The Tradition of Gift Giving: When is Enough Enough?

Even though I am now in my late fifties, the Christmas Eve service still gets me.  The candlelight, the music, the poinsettias…everyone filing out into the cold dark night afterward, heading home to drink hot chocolate or egg nog in front of the Christmas tree, in living rooms piled high with gifts.

The gifts

Now that’s another story.

As I grow older, I am becoming increasingly conflicted about the entire gift-giving thing.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy giving gifts.  I do.  It’s just that the obligatory gift-giving at Christmas seems to have become too much.  Christmas today feels more like a commercial orgy than a day that celebrates the magic and wonder of the season.

I know I sound like an old man when I say these kinds of things—but gift giving wasn’t always like this.  When I was growing up the new bike, microscope or doll house only came around at the end of the year.  They showed up under the Christmas tree, presumably, as a kind of reward for good behavior.  (Although that standard was clearly never applied too strictly at our house).

The point is, getting gifts at Christmas used to be a big deal.  Because you didn’t really get a lot of stuff during the year.

That’s not how it is anymore.  More often that we like to admit, most of us purchase the new video game or athletic sportswear for our kids on demand throughout the year.  And we do the same for ourselves.  So, by the time Christmas arrives there is little we really want and virtually nothing we need.  

However, that doesn’t stop us.  We give gifts to each other anyway.  Truckloads of them.  

I have some friends who have grown so weary of this needless gift exchange that they stopped giving gifts at Christmas altogether.  Instead, they choose to spend the money they would have spent on gifts taking a trip, or a giving to their favorite charity.  I really admire these folks.  They walk the talk.  I wish I was brave enough to do that.

But I’m not.  

I still buy gifts for friends and family.  And, at the same time, I quietly mount my own rebellion by including, with the gift, a small donation to some non-profit.  Hoping that such a gesture will partially redeem my lack courage to stand up against the commercialization of this magical holiday.

Yet, I’m never quite sure I’m even doing that part right.  Do I give to the local food co-op down the street, or do I buy a pair of goats for a villager in Uganda?  Should I focus on issues that no one cares about, or should I focus on the big issues, where it feels real change is about to happen?  Do I give more to small non-profits and less to larger ones or vice versa?  Do I give to the same group year after year, or do I spread it around?

I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions.  And when I’ve typed in my credit card number and CSC code for the umpteenth time, I’m unsure if I’ve given the right amount of money to the right organizations fighting for the right causes. And even less sure that this gesture of mine is going to make any real difference. Certainly, my haphazard gifts are meager in the face of the world’s need. 

Leaving with more questions than answers, I’ve finally concluded that there’s probably no “right” way to give.  Maybe it’s just important that we do something–so that we can remind ourselves that life is more than getting and having.  Life is giving and being.


Photo by on Unsplash

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