Just say no

christmas-treeThere was a custom among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. On certain ceremonial occasions, these primitive peoples demonstrated their status by out vying each other in elaborate and wasteful gift-giving. It was called Potlatch.

Anthropologists found it a very strange and self-destructive custom.

“Why can’t they just celebrate Christmas, like the civilized world?” they asked plaintively.

On the business pages I read the same news about this Christmas season, that I have read ever since I began the unfortunate practice of reading business pages. This season, they warn, is a thermometer which will measure the health of the economy. If consumer spending holds up, the recession storm clouds looming just over the horizon will hold off for a few more months. If consumers stay home, there is danger ahead. They imply it’s our duty to go out there onto the front lines and spend!

As a child, I loved Christmas without reservation. And a young person with my first real job, I discovered the added pleasure of picking out presents for other people. I read with horror and disbelief of people who actually disliked the whole season.

My joy in Christmas first began to waiver when I got married. My husband was one of nine siblings. And he came with parents, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. Now guys seem to have a very different concept of buying Christmas presents. They don’t seem to feel that their world will fall apart if they forget one or two. They don’t start thinking about Christmas in September. They seem sure that they will have plenty of time and if not, well, that’s how things go. It’s not that they have any intention of foisting the Christmas shopping thing on their wives, their wives just sort of pick it up on their own. Guys figure its because women just love to shop and spend money. And I did love it for the first couple of years that I was married.

Then to me was born a child, and a child, and yet another child. Suddenly, I counted the presents I needed to buy on my fingers, and on my toes, and on my husband’s fingers and toes, and on my children’s fingers and toes, and I still wasn’t done. And, as I continued my self-assigned role of surrogate shopper for my husband and now for my children, I needed to buy each recipient five presents, not one. Just making out The List made my head hurt. Things got more complicated when we embarked on a massive home renovation scheme. My vital role involved keeping my small children out from underfoot. So I found myself trudging though endless stores with my three whirling devils.

To this stew, we added office parties, children’s Christmas concerts, visiting all the parents. Then there was the inevitable grab bag present for the boy scout Christmas party, the karate lesson Christmas party, or the school Christmas party. The need for those would inevitably be announced at the traditional “…oh, I forgot to tell you, I need….” hour of 9 PM. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of tinsel, gingerbread, and wrapping paper.

One day at a Christmas party my husband’s aunt read me a supposedly humorous article about mothers and the Christmas rush. It was my life. As I listened, I felt like crying, and I asked myself. “What happened to my Christmas? How did I turn a once magic season into an endless and frantic round of tasks? Why am I so depressed?” And I had a revelation.

It was during the years when Nancy Reagan was running the country. And, in a blinding flash of light, the words to one of her campaigns came to me.

“Just say no.”

I recalled the previous Christmas. The kids ripped through piles of toys, and played with them for all of 20 minutes before asking me what there was to do. The toys then then littered the house, causing arguments and stubbed toes for 6 months. Some of my relatives seized the opportunity to once again give me filly pink clothes. My stepmother gave me an obviously expensive sweater that itched and was painful to wear. I had uncharitable thoughts about her motives. It occurred to me that the innocent recipients of my own carefully selected gifts might not be any happier with my choices than I was with their selections. And no one on my list really needed anything.

“Just say no.” I repeated to myself.

I was excited that I had discovered the solution, but realized that implementing it might not be quite so simple. At that point, my mother-in-law, a women who is eminently sensible about any number of matters, came to my rescue. She called us and asked us if we would have any objection if she only gave her grandchildren token presents and instead donated the money she would have spent on them to the Globe Santa fund.

We just said “Yes!”

And we all breathed a sigh of relief. Then I started to think about what Christmas was really about. I remembered the sheer wonder of Christmas morning, when I was a child, and I knew I wanted my kids to have similar memories. But I called all my other relatives and proposed a truce.

“Lets all just say no.” I pleaded. “No more potlatch. No more soldiering for a healthy economy. No more Christmas craziness.” Surprisingly enough, everyone readily agreed to put down their charge cards and go home peacefully.

The season really celebrates a single gift. God gave the world his only son. No one can top that one.

But we can try to find a faint echo of that ultimate present in our personal celebrations. The year that we vowed to “just said no,” we also vowed to try to give more to charities than we would spend on presents for ourselves. We vowed to sit down as a family and discuss what we were doing and why. We vowed to go to church to teach our children what Christmas was really about. These weren’t big changes. We didn’t stay out of stores entirely, we still spend too much, and we know that we could still be doing much more for others. But it made the season a little saner, and I could feel the Christmas magic once again. And we hope that by just saying no to potlatch, and yes to giving to those in real need, we are celebrating Christmas in the civilized way that Jesus would have wanted.

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