Doing things the way you’ve always done them is the most convenient choice. I realized this on the eve of my birthday, when it became clear to me that snowballing into the same pattern of celebrations begins to gradually, but surely, lose its flavour.
My last-minute decision to rewrite the script of an ordinary anniversary resulted, here and there, in a disruption of the usual timeline of the celebration. However, it definitely did not affect its essential areas. This time, I needed to go shopping, cook half-festive, half-simple things, wrap presents and, most importantly, write.
The first tasks were easy, especially since I had three reliable helpers—a husband, a sister and a nephew, who were more than willing to help. The writing part was a little different. Amidst a jumble of pens, envelopes and coloured writing sheets, I began to write. I continued to do so until my hand threatened to come loose from its weak wrist, my eyelids became like lead, and my mind did not react promptly when I was ordering a suitable synonym, verb, or adjective.
Soon, the sheets of paper filled the desk. The recipients were complete strangers, close ones, and those who were immune to closeness. I wrote to the vaguely known, but also to those I was attached to with countless (and blessed) strings. I wrote to the postman, former teachers, tutors from the past, mechanics, maids, a blind person, neighbours, salespeople, lonely people and needy ones—a long list, which, however, still did not include so many names that deserved to be there.
Some would never know who wrote to them. They would only find out that a former student or a client appreciated them for what they are and what they do. However, some did find out, because handing over the gift involved more complex details than ”the director” had established, last minute, in her script.
We stopped, among the errands of the day, at the carwash where, from time to time, the cleaning of our car is done. There was a whole team out there that deserved a little more material thanks. To the lady who took care of the interior of the car with an extremely rare flourish of thoroughness, I slipped a letter into her gift, so that she would know how much we appreciate her skill and dedication.
A few weeks later, my husband drove to the carwash again. The lady in question came to renew her gratitude by saying something that would substantially change everything I had thought until then about gifts and their price : “You know, this is the first letter someone wrote to me in my entire life… ”
I wondered sadly, when did something that costs almost nothing become so expensive and so rare?
When waste creeps into all the threads of the holidays
In the consumerist age, we think gifts are inextricably linked to the idea of spending. The more expensive the recipient’s tastes are, the more we spend, the more we want to make an impression and the more we want to produce joy, especially when we offer something to a child or a very dear person.
The way that the budget derails at Christmas is no longer a secret to anyone. However, the statistics continue to amaze—large sums are spent on gifts that are not always appropriate or necessary and force people to make drastic savings after the holidays or to become even more indebted than they already are.
In addition, all these Sisyphean efforts made in order to identify the perfect gifts and to prepare the holiday down to the last detail leaves behind fatigue, frustration and an ecological disaster.
For 24% of Britons, managing Christmas budgets is the most stressful part of the holiday, as shown by a Mirror survey, while for 11%, the biggest headache is to visit their relatives. About 27% of parents expect to spend between £250 and £500 on each child’s gift, 1 in 8 parents believe they will spend between £500 and £1,000, while 1 in 14 believe they will exceed this mark.
Christmas consumes about $720 billion out of Americans’ pockets, leaving 25 percent more waste than at any other time of the year – about 1 million tons of waste for the holiday week.
In Britain, 57% of the population exceeds the budget allocated for Christmas, with many of them not even knowing what the exact amount was that they spent, according to a survey conducted by Ocean Finance. Just two minutes after making the payment, only 16% of buyers knew exactly how much they had spent, while 32% had no idea how much money they had said goodbye to, and half of them mentioned a figure that was off by 10% from the actual amount. As expected, those who paid in cash knew better how much they had spent, compared to those who had paid for the purchased items with a card.
Overspending is not exclusively a habit of the rich. That’s why members of Junior Chamber International Cluj, a Romanian non-profit association, launched the campaign “Don’t be greedy this Christmas!” in order to draw attention to food waste during the winter holidays. One family buys four times more food than necessary during the holidays, show the initiators of this project. They also offer common sense advice to avoid this culinary obscenity, which ends with discarded food and visits to the doctor.
If there is something even sadder about the gift-buying process, then we could talk about the fact that, despite the significant consumption of time, energy and money, gifts often miss the purpose for which they were bought: to deliver joy and a message of appreciation to the recipient.
Giving is not everything
Sometimes an unexpected gift brings an extra headache to the recipient. They have to think about whether they should give a thank you gift, and how they will do this, which is all the more difficult the less they know the tastes of the first giver. This could result in another gift, paid for with great effort, which has nothing to do with what the recipient wants or needs.
If what we give may be uninspired, the time we choose to give may be just as inopportune, especially when it comes to those who do not usually receive any gifts except for the holidays.
“Poor children don’t eat only at Christmas,” headlines an article authored by Alina Kasprovschi, a founding member of the Bucharest Community Foundation. The author confesses that, around the holidays, the phone keeps ringing, with offers of sweets, clothes or toys waiting to reach the needy children. The response of the members of the foundation is as disconcerting as it is justified: “All would be wonderful initiatives, if they didn’t do more harm than good to those they should gladden.”
On the one hand, the children in orphanages no longer struggle in the misery that the public once knew from documentaries. They no longer need apples and soap, Kasprovschi points out, although they need many other things, including affection and experiences that will take them beyond the narrow perimeter in which they live.
When it comes to children hospitalized with serious illnesses in Fundeni, their strict diet does not allow certain delicacies offered at Christmas, so it can happen that the donors who did not inform themselves leave as they came, with their gifts unopened. The bananas and oranges that no one thought to bring all year round get mouldy in their crates, because, even at Christmas, a child’s stomach remains its usual size.
”Isn’t it sad that we forget these vulnerable members of society for the entire year and only remember them at Christmas?” the author says. Her intention is not to discourage giving, even if it is only for the holidays, but to advise people to make a planned gift, only after they have thoroughly informed themselves about the needs and particulars of the recipient.
Before donating, we should find answers to some questions that are very reasonable, says the author—for example, if the gift is age appropriate and specific to the needs of the recipient. “If I were to receive that gift, would I feel joy or shame?” is another common sense question which Kasprovschi asks in the context of used clothes or broken toys that some have sent to children in the centres.
The giver could also consider the idea of a flexible cash gift that would allow a foundation to buy exactly what the children need, or they could send the gift where it is most needed, in areas where gifts are never sent.
Perhaps most importantly, those who give can think of how they can better the life of someone who is disadvantaged in the remaining 364 days of the year.
In the whirlwind of everyday preoccupations, we often forget that the gift (as well as the attitude of the giver) is the mark of inner virtue (and can also be the proof of its absence). Last but not least, the choice of a gift and its handing over speak silently about the vision we have about things, about people and about life.
Minimalist Christmas, or why less is more
“Can I really be like the people in the movies, and remember the meaning of Christmas without gift-giving?” wonders journalist Debbie Wolfe, who usually starts preparing for the December holiday at least a month in advance.
The winter holiday arrived with joy, but also with a challenge. A Japanese student was to spend the end of December at the Wolfe family home as part of the high school program where Debbie’s son was studying. While the family considered how to acquaint their visitor with the Canadian-style Christmas, Debbie had to take into account the advice of the principal: if she were to buy expensive gifts for the Japanese student, he would be bound by tradition to give her son an equally expensive gift when it is the host’s turn to go to Japan in January.
This means it could put undesirable financial pressure on a family with a limited budget. The decision to give up the presents she is used to buying was difficult. Debbie confessed that buying for Christmas is part of her DNA. At the same time, the thought that she could see Christmas only through the shopping lens made her wonder if she had unconsciously hijacked the real meaning of the holiday, and that made her feel empty.
Eventually, Debbie decided she could get through Christmas even without spending too much and actually realized that treating gifts as a secondary issue can infuse peace into a very hectic time of the year.
A 2016 survey by World Vision found that 79% of Canadians found it difficult to have original gift ideas year after year.
Simple things bring more joy than sophistication, the Wolfe family discovered as they were preparing to greet their guest with simple activities, from feeding wild birds to drinking hot chocolate after a walk through the cold winter air, or sorting and packing toys for children who would not otherwise receive any Christmas gifts.
Debbie is not the only parent who has realized that the holiday script can be changed for the better just by simplifying it. Aimee Leigh Smith, a 36-year-old therapist, says she will help her two sons make Christmas presents for themselves. Because they will be spending Christmas with her in-laws, in Scotland by the sea, Aimee intends to help her boys make greeting cards from leaves, with their pictures in the middle, and that she will teach them to plant something in the garden, “all made with love.”
The Smith family believes that “buying things just for the sake of buying is an unwise way of life,” which they do not intend to pass on to their children.
Rachel, a 33-year-old photographer, has radically changed the way she spends money at Christmas. In the past, she bought more gifts than her budget allowed, and her children quickly got bored as they shifted their attention from one toy to another. After deciding to adopt a minimalist lifestyle, Rachel and her husband applied the same pattern to how they spend Christmas. Their children have fewer toys, but enjoy them (studies confirm the connection between a small number of toys and a high degree of satisfaction associated with play), parents and children value experiences rather than things, and the house is cleaner than ever.
The greatest gift in the world
The fact that the Christmas holiday, Christian in its essence (at least on a declarative level), dared to turn into a holiday with a secular silhouette is no longer a secret for anyone. If we are honest, we have to admit that it has succumbed to a simply celebration of our consumerist fantasies.
At this point, even the good things themselves, like the gifts, tend to distract our attention from the very reason for this holiday. Christmas has always been associated with joy, but the way it is celebrated resembles too little the feast of joy attended by the angels and “people pleasing to Him” on the occasion of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Streets wrapped in the light of thousands of Christmas lights, Christmas trees with heavy ornaments, Christmas cards, gifts wrapped in glossy paper and tables groaning with the weight of festive menus cannot and should never fade the joy of God taking on a human form.
That He set foot on a doomed planet, that He looked into the eyes of the most helpless, that He touched the untouchable and loved the unlovable, while showing them the way home, represents ultimate joy.
If the fascinating but so ephemeral brilliance of a Christmas devoid of the divine miracle is all that matters, then the lonely, the needy, and the helpless can hope for nothing better than looking out from the darkness at the festively-lit windows of the neighbours who are luckier than them.
However, if, beyond the hustle and bustle of a world hungry for celebration, they can see the One who made His way between heaven and earth, born in humility, and dying amidst the mockery of those He came to save, then no one has no reason to rejoice—today, tomorrow, and as long as God will live.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.