No matter the cultural tradition, this is a time of year when token gifts are exchanged. How fun is that? It’s great if your love language is giving gifts. For the rest of us, it can fall a little flat at best, or disrupt our entire year’s finances at worst. For my people, it’s another major funnel of extra clutter that they find emotionally befuddling. I’ll still be finding gifts in their original gift bags years later, still in their original tissue paper and their original plastic packaging. All this trading of material objects can maybe detract from the real reason we all get together, which is to greet the long, dark winter nights with hope and hospitality. That is why I say, open your unopened gifts, both material and immaterial.
Open the gift bags from last year and the year before. They might come in handy if you get invited to a white elephant exchange. You can reuse the gift wrap, too. They may also put this year’s gifts into context, a handy meter for what is realistic to expect out of a little glitter and plastic.
There is a certain paradox in the holidays, because the more anticipation and excitement there is, the more there can be an emotional letdown when it’s all over. I’ve always thought the big parties should be in midwinter, not near the solstice, because it’s hard knowing there are so many months of horrible weather and darkness still to come. Once all the parties are over and everyone has gone home, there’s nothing but a pile of wrapping paper and trinkets to get us through. Not a few kids will build a reputation for throwing tantrums or openly weeping because they didn’t get their heart’s desire.
A pony. A piano. A Pretty in Pink Barbie. A parrot.
A dirt bike. A rifle. Roller blades. An electric guitar.
Ask anyone of any age, and they’ll recall with perfect clarity the Gift That Got Away. Then ask if they have one now. It’s funny that most of us can afford anything in the range of the budget for a children’s toy, yet we don’t buy these things for ourselves. That’s because it’s not the material object that we really miss. It’s the feeling of innocent hope and fervent wishing, the sparkly feeling of infinite possibility that is continually dashed in the face of cold reality.
The things we did get that didn’t live up to the hype: sea monkeys, x-ray glasses, a supposed all-day lollipop, the triple-scoop ice cream cone that fell on the sidewalk directly outside the ice cream shop.
(As I wrote this, the squirrel that lives outside our front door came too close and my dog ALMOST got him).
How many times have we been fooled by prank gifts? White elephants, oversize boxes and trick packaging designed to hide the modest item inside.
Many of us have mixed feelings about going to holiday parties. Shyness and social anxiety, family dysfunction and trauma, tenuous recovery tested by ever-present intoxicants, the endless aggravation of forced cheer in traffic. Explain why you’re still single. Pretend you’re straight. Act perky about your job hunt. Struggle to cram in every social obligation around the few traditions that actually mean something to you. Stop your cat from eating all those ribbons.
What do we miss? What falls by the wayside because it’s so hard to put into material form?
Storytelling. For every argument or failure of simple tact, there’s an untold story that somebody could have, might have, maybe should have drawn out of someone else. A lot of grumpy people have fascinating stories buried somewhere under all the crankiness. With a little skill and attention, someone could have turned complaining into entertaining.
Connection. When we sit down to write out cards, it can come as a shock to realize that it’s been an entire year since we last reached out to dear friends who live far away. Are we really making the connections and staying engaged with the people we like the best? How long has it been since we even heard each other’s voices? How did those kids get so big? Where did the last five years go?
Neighborliness. In the past, people did a better job of getting to know their neighbors. Gatherings were probably more formal, but the rote phrases and stilted, scripted conversations gave people a framework for how to interact. I started making more of an effort to get to know my neighbors when I realized the man next door was 96. Was anyone looking after him?
The last time. The sad truth is that we never know when it will be the last time we see someone. Could be... could be tonight. There are few regrets as bitter as knowing you could have called someone or gone to see someone, but you let the opportunity pass and later find out it’s too late. One regret that’s worse is knowing that the last time you spoke, you exchanged harsh words and never made up.
Among the unopened gifts, the silly bric-a-brac and the trivial treats, there are others that can’t be shaken out of the wrapper. Those are the simple and timeless human gifts of attention, patience, forgiveness, advanced hospitality, and emotional engagement. Let’s put down our phones and our shiny sacks for a few moments and give a moment to opening our hearts to one another.
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.
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