Give in to Greed
My 3-year-old son Murphy loves How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The first few times I read it to him, I got teary when the all-knowing narrator posited that the Grinch couldn't stop Christmas from coming even by nabbing all the food, Christmas trees, and toys. Upon discovering the theft, the Whos went on singing and celebrating in their usual Who fashion. "Maybe Christmas," says the narrator, "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas ... perhaps ... means a little bit more!"
I have read How the Grinch Stole Christmas! roughly 50 times in the past two months, making me somewhat of an expert on the text. And while it's futile to look for verisimilitude in a Seuss book, I do feel that the good Dr. has vastly overstated his case. Truth is, while we would love for Christmas to be about charitable and spiritual core values, the kids are in it for the stuff. I think we all know that off camera and between the lines, the Who children woke up to houses stripped bare of Christmas trees, lights, presents, and that all-important roast beast and yowled at the injustice of it all.
And I don't blame them. Christmas is a time for excess. It is characterized by abundance. And not simply abundance of toys — but of food, decorations, parties, and lately, potpourri. All of which create a heightened sense of excitement. All of which create memories we hope our children will cherish as much as we cherish ours of Christmases past.
During the year, I try to instill in my kids fiscal responsibility and an appreciation for joys that aren't material. Plus, I'm no "Ms. Gotrocks," as my grandmother used to say. But Christmas is the time I let all that go. There is liberation in giving and getting with abandon. There's even liberation in wildly tearing the wrapping off a gift, instead of sliding a careful finger under the tape and slipping the paper off to be folded and saved for next year, as we did when I was a child.
I get incredible joy from surprising my children or my husband with a Christmas gift that they believed too extravagant to dare hope for. To realize their dreams, I'll pass up little indulgences I allow myself year round: eyebrow waxes with Adina (who also massages my hands) or Mommy-needs-a-break excursions to Marcel's, a brasserie where the flirty waiter serves me a glass of oaky Bordeaux.
I feel a bit virtuous about "sacrificing" so that my loved ones can get their biggest material wish. Still, I'm happy to say I never gave up my hair, like that young wife in O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," who sold her tresses to buy her husband a watch fob — only to get a useless set of combs on the big day. (That's got to hurt.)
In return, I look forward to getting things I wouldn't normally buy for myself: the expensive perfume, the string of pearls, the hardcover art book. "Too extravagant," I'll tell myself, running my finger across an impossibly soft cashmere sweater, "but, maybe, I could ask for it for Christmas." My husband Pat and I share finances, so when I tell him where to find the sweater — when I tell him the color, size, type of buttons, and that there are only two of them left — I am, in reality, buying the sweater for myself. But this in no way dampens my delight when I open the Nordstrom box that heralds exactly what I asked for on Christmas morning.
In fact, it took me years to convince Pat not to surprise me with a gift I hadn't asked for. Early in our relationship, he (in a more Seuss-ian vein) thought that half the fun of opening a gift was that it would be a complete surprise. This misguided philosophy is responsible for all of the (unwearable) wearable art stashed in the back of my closet. I haven't the heart to throw out the neon orange purse made out of a traffic cone or the silk blouse decorated with a rust imprint of a wrought iron balustrade in New Orleans. One Christmas I opened a box too small to house the velvet jacket I had begged for and pulled out ceramic coat hooks that, when mounted, would look like tiny hands coming through the wall. My eyes stung with tears.
Clearly, I still retain a certain amount of childlike wonder at receiving exactly what I've dreamed of all year long. I saw that same wonder last year in the eyes of my son Spence, then 6, when Santa gave him two dragon books he'd eyed for weeks at the bookstore. He had dreamed of those books, talked about them, and planned whom he'd share them with. As we got closer to the big day, his longing made the air in our modest apartment electric with anticipation. On Christmas morning, when he ripped the wrapping paper to reveal first one book, then, miraculously, the other, a host of angels sang "Glory to God."
I'd synced up Handel's Messiah on the CD player. I am the daughter of a man who insists on sobbing through his favorite musical piece, Panis Angelicus, every Thanksgiving while the family holds hands in a circle, so I know how to build a moment. Spencer's dragon books weren't even all that lavish. Giving in to your child's desires doesn't have to mean selling one's tresses — as evidenced that same Christmas by Murphy, who spent the morning sticking tape all over the cat. His delight with the most piffling by-product of Santa's bounty was as satisfying to me as Spencer's sated deepest wish. Once a year, it's good to get exactly what you wish for.
In the blogosphere and on playdates, parents are having heartfelt, angst-riddled conversations regarding the message we give our children about materialism and greed when they get a boatload of presents on Christmas or at Hanukkah. I would argue that the giving and receiving of gifts is what sets these holidays apart from all the others, however modest or elaborate your plans. Without the stu, Christmas is Thanksgiving. And we already have Thanksgiving.
I would further argue that the time to talk to your children about materialism and greed is throughout the year, as most of us do. A few times a year, for instance, I ask the boys to choose some of their toys to give away to children in need. I get to declutter, while elaborating on the nature of stu: who has it, who doesn't, and why. When I take my sons to museums or amusement parks, I insist on passing up toys from the gift shops, telling them the trip itself is the true gift. Having had these conversations routinely — "No, we can't," "No, that's too much," "No, you have two others just like that" — Christmas is a time for "Yes."
Even my husband, who is the only child of a single mother who worked two jobs, got to grow up enjoying the riches of the season. Surely it wasn't financially sound for my mother-in-law to spend money on the many gifts she bought for him each Christmas. But the presents spilling out from under the tree must have been an enthralling sight to a 10-year-old boy who let himself into an empty apartment every day after school. The illusion of sheer abundance must have made Christmas seem truly magical.
We create that magic by releasing ourselves from the normal constraints of the past year. At Christmastime, we eat too much, we get too much, we give too much, and my Uncle Bernie drinks too much. The lights, the food, the trees, even the deep, lush colors of red and green and gold mark a time for indulgence and excess.
And speaking of indulgence, if I ever meet a woman who dreams of owning a traffic cone purse, I can make her Christmas wish come true.
About the Author
Brett Paesel is the author of Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom, now in paperback. All she wants for Christmas is a new kitchen floor. Oh, and a trip to the south of France.