Christmas is exactly like a wedding in several ways. Both supposedly last only one day, yet planning can go on for months. Both can involve extravagant outfits and special headgear. Both involve color combinations never seen in ordinary contexts. Both can incur vast debt, because entire industries are built around both. This last is why we've been trained to believe, in our hearts of hearts, that gifts equal love. Who came up with this idea that an engagement ring is "supposed" to cost two months of a man's salary? Marketing geniuses, that's who. Who came up with this idea that family togetherness means nothing without piles of gifts, decorations, and food? I'll give you three guesses, one for each Wise Man.
My family doesn't do wild and crazy gift exchanges anymore, or at least not any that I'm involved in. Part of this is out of necessity. I live about a thousand miles away, and anything we gave or received would either have to be put in our luggage or shipped. It's not practical, not to mention the grim thought of a TSA agent tearing off all the wrapping paper. There's also the matter of our frequent moves. We aren't in a position in life to collect any extra material objects, no matter how cool they are. In fact, the more personal the gift, the harder it is, because eventually we'd be surrounded by nothing but hand-crafted presents that would be impossible to cull.
My work with hoarding has made me skeptical about gift-giving. In every home visit I've ever done, we've found at least one out-of-season gift bag that was never unwrapped. Often there are several years' worth. Another guaranteed find is a stack of expired gift cards. Not everyone is like my clients, but most of us can honestly say that we don't want for anything, that there's nothing we truly need. Not stuff-wise, at any rate. What we need is the company of our friends and some kind of occasional ceremony to mark the passing of the years. We need a reason to get together, hug, and make eye contact. There are no rules that say these get-togethers require a gift exchange.
My favorite type of gift exchange is the white elephant. Here, the idea is to give something absurd and watch as people swap to get something equally absurd that actually appeals to them. If you ever want to see a group of people laughing until their shoulders shake, a white elephant party is the place. The memories that come from a white elephant party will last longer than the memories of yet another sweater or bath set. As an example, I went to one of these parties at work, and someone wrapped up another employee's framed family portrait from his desk. He had quite a time swapping to get that picture back, and nobody laughed harder than he did. We still talk about it years later.
I tried and failed to get my family to adopt the white elephant theme. I'll try again, eventually. What I did get everyone to agree to was a dollar limit on our gift exchange. The kids would have a normal holiday, with the normally extravagant gift-giving. The adults would put our names in a hat, then be matched up anonymously by one of the kids. We would each buy a special gift (or gifts) not to exceed the predetermined price cap. Everyone in the family makes a wish list with multiple items, so there's no real way to know what you're getting. The anonymity means you also don't know who is buying your gift. This worked out well. Everyone started out with ideas of what to buy, everyone got something truly useful or exciting, and the focus stayed on the kids, where we all wanted it.
How do you bring it up? Go to the family member who seems most likely to buy in to your idea. Say, "What do you think of just drawing names this year?" Suggest a family activity that you know will generate real enthusiasm. If there are young kids in the family, it should be child-oriented. One year, for instance, we went downtown to look at the big tree and the animated department store window displays. We've also played a lot of holiday-themed games that work over Skype, including copying a drawing while blindfolded and gift-wrapping an empty box using only one hand. These activities make for fantastic photos, they're free, and the kids have a blast. It's been a big improvement on the over-stimulated shrieks and wails of an over-gifted, overheated, over-sugared, over-tired toddler who just wants to play with the bows and ribbons anyway.
Our family has always made wish lists, and they have certain rules. There should be enough items on the list that you know you won't get everything, and thus you won't know what's in any given package. The price range should cover a wide range, from grocery-store level to something that would require several people pooling their resources. Sometimes a gift will cover more than one holiday. Some gifts, like new interior doors, also include an offer to install the item. Tech support is another non-material gift that would be appreciated by anyone who tends to be overwhelmed by new gadgets.
We forget how much we have to offer one another throughout the year, not just when the cookies come out. I know I'd rather go on a camping trip with my family in the summer than get stranded in an airport in the snow, as has happened. If I'm spending five extra hours in an airport, I fully expect the equivalent five hours in board game play the next time we see each other in person.
What my family is trying to do, now that we're older and caught up in our own careers and homes, is to spend time together. Cook together. Go out to dinner together. Hang out and play with our pets together. Play games together. Tell stories and come up with new inside jokes together. In our family, someone is always working on a holiday, so we're more likely to do these things on more ordinary days. What is precious is not the date, not what can be stuffed in a box or a bag, but the simple act of sharing our attention and physical presence.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.