Monday, December 04, 2006

Holiday farce

Most people lose sight of common sense during the holidays. Like the full moon, the holidays induce a kind of madness that results in breakups of marriages, fights, and suicides. The only thing the holidays don't have in common with the madness of the full moon is the need or desire to over spend. A friend recently told me that most people spend upwards of $800 on gifts, with the emphasis on "upwards".

I remember reading a blog on my friends list and the friend in question talked about their longing for their home during the holidays. The friend is from Europe and it was the sights and sounds, smells and tastes of the holiday season she missed and not the gift giving and commercialism she found here. Retailers go all out to lure us into their stories to buy things we don't need and children won't play with 30 minutes after they find out what is inside the pretty wrapping paper and that wrapping paper is becoming more and more expensive for less and less paper. The cashiers and a few customers were talking while I waited in line, oohing and aahing over some very pretty wrapping paper that cost less than $2. Yes, it was inexpensive but there was barely enough on the role to take care of more than two good sized packages; that was something else the mentioned.

When I was growing up the holidays was a special time when, greedy kids that we were, we couldn't wait for Christmas morning to rush downstairs and work our way from the foyer into the living room opening packages as we went. My parents spent lavishly at Christmas--I should say my mother spent lavishly. Every year now she warns everyone that she and Dad can no longer afford to spends lots of money like they used to do. This year is no exception. I wonder what they could have done with the money they would have saved if they had spent less money when we were children. I honestly cannot remember more than a few gifts I received and those were the ones that were special. I would have been just as happy without all the dolls and games and toys and things just to have had those few special gifts. This year, like many years in recent memory, I told Mom what gift I wanted: pot holders and kitchen towels. A few years ago I asked for a telescope. I do not need much and I would rather have something I can use or a gift certificate to or even some of my things in storage (postage is a great gift when it's attached to my sewing machine or some of my cooking utensils or books). I am easy to please. I always have been. But there are those who are not content unless they go into debt every single year or drive their spouses crazy by spending so much money it affects their marriage, their credit and their lives--just because it's Christmas.

Yes, it's easy to look back on the past and see how spoiled I was when it came to gifts under the tree and say I would have been happy with less, but it really is true. One year an aunt gave me a book. It was Heidi by Johanna Spyri. I read that book many times and even slept with it under my pillow. I still have it. Then there was the year I received an easel, brushes and a paint box with some canvas boards. I painted with those tools for years, added colors and acrylics and brushes one at a time. My favorite gifts came in my stocking: oranges, nuts, and a little candy. But I wonder how my father felt about how much Mom spent every year, especially the year I snooped and found the basement room that was filled floor to ceiling with toys and gifts, so many gifts I was literally stunned by the sight.

My landlady is a generous and loving person and last year, my first year here, she gave me a big bag of goodies and home baked breads as a gift. She gave a similar bag to Nel across the hall. We talked about that a few weeks ago and she told me she'd rather give something home baked because it is a little more personal--and a touch less expensive. Last night when I took her half of the key lime cheesecake the hall and her apartment were filled with the smell of baking bread. She checked the bread in the oven while we talked in the kitchen, shedding light on three raisin- and nut-studded loaves turning golden in the heat. She told me she soaked the nuts and raisins in liquor for several days before she added them to the dough she made, reminding me of a Kentucky Bourbon cake I have made in years past.

Things here are serene and pleasant but outside these walls there are rumbles of bitter arguments to the beeping sound of credit cards being swiped in stores all over the city. Gone are the cozy holiday meals that fill the house with the scent of spices and baking meat or the warmth and glow that spreads outward from the kitchen. Instead families with go out for dinner and spend their holidays in movie theaters ignoring each other for hours. There will be no leftovers for turkey sandwiches or casseroles and no extra trips to the kitchen to nibble on leftovers while friends and family gather to share a day or an evening of music and laughter, sharing their favorite gifts, ones that they will remember and treasure for years. Instead there will be silence and an atmosphere you could cut with a dull knife and long walks in the freezing cold and snow to cool down hot tempers and get away from the looming specter of harsh words over excessive spending and debt at a time when the wasted money could be used in better ways. I wonder how many of those gifts that will find their way under trees this year will end up on eBay or in yard and garage sales come spring and summer for pennies, nickels and dimes. It's no wonder we need bigger and bigger houses with lots of closet space; we need a place for our stuff, stuff we do not need and won't want 30 minutes after we receive them.

How many gifts did you receive last year do you still have or even remember? Were they worth the cost or the arguments or the debt? Think about it, then think less about how much you plan to spend and even less about spending so much. If you need to spend that money to feel good, give it to a charity in your child's name or your own name, and remember those children who will be ecstatic over one or two gifts some stranger put into a gift collection box at a store without knowing more about the child than whether or not they were a girl or a boy. Give the money to a food pantry or homeless shelter so more people can be fed throughout the holidays and every day. I'm sure your harried and frustrated mate, the one who works and pays the bills, will thank you for not excusing your excesses with, "But it's Christmas."

That is all. Disperse.

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