Simple Pleasures of the Season
By Pamela Haines, Quaker social justice educator with a concern for economics and the environment
My 16- year-old came down the stairs big with news. “Look, Ma!” He extended his legs and showed off his new pants–a warm shade of brown, long and loose-fitting as he likes them, of a wonderfully soft wide-waled corduroy. He was full-to-overflowing with the goodness of life. “They’re perfect!” His $4 purchase at the thrift store couldn’t have given him more pleasure than the most expensive pair of trousers from the trendiest shop.
Our family has developed a new Christmas shopping tradition over the past three years. All five of us troop off together to a thrift store whose profits go to fight AIDS. Each of us has $10. Our mission: to find something for each other person that we would take pleasure in giving them at Christmas.
My younger son’s favorite sweater comes from one of those trips. I still treasure the warm wool house shoes that I tried on and casually pointed out to him. The three boys had a ball last year giving each other suits. I loved completing my older son’s collection of hard times books: Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Hard Times by Studs Terkel, My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber. Butter dishes, salt and pepper shakers, and glass pitchers have helped round out various kitchen collections. Of course there have been the less-than-perfect choices–we all laughed together over the record that didn’t match its very attractive jacket–but the stakes are just not that high.
The advantages are enormous. Our oldest doesn’t like Christmas at all and would prefer not to participate, yet feels uncomfortable when we give and he doesn’t reciprocate. The two younger ones, now 17 and 20, just aren’t into shopping. (When they were younger I put a lot of energy into helping them make things for each other and their father, but now they’re too big for me to organize them that way.)
For years I have struggled with the way materialism has worked its way into the fabric of Christmas. I watch people succumbing to the incredible pressure to fork over money they may not have to corporations that have too much, to convince people of a love that’s already there by giving them things they don’t need. I watch people using up their time, money and emotional energy trying to create a family event that is always a magnet for somebody’s disappointment. I think of the miracle of the birth of a baby and wish we could find a different way.
Our little trip to the thrift store is one response. We have fun together in both the buying and the giving. The playing field is level–no one can wow the others with expensive gifts. Our $50 goes to a worthy cause. We have to notice the love–because the gifts in themselves just don’t have that much value. We have more money to give away.
I’ve taken a different tack with my family of origin and my in-laws, where the inclination to buy hangs on but the joint thrift store expedition isn’t possible. I’ve asked them to give money in my name instead, and tried to model that in creative ways myself. One year I donated money to a group that buys chickens for Haitian farmers, and gave everyone a virtual chick. My sister responded in kind, giving me a virtual llama (actually she found a little ornament to symbolize the real thing). It was such a delightful surprise. Nobody had ever given me a llama before!
Another year I found a group that supported little independent projects like one where women in India were given a goat, promising that they would give kids to their neighbors. I drew on all my artistic talents to paint a picture of a goat standing on top of the world as the card for my gift that year. Last year I gave money for blankets in Afghanistan and olive trees in Palestine. I made everybody little candy shoestring trees and candy people tucked into scraps of wool blanket along with the card. Since my nieces and nephews are still young, I’ve tried to give some token besides the card, tried to put myself into the gift in a way that is accessible to them. But I know that they don’t need more stuff, I know their knowledge of my love is not dependent on what turns up under a Christmas tree.
Both familes are responding in kind more and more. I’m so happy when I get a note from one of my siblings or in-laws saying that money has been given in my name to something that I care about. I feel valued. I feel seen. Rather than getting more stuff that I don’t need, I get a connection to people who really do need–and that’s what I lack more than anything else.