Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lessons of the Holidays

Christmas season used to be so much fun, especially as a child. But as an adult--a senior adult at that--I'm beginning to empathize with the Grinch. I haven't reached the "Bah-Humbug!" state yet, but in racing all over South Florida looking for those gifts I suspect everyone wants, I'm getting old enough to wish it hadn't become such a frustrating thing.

I can appreciate why more people shop online, but even that can be a chore. Grandpa, God rest his soul, gave up the shopping frenzy after reaching age 75 or so and just gave cash in envelopes at the family gift-opening on Christmas Eve. "Ehh, what's that up in the tree?" he would say and point, and we'd all stare up at some small white envelopes with our names on them which he'd tucked away in branches earlier. We'd try to react with total surprise and delight each year. I thought about doing that, but it seemed like a cop-out since I'm still able to get around like everybody else. Someday it may come to that.

One year he introduced a novel wrinkle to this tradition that spiced things up a bit: he put up the envelopes sealed without any names on them, and let us choose one in turn. One had a twenty-dollar bill in it; one had a ten, another a five, and if memory serves me right, one had a one-dollar bill. He got a real kick out of our greedy reactions as one of us hit the jackpot opening the twenty-dollar envelope, and one got the booby prize one-dollar gift. This casino-style game wasn't very well-received by everyone, however, and he didn't repeat it the next Christmas. But he was just expressing the frustration of holiday shopping we all feel.

This year, as usual, we started off trying to get relatively modest gifts others could match without going into bankruptcy, but we always manage to overspend. We ask all the family members to keep it sane, but they want that "wow!" factor from our reactions when we open their gifts just like we do from them, and they get us too much.

One thing Scott came up with that helps all of us, however, is setting up a Wiki web page we can each access with our own passwords and post what we'd like for gifts, and each family member can change and edit the lists at any time right up through the holiday. Most of us post a variety of things we'd like, some kind of reaching and expensive, some pretty modest, many in between. So shoppers can choose what range they have in mind to give, knowing each gift will be appreciated. Its only disadvantage is the risk of duplications, but discreet phone calls usually help to avoid that. I still try to get one gift for each of them, though, that they really want, something they'll really like. Nevertheless, I end up buying more than one so we'll each have something to open around the tree besides an envelope.

The thing about Christmas giving is it comes but once a year, but it challenges us in many ways like no other holiday. Birthdays, being for only one person at a time, have so much more focus on what we ought to do and are much easier to prepare for. But Christmas is the only time we're expected to consider everyone simultaneously--each family member, each generation, each special friend--all at once, with some token of our love and regard.

So the holidays challenge us financially, personally, spiritually, emotionally, and certainly physically. Expectations are often unattainable, and the stress can be as severe as a job loss or divorce, moving, or an auto accident. It's no wonder Grandpa just had enough of it at some point and the tree envelopes solution made a lot of sense. But the rest of us know it's not as much fun to get a gift so easily given. When we open a present we suspect a lot of thought went into, and maybe effort, frustrations and sacrifice as well, we really do appreciate it, because we know the secret ingredient is love. And any gift given from love is the elusive link we hope for in all this--celebrating Christ's birth.

So Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas one and all.