December 2008 Issue
For many of us, the pressures of giving and receiving peak at this time of year.
Given Ohio’s climate, Christmas comes just when we need it most.
Holiday warmth counters bitter temperatures; colorful lights brighten early nightfalls; holiday parties and family gatherings discourage the impulse to hunker down during bleak December evenings. Christmas is the perfect antidote for the winter blues.
As the kids say, “It’s all good” — that is, unless you’re gift-challenged. For those plagued by gift-giving uncertainty, Christmas brings a great deal of pressure: “What on earth am I going to get for (insert name here)”? Granted, we’ve all asked this question. But those of us who have an unusually hard time answering it often find ourselves wringing hands instead of ringing bells.
I’ve always felt awkward about Christmas presents. If I don’t absolutely love a gift, I feel like an ingrate — but if I do love it, I’m embarrassed to get it. When I say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” I usually mean it. Giving presents is equally hard, not because I’m heartless or stingy, but because I have a long and sordid history of choosing gifts that are just plain wrong for the recipient or, at best, distinctly unmemorable.
If this makes me an involuntary Grinch, my only defense is that when I was growing up in Findlay during the late 1950s and early 1960s, I didn’t get much practice in buying presents — or for that matter, buying much of anything. Although our family wasn’t poor, we lived as if we were, saving money with hand-me-down clothes, rarely eating out and getting our books from the public library instead of a bookstore.
Our thrifty ways came mostly from my father, who had ridden out the Great Depression on a small Illinois farm. Dad recognized his quirks and even joked about them. At those rare restaurant dinners, he always gave the same line as he perused the menu: “What do you think, kids? Should I get the $1.95 or the $2.95?”
I groaned at the joke — but it was a groan of admiration. I had fully absorbed my father’s conviction that being careful with money was among the highest human virtues. My mother, older brother and I embraced my father’s attitude toward spending as a sensible way to live. My sister’s passion for the latest teen fashions made her the sole family rebel. I couldn’t understand why she always wanted new clothes: Wasn’t her closet already filled with perfectly good ones?
When Christmas rolled around, the notion of buying things for people whether they needed them or not threw me for a loop. I was lucky that our family’s modest needs made everyone’s Christmas wishes easy to fulfill. My sister collected ceramic turtles and my mother collected owls, so a single trip to one of Findlay’s gift shops took care of both. My brother was interested in arcane things like electronics; I always gave him money because I didn’t even know the names of the items he wanted. My father, who was far more comfortable with giving than with getting, routinely insisted that he didn’t want anything. Each year brought his cheerful announcement: “I’ve got everything I need.” At first I took him at his word, but as I grew older it felt creepy to leave my father giftless at Christmas. My choices were painfully predictable: a tie, a wallet or a three-pack of golf balls.
My problem with holiday gifts stemmed partly from the mixed signals that Christmas seemed to send. On one hand, we were supposed to buy things for no practical reason except that everyone else was doing it. This ran against the family’s grain as no-nonsense Methodists who didn’t stand on ceremony and were reluctant to make a “big deal” out of anything, including holidays. People who see life through practical lenses sometimes have trouble with holiday traditions. If it weren’t for custom, how likely is it that anyone would say, “Let’s cut down a tree and set it up in the house”?
On the other hand, the spiritual side of Christmas seemed to reinforce our frugal ways, especially for my mother. It never made sense to her that the best way to celebrate Jesus’ birth was to go out and buy things.
Don’t get me wrong: Our Christ mases were not grim. We weren’t sitting around in hair shirts, singing Psalms a capella and cursing the very notion of joy. I have wonderful Christmas memories, but very few of them involve the gifts that I gave or got. What I remember best is not Christmas morning and opening presents, but Christmas Eve, when our mother read Luke’s nativity story to us as we gazed at the lights on the tree. This was followed by listening to an old Ronald Coleman recording of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Wise Men knew how to give gifts — but they were in Matthew, not Luke: maybe this explains why I love everything about Christmas except the gift-giving. So I’m not a total Grinch — or for that matter, a total Scrooge: just a partial one.
Thus began my sad history of Christmas presents, whether giving or getting them. On the receiving end, one of my earliest disasters occurred when my high school girlfriend gave me a little book of inspirational sayings called Apples of Gold. My sister and I had seen this book at our grandparents’ house, where we mocked its platitudes and renamed it “Apples of Road.” As I stared at my copy in horror, I wondered why, after all those dates, this girl still didn’t know me. An example of the embarrassingly good gift was a used set of the 27-volume Yale edition of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin that my wife Norma gave me for Christmas some 10 years ago. This was an immensely thoughtful gesture, but it prompted my usual unease: Did I really want Franklin’s Papers filling up my shelves and reminding me how little I knew about him?
A frugal ex-Methodist who is hard to buy for will also find it hard to buy for others. One Christmas I presented Norma with theOxford History of Christianity, figuring that as a Catholic she would enjoy perusing it. She thanked me, but pointed out that being Catholic doesn’t necessarily mean being obsessed with religious history. “Um, isn’t this more what you’re interested in?”
She was right. I had committed the ultimate gift giver’s sin: choosing a present that I’d like. I’ve been on safer ground with clothes, but even here, things never quite work out. Every Christmas I hear “Thank you! This is lovely!” After a decent interval comes the inevitable follow-up: “You kept the receipt, right?”
Yes, it’s the thought that counts. But does it still count if it’s a stupid thought? Maybe my un-gifted history has made me unusually sensitive to the social pressures that can come with giving and getting. We all know the competition and resentment that can arise whenever gifts are involved. Whose present will make Grandma smile the most? Whose present will the kids spend the most time playing with? Who will give Dad the disappearing tie this year, the one headed straight for a dresser drawer?
The negative side of holiday presents emerges in clichés like “give ’til it hurts.” There’s also the “gift that keeps on giving,” which underscores the fact that most gifts are poignantly ephemeral. And haven’t we all learned not to “look a gift horse in the mouth”? Didn’t that earliest and most elaborate of gifts, the Trojan Horse, have unpleasant consequences? In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil has a doomed Trojan speak a warning that should have been heeded: “I fear the Greeks, even when they’re bringing gifts.” I fear anyone bringing gifts, especially myself. The book of Acts tells us that “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” but I’m not so sure about that. Even when our intentions are pure, both can sometimes feel pretty un-blessed.
Another Christmas is fast approaching, and I’m looking forward to it, mostly. But as always, I’ll be keeping my receipts and taking comfort from Norma’s generous assurances that, after all, it is the thought that counts. This time around, however, I’m hoping that I’ll be spared my lifelong awkwardness of getting something for Christmas. For years I’ve been telling Norma the same holiday words that my father always spoke: “I’ve got everything I need.”
Maybe this year she’ll believe me.
Jeffrey Hammond is Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He is the author of Small Comforts: Essays at Middle Age, recently published by Kent State University Press.