some path between the crass disposability of a Zhu Zhu pet, discotheque playset and the tofurkey earnestness of a mosquito net 8,000 miles away. I want them to know the thrill of real anticipation and gratification that can only come when you open a gift from someone who has really listened to you and paid attention to who you are and who you want to be.
I’d better get cracking. I’ve got a long list of people to buy imaginary gifts for. You may get socks, but please understand that in my mind they are spun from the finest cashmere to warm your perpetually cold toes. And, they are given with love.