I love the holidays. I love the sight of a newly decorated Christmas tree, its branches bearing the history of holidays past, I love the smells of molasses and ginger cookies which I bake only at this time of the year, and I love the music which, in our house, I’m not allowed to play before October. But most of all I love the gifts. I love seeing packages wrapped in beautiful paper, tied up with bows, reflecting the twinkling lights of the season.
Before Martha Stewart was around to sew specially made wrapping paper and weave trim with tinsel, my mother was inspired to spend hours wrapping each gift under the tree so that it coordinated with matching ribbons and bows. Every year her theme would be different, and always more surprising than the last. One year the gifts that graced the living room were wrapped in an elegant toile paper–each tied with large black silk ribbons. Another year it was a retro-cosmic foil paper embossed with stars, that hid our gifts, blindingly bright under the tree. Perhaps the goal being that they shine enough to be a beacon for any wayward spaceship crashing into the atmosphere. But the most memorable year was the one where she spent hours gluing glitter onto Superhero print paper. Batman, Superman, and Wonderwoman kapowed and bamed their way across the gifts, while the presents they jumped over and saved, sparkled under the tree, carefully outlined in glue and sprinkled with a heavy dose of silver, green and blue glitter which dropped to the floor and remained a permanent part of our living room décor. All of this from a woman who worked 60 hours a week managing her own clothing store which was overrun with holiday shoppers, while her three kids at home took for granted her handmade cookies, lavish display of gifts, and all that was her one- woman Christmas-time factory! Yes, it was the most wonderful time of the year.
As I got older the gift-giving part of the holidays lost some of its luster for me. Perhaps it was one As Seen on TV gizmo too many that changed my attitude about holiday overindulgence, but mostly it was that I was tired of receiving so much stuff I didn’t need, and, in turn, I started feeling guilty planting further excess on those I loved. Before my husband and I participated in a voluntary simplicity discussion group in 1998, we had felt some gentle rumbling about what was gradually becoming a season of discontent. The paper, boxes, and mostly unwanted items, that we knew would eventually end up at Goodwill or in a dump were not adding to our sense of holiday merriment. Not that we’d qualify for the Mohandas Gandhi award for our simple lifestyle, but we had reached a saturation point in our lives, where if we hadn’t already purchased it, we probably didn’t need it. During and after the voluntary simplicity group, we had heart-felt talks about consumption, affluenza and American excess, and realized that we were not crazy, alone or unreasonable in wanting to create a holiday that reflected our values, not one that celebrated shopping for shopping’s sake.
We are happy to give donations to our favorite charities, it’s special to say that we gave each other a flock of ducks for a gift, yet not have the messy aftermath since they are living on a farm in Africa. Yet somehow the holidays still don’t feel right to me if there isn’t something under the tree and I’m not wrapping presents. Was there anything else that granola-eating, nature-loving, environmentally-sensitive, politically-aware, anti-clutter, holiday practitioners like us could do? For ages I’ve been telling my husband to just wrap stuff up around the house that we already own and stick it under the tree. I pictured him wrapping up the cheese grater, or a box of Kleenex, or the latest Oprah magazine laying around. It would have been an only slightly wasteful gesture, even though it seemed a little pathetic. I’d get my traditional holiday thrill of seeing presents but wouldn’t have to find new places to put things, or feel the guilt of seeing so much unwanted stuff go to the landfill, except for the wrapping paper (which is an additional layer of blight we need to come to grips with). Not sure if he would look nuts for doing this, or if I was truly sincere, he wisely hesitated.
A couple of years ago, he finally took me seriously, but he put his own special twist on it. It was Christmas morning and our five year old daughter had opened her gifts from Santa and was pulling out the gifts for me from under the tree. “There are so many, you didn’t buy me more crap did you?” I ungraciously asked my husband, noting that not all the wrapping paper matched, but they did coordinate to some degree. The first gift I unwrapped was a book, but not any old book, it was the owner’s manual to our first new car, still cold as he had grabbed it out of the glove box that morning. Taped on the book was a note he had written that said, “I love driving our new car.” Whoa, this was going to be good. Next I unwrapped my old pair of glasses, no longer needed since having laser surgery that year. Inside the case was a note that said, “I love gazing into your eyes, now that you are glasses free.” After that I opened a half-empty box of English breakfast tea we kept in the cupboard, a reminder, he wrote, of the high tea we had at the Butchart Gardens on our trip to Canada the previous summer. The best and final gift I opened from him was a piece of a two by four, carefully wrapped and beribboned. The note on it said “I’m so happy we remodeled the basement together this year.”
My old glasses, an opened box of tea, a piece of scrap lumber, and our car’s owner’s manual–this had to be the best haul of Christmas presents that I had ever received since being a child! No, we had not taken a vow of poverty or spent nothing, yet nowhere were Santa-topped toenail clippers or a homeomedic massage gun. Here was a whole year of our life: celebrated, remembered and gifted to me. What more could I want from a holiday present?
We quickly adopted this as a family tradition. Last year my Christmas morning treats included an extension cord (for a backyard beautification project), a couple of used paint stirring sticks (stained with the colors from a few rooms in our house which we had re-done that year) and a pair of chopsticks (from a trip we took to Japan). Some women want diamonds for Christmas, and I hope I’ll be getting my own rock this year. We put a patio in our backyard this summer, and there’s still a substantial pile of gravel in our driveway. That’s sure to add some bling to my holiday!
Now my husband and I are thinking of phasing in this arrangement for our daughter. Maybe we can replace a few of the presents in the 3-foot-high stack she normally receives with some reminders of the happy times we had together as a family during the year. Instead of one more Barbie outfit, perhaps she’ll receive her training wheels wrapped up as a reminder of her first bike ride without them last summer. Maybe she will look back on her childhood and have fond memories of finding gifts under the tree that remind her of the good times she had all year, not just in December. I envision a future where she will be wrapping up a lost tooth, a spelling test, even a college essay, and presenting it to us– in coordinating wrapping paper, of course!
*This was originally an essay I wrote and read for Live Wire! in 2004.
**This year our daughter will get a loving reminder that we paid her first month’s rent on her first post-college apartment.