The red and green construction paper squares dangled off the artificial Christmas tree like earrings on a sixth-grader… a bit too gaudy, a bit too big. I looked over the written gift requests on each decoration and frowned. Christmas has lost its spirit.
Each year our church sponsors two gift drives. The first one is called Angel Tree and the gifts are for children who have one—if not two—parents in prison. The person in prison writes gift suggestions for his or her children on a tag. The church member choosing one of those tags purchases the gift and returns it to the church. It used to be that the gifts would then be brought to the prison and the parent would be responsible for wrapping and sending the gift to the child. However, a few years ago that changed. Besides purchasing the gift we were asked to include a pre-determined amount of money to cover the costs of wrapping and mailing the gift. I stopped participating after that. It wasn’t the extra money that bothered me, but the fact that the parent was almost totally taken out of the equation. Other than offering ideas what part of them was in the gift? It felt like an additional layer of parent-child separation to me.
The other gift drive is for children of families using the food shelf in a nearby town. Like the Angel Tree program, gift suggestions are placed on tree tags. My husband and I agreed that we would take two tags…one for a boy, and one for a girl. The suggested price range for the gifts is $20-$25. The thinking is that if you want to buy a more expensive gift, take more tags and spread the joy rather than giving just one extravagant gift. As I looked over the gift ideas I was dismayed. The older kids mostlywanted gift cards. Many kids–too many kids– wanted Nintendo DS game systems or Gameboys. Both of those gifts would cost much, much, more than the program advocates. While I understand it is normal for kids—and hopefully us all—to dream big, I think the parents could have used the gift-wish tags as a learning tool. Wouldn’t it be better it explain to the children that money is tight this year? Maybe they could talk with the children about what gift might bring them joy that doesn’t require batteries, new game additions, and accessories. I was a living pay-check to pay-check single-mom for many years and my children understood limits. Rather than feeling sorry for themselves, they were—and are—thoughtful and generous young people.
After sorting through the tags I eventually found two that fit with my values. A seven year-old boy wanted Legos, or a skateboard, or a pillow shaped like a turtle. I loved his ideas because all of them bring imagination into his play. In addition, the skateboard would bring outdoor exercise…a much ignored activity these days. The ten year-old girl wanted a light-up Crayola coloring book, or art supplies. Again, I rejoiced that there was creativity and imagination involved with her requests. Some would argue that I’m imposing too many of my biases on the gift-giving. Christmas is about magic, right? Well, sort of. It is also about love and family and hope and, in our home, the birth of Jesus. I love to give gifts, but I don’t want to foster the increasing commercialization of what gift-giving means. Whatever happened to handmade items? I used to beg my grandmother to give me a few jars of her homemade jams as a Christmas gift. Another lady I know makes the best pickles ever. Our neighbor stops by with a plate of cookies and we savor every crumb. My husband has made wooden toys for his grandkids. They take hours to craft but he enjoys every moment. Gifts from the heart are priceless. The boy and girl who asked for reasonable gifts on those red and green tags have humble hearts. Maybe, just maybe, they are a gift of sanity in a sea of future consumers.