Don't worry I'll still be here once you have that gift in mind.
Okay, now hold onto that feeling and that gift as you read the rest of this. My spouse, Donna, is one of the best gift-givers I know. She just has this way of really listening and paying attention to what people around her would like. Over our nineteen years together she has given me a number of amazing gifts. Some have been practical, like the perfect sweater. Some have been utterly frivolous like a dozen flowers or earrings that she knew I really wanted. She buys me the best earrings...not too heavy, perfect colors, just what I like.
This is a tremendous gift and one unfortunately that I don't possess in nearly the quantity I wish I did. I have had some outstanding moments like when I found the Beatles Rock Band guitar at a price we could afford or the fountain pen I bought her at a time when we had more income.
This time of year, maybe more than any other, shopping and gifts are all around us whether or not we are Christian and whether or not we celebrate Christmas. Sometimes even those choose not to celebrate are forced into compulsory gift giving - like at their child's school or the office. I think this is why so many hate the emphasis on shopping and buying this season. For some, gift giving is no longer a freely given expression from the heart but rather an expectation.
There is another phenomenon I have come up against in the last few years particularly in Unitarian Universalist and other progressive circles. It is this disdain of gift giving. I have sat in a room with people that have said "well we are not exchanging gifts this year and I am so glad. There is nothing we need." They say this oblivious to the obvious privilege that statement expresses. There is nothing I need. In a world filled with people, most of whom are hidden from sight, that live with less than what they need every day it is only from a place of enormous privilege that one can say "there is nothing I need." Even worse than that though is this disdain of gift giving or only wanting hand made gifts. What does that say to those who don't have everything they need? Maybe Christmas is that one time of year when extravagance is permitted. What about those who do not have the time or inclination for home-made gifts?
I love gifts. Some of my fondest Christmas season memories are going to the shopping mall with my parents and buying gifts. I loved thinking about the perfect gift for a person. I loved being in the mall, with the people, with all the decorations, the Christmas music. In my family, children always created lists and letters to Santa. I loved this annual ritual. Well into our teens and even today my family will ask for lists for Christmas. It is that desire to give the perfect gift. Maybe because my family did do lists and everyone created one, I am not as a creative as my wife in thinking about gifts. In my family, you asked for what you wanted, you didn't always get it, but it was the time of year to ask.
So when I hear this disdainful attitude, this superiority about not shopping, avoiding malls like the plague, it makes me sad and angry. It seems to me that because they cannot see the joy or the value then it must not have any. In an effort to point out the problems with consumption, we seem disgusted with those who head to the mall during the Christmas holiday or disdain shopping at Walmart and don't understand why anyone would shop there. It is an attitude that can make Unitarian Universalism not very hospitable place for those not of a certain income and wealth level. We seem to miss that some people only get that little extravagance or that bigger needed item at Christmas and we forget that it may be more expensive to shop at stores more closely aligned to our values ... certainly we should decry consumerism and fight for better practices by retailers but perhaps we need to stop blaming all of those who have to make choices different than our own.
This translates more generally in overall attitudes toward the poor. We judge their poor choices. This powerful article (it is long but worth reading the whole thing) on the story of one homeless teen and her family in New York brings home some of the choices. This girl doesn't want the moon, she doesn't even dream of big expensive gifts. Her world is small. She lives in one of the busiest and biggest cities in the world and yet her world exists of the deplorable shelter her family lives in and school. Everything else is possibly dangerous or a place where her status as a "shelter kid" will be discovered. In her family, getting the monthly check means being treated to ice cream. Maybe we could all say that there were better uses for that money but who are we to judge. It was a rare treat in a world where the money goes to necessities and often isn't enough to meet those.
One of the labor songs in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, is "As We Come Marching, Marching." I first sang this song, which I knew as Bread and Roses, at a monthly feminist ritual at WATER, Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual. The hymn speaks of the need not just for bread, for necessities, but for beauty. We all need beauty. We want things that are not just practical but beautiful as well. Isn't that part of the genius of Steve Jobs? He not only created something practical and amazing that would change the way we work, the way we think about communication, the way we play and the way we connect with one another, he didn't forget it also needed to be beautiful. At the end of each verse of this song are the lines: "Bread and roses, bread and roses!", too often we think those with less should only want bread and be grateful for whatever casts off they receive and that they should forget about the roses, in fact, sometimes we don't even think they 'deserve' the roses.
As my family and I have struggled financially, this time of year has become difficult and challenging, Not having money sets you apart. Your world becomes smaller because after all having lunch with friends or even coffee may represent money you don't have. Social interactions become challenging out of the fear, that money will be involved. Also struggling financially comes with shame. As I wrote before, shame and fear are poor teachers. Ironically, just when you need all your strength and all your self worth, the shame that can accompany financial struggle sucks it away. It takes tremendous energy to resist believing the shame, to resist the lies that your self-worth is tied to your credit score or the number in your bank account.
At this time of year, I ache for the joy I found in shopping at the mall, looking for just that perfect item for someone I love. I love watching my daughter's face on Christmas morning when she opens that perfect gift that she was really hoping for. For gift giving is not just a gift to the receiver, but rather when we give out of love, it makes us feel amazing.
So I invite you this season that if you are one of those disdainful of the shopping mall and the gift giving, recognize that for some that represents joy and tradition. Go ahead and buy your gifts free-trade, or make them or shop small, local businesses that give part of their profits to an environmental cause. Please watch your judgement of those who shop at Walmart or one of the other big commercial stores. Maybe that is all they can afford or maybe they work there. Re-discover the joy in giving something utterly frivolous and extravagant! If you go for practical, make sure it is beautiful too! People need both! Our souls thirst for it.
I have always loved the memes that suggest that if the three wise persons had been women, they would have brought food and practical gifts. Yet as I reflect more deeply on it, there is a beauty and meaning in the gifts that are totally impractical (well, okay, I am sure the gold was helpful!). They were aromatic and exotic. The gifts were an extravagance, unsuited to the humble child of a carpenter but a reminder that even a child born in a barn should be celebrated.
Now are you still thinking about that gift? Was it practical? Was it beautiful? How do you feel when you think about it? That is what gift giving is about. It is about showing our love in concrete ways.
So I invite to give and receive extravagantly this year! Enjoy the process of choosing that perfect gift! If you too are struggling financially this season, remember fear and shame are poor teachers and masters! My hope is that others will gift you with "bread and roses" and that you can receive deeply without feeling obligation in return. For those of you who do 'have all that you need,' remember to be gracious and joyful in your receiving ... whether it be a baked good or the perfect earring or a box of candy from Walmart ... try looking for the beauty in it if even only in the giver's twinkling eyes. May we all let people give to us, opening ourselves to receive the gift. May we all know the joy of giving "bread and roses."
Let's reclaim the joy of gift giving and receiving!