This I Believe

Pamela - Durham, Maine
Entered on December 2, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: family

This year for Christmas, my family has decided that, rather than buy presents for everyone in our ever-expanding family, it would be a better idea to draw names. “The family has gotten too big, it’s too expensive to buy each person something, etc., etc.…” This is code for: “It’s a pain in the neck to shop for presents for 14 adults and 7 little kids.” The decisions about all holidays and other get-togethers (when to have it, where to have it, what food will we have) are always made by my mother, my sister, and myself – the three “co-matriarchs” of the family. I have reluctantly gone along with the Christmas name-drawing mandate this year, as it is a case of majority rule – two against one – but it goes against everything that I hold precious about Christmas.

And now, my mother has taken it a step further. She’s just had a great idea for next Christmas. “Let’s do a Yankee Swap”, she enthuses in an e-mail. “It would be fun!” My heart sank as I read the words. To anyone who doesn’t know what a Yankee Swap is, it’s where all the females in a group buy a generic female present, and the males do the same, and then gifts are randomly selected by gender. If you get a gift you don’t really care for, you can try to swap it with another person who received something you’d rather have. Some of the gifts are nice, and some are gag gifts. The Yankee Swap is often done at office parties, where people don’t know each other that well, and they can indeed be a lot of fun. But it’s an impersonal and materialistic way to give and receive gifts, and, to me, really makes a mockery of the idea of Christmas giving.

I believe that to have a family is a gift and a blessing. I’m not a sentimental person, but I’ve always believed that the one time a year we are able to celebrate family is at Christmas. The rest of the year we are all running around, earning our living, raising our children, sending hasty e-mails to loved ones to keep in touch, but at Christmas we come together. And in years past, I’ve always looked forward to and enjoyed the ritual of selecting a little gift for each member of the family. Would my brother enjoy this wind chime for his new house? Would my sister-in-law like this little antique Christmas ornament? I know my niece would love this self-tanning lotion.

Christmas is the one time of the year I spend a few weeks prior to the big get-together thinking of the individuals in my extended family, and what I can give to them to make them happy. I always like to think that maybe as the year passes and they see or use the gift I had given them, they will think of me and know that I love them. Although we all live within 50 miles of each other, we don’t see each other very often anymore, and even Thanksgiving has fallen by the wayside after the death of my grandmother. My mother doesn’t like to cook, so she and my step-father usually go to her brother’s for dinner, my brother often works on that holiday (he drives a gas tanker and likes the double-time holiday pay), and my sister has the dinner with her husband and kids and grand-children. So the big, noisy gathering around the turkey with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins is now only a memory for me, and something my kids won’t know until they’re grown and have husbands and wives and children and we can all come together at my house for a tradition of big, noisy gatherings. I’m waiting for that time to come. For now, Thanksgiving has turned into just a quiet (or as quiet as a dinner can be with five kids and a 10-month old baby) dinner at my house.

I have five children and a grand-daughter, and we don’t have a lot of disposable income in our household, so I understand the economics of gift-giving. It takes a lot of time and thought and effort to select individual gifts, that are meaningful and yet not expensive. I don’t believe that Christmas gift-giving means just going out and finding junk at cheap prices in order to fulfill gift-giving obligations. To me, gift-giving is not an obligation. It’s a celebration of love and thankfulness. I’m lucky to have a big family with unique individuals, each and every one of them precious to me. To turn our family Christmas into the equivalent of an office party with a Yankee Swap is unacceptable to me.

During the Christmas season, although it may have been six months or a year since the last time I had seen them, each of my family members has spent time in my mind as I shopped. I consider each individual and what I know about them, and how I can reflect my interest in them and their interests with my gift. Over the years, I’ve given home-grown dried herbs in decorative jars and bottles of olive oil to people in my family who love to cook. I’ve given fishing lures and compasses to sportsmen in the family. I’ve given countless books on gardening or horses or of poetry, knowing that the recipient had that particular interest. I’ve given magazine subscriptions to snowboarders and skateboarders and teens. I’ve given sketchbooks and charcoals to burgeoning artists, and picture frames to newlyweds or new parents. Each gift has been selected with that person in mind, and the happiness that fills my heart as I choose that particular gift is what Christmas is to me.

I do not believe in the commercialization of Christmas. I don’t believe that anyone should buy gifts out of obligation, without a sense of joy in the experience of giving. But, just as the three kings brought the baby Jesus their gifts of love and respect, so do I believe in the power of giving, and at Christmas especially that joy of having selected and given something special for each beloved individual in my family is more powerful than at any other time of the year.