My family and I are incredibly blessed. I’m employed and make enough that Nik doesn’t have to work—even in the two-income-mandatory Bay Area; we have a nice place to live, money for food, clothes, and a few modern conveniences; generally we’re all more or less healthy. I like to think I’m aware of how good we have it, and hopefully I express my gratitude for our good fortune sufficiently. I clearly understand that despite it feeling sometimes like we don’t have much extra, we don’t want for much, which I suppose is excess enough.
But I do know that I’m not really all that great about giving back. I want to give back, I desire to be a more charitable person, it just feels like a challenge when there is a growing toddler who needs new clothes every few months (in spite of regular infusions from generous family members), various debts that need paying off, future plans that involve additional children and maybe someday a down payment on a house and all those other first-world, middle-class things that seem very important when you sit in front of a spreadsheet and a checkbook and wonder how it’s all going to fit together in the end. Put it this way, it’s a work in progress.
And then, at various intervals, we come to holidays like Christmas or my birthday and I clench my molars together and stare at the numbers and think about trying to fit gifts and trinkets and tchotchkes into a budget so we can experience the magic of a holiday season that is somehow left over from a childhood it’s been frankly hard to leave behind. Then I think of other families doing that same routine, staring at my name on a gift list and wondering if getting me a DVD is worth not having a zero balance on a credit card or is worth making that jacket with the hole in the elbow last another month or two. It disturbs me, a whole lot. I think about the materialism of a season that should be about anything but trinkets and gadgets and I get a little angry.
It’s not that I dislike gifts, despite what Nik may tell you. I actually love giving and receiving gifts. I love the spirit of them, in that pure and idealized way that everyone talks about when gifts go awry: “It’s the thought that counts!” True. But what thoughts are we counting? Societal pressure to reciprocate? Eeny-meeny-miney-moe from an Amazon list? Gratitude that someone cared enough to brave the shopping mobs? There’s nothing inherently evil in any of this, it’s just—icky. I don’t want anyone to feel obligation to me. I don’t need any of the gifty things people could bestow on me. I used to look at my haul at the end of the Christmas season with a childish, greedy pride (we’re not talking decades past here, we’re talking in the last few years) but slowly I’ve started looking at those material things with a sense of sadness and guilt. Why am I getting so much—and so much I don’t even need—when others have actual wants? Why am I okay with people being generous just because it’s what’s supposed to happen? And, really, is it what’s supposed to happen?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a “Jesus is the reason for the season” kind of person or not, the notion of Christmas spirit as tied to materialism and gifting is regularly scorned but scarcely actually railed against in a meaningful way. I think in part this is because the idea of Christmases we hold as treasured memories in our minds from childhood revolve around those derided ideals of mountains of gifts. We can look at them from a child’s perspective and say, “There’s nothing wrong with a kid getting a little spoiled on Christmas.” I’d agree with that to a degree, but what’s our excuse as adults, then? I’m at a loss. Something in us maybe thinks the cognitive dissonance of deciding its okay for kids to get heaps of presents but at some point you outgrow it is a bit too much to take. Then again, no one thinks its weird to age past the idea of Santa Claus (actually, don’t even get me started on that mess).
The point is, the whole scene is uncomfortable to me in a way that I can’t even fully unravel. But I’ve decided something this year, and it requires some help on your part, dear reader. I don’t want any gifts this year. I’m dead serious about this. My wishlist this year consists of nothing and I don’t mean that in the “I don’t know what I want, so whatever is fine.” I mean, “Please don’t buy me anything.” I have enough stuff. I have enough videos and games and books and gadgets. I have enough material goods. I don’t need any more and I don’t want you spending your money on me. The best gift you can give to me is to keep your money. This extends to my birthday as well. Whatever it is you think I’m going to love, I’m sure you’re right, but I don’t want you to buy it for me. Tell me about it, if you must. But I’ll make the purchasing decision on my own. I don’t want gift cards, I don’t want cash, I don’t want baked goods or promises to spend your time and talents on me. I don’t want any of those things not because I don’t appreciate it, but because that’s not what matters to me. Think of it this way, loved ones, I have almost 35 years of experience in seeing how incredibly generous and wonderful all the people in my life are, I know it full well. And I’m grateful. So very grateful. But I’m letting you off the hook this year. So please, for me, this year—make mine nothing.
Okay, alright, I know what’s coming next. Doing nothing isn’t Christmas either. Fair enough. Here’s what you can do for me, if you insist. I’m talking to you die-hard Christmasers, here, you know who you are. The ones who can’t let it go, who think you’ll be betraying the very spirit of the season itself if you let me get away with this holiday void. Here’s what you can do for me: Send me an email and tell me one short story about something that happened this past year that made you feel blessed. Don’t go nuts, I’m not looking for a dissertation. Just a quick note. “I felt blessed this year because I was able to lose ten pounds,” or “I felt blessed this year because my kid gave me a hug and said, ‘thank you’ after their birthday party.” Tell me about the time you found a job after looking for months. Tell me how a friend came over to feed your dog while you were on vacation and cleaned your house for you, too. Tell me how you finally dinged level 85 in World of Warcraft, I don’t care, whatever it is, however you want to describe it. That’s what I want. Also, if you can tell me whether or not you mind if I repost your story and, if I can, whether you want your name attributed to it. Because if I get enough of these, I’ll collect them into a big blog post and put them up here after Christmas Day. Maybe it will make everyone feel that Christmas spirit a little without any of that icky materialism getting in the way.
Now, if you insist—if you absolutely cannot be swayed and are about to have a conniption if you can’t spend your money on something for me, here’s what I need you to do. Step away from the retail outlets, look away from the online stores and find a charity. Any charity will do, although if you want it to be something that is important to me: Children’s Hospitals, programs that focus on providing basic needs for children in poor countries and charities that use technology in clever ways to help those in need are the kinds I look to first. Then take whatever amount of money you were going to spend on some doo-dad for me and give it to that charity instead. Please don’t bring my name into it. I don’t need the donation to be made on my behalf, just make the donation. You don’t even have to tell me about it, although you can if you want. Please note this option is only for those who insist on making money a part of the holiday. What I really, really want? Those stories. Or nothing.
I’ve talked about this with Nik as well and she’s completely on board with the same routine. That means neither of us want anything this year, because we both feel we have plenty. But she does like the stories idea so you can forward your stories to her as well as me (same permission to post applies) and the email address provided below goes to both of us. If you want to share a story just for her, use her Facebook page or use ncfollett -at- ironsoap.org.
You can send stories using the following methods:
Email: email@example.com (this goes to both Nik and I).
Facebook Message: http://www.facebook.com/ironsoap or http://www.facebook.com/mrs.ironsoap
Twitter Direct Message (if you’re into pithiness): @ironsoap
Or leave a comment below (this implies permission to post).
Or, of course, if you’re a Christmas card type of person, you could also include your tale of thankfulness in your card, as well.