Friday, December 14, 2007

And So This Is ...

from Jacqueline

Reading the New York Times just after Thanksgiving, I had a quick scan through an item on the front page regarding predictions of it being a pretty tough holiday season this year. The US economy is held up by the Chinese, who aren’t exactly enamored of the good old dollar any more, houses are in foreclosure and the price of gas is going up and up, even if it does fall back every now and again. In the midst of this gloom, the general feeling was that many people would be passing by the high-end stores as they went about the spending of their money, and would instead be patronizing stores where they would get more bang for their buck. In fact, to start me off on a Sunday morning, one woman said, “I’m shopping at Target and Best Buy this year – it’s going to be a hard, hard Christmas.”

Hard, hard Christmas, thought I? Has this woman just lost the last marble in her head? Hard Christmas, when you can afford to go shopping at Target and Best Buy?

Something, somewhere is out of whack. Anyone reading the newspaper or viewing the latest on CNN will know what a hard holiday season is about.

My prickly response to this article was reignited a couple of days later when I was driving along listening to NPR. Robert Frank, author of Richistan: A Journey Through The American Wealth Boom and the lives of the New Rich, was being interviewed. He was giving examples of a mindset of wealth that is not new, but is definitely different from the wealth waves of the past. He recounted sitting on the 100ft yacht owned by a well-known jillionaire, and was asking him how he felt about his wealth. Turns out that this man did not consider himself wealthy, in fact, he thought he was verging on poor, and pointed to another yacht in the same marina – a 200ft gin palace (my words, couldn’t help it) that he coveted.

Something is waaaay out of whack here. And one of the problems is stuff. Most of us have got too much stuff. We expect even more stuff at holiday times, and we are breeding new generations addicted to stuff. And why are we all grabbing more stuff than we can possibly ever need? Arguably, it's to fill that great big hole somewhere inside that can’t be filled by all the money and stuff in the world.

It’s the hole inside kids who hardly see their parents, but have every new this, that and the other available to purchase. It’s the hole inside people who don’t have time for each other any more, racing against the clock, for the train, along the freeway. It’s the hole that began over a hundred years ago with the American dream of personal independence. Only we went too far.

And for the purposes of this post, I am not even going to touch the people who are making us feel less than worthy if we don’t have all that stuff.

A few years ago, I became quite sickened by the pre-holiday indulgence in shopping. I went out to buy some gifts and came back feeling a bit queasy, to tell you the truth. People, wide-eyed and manic-looking (and I know, any mall can do that to you), were just going round grabbing as much stuff as they could as if the world was going to run out of ... stuff. Men, women and children were going in and out of stores with as many plastic bags of more stuff than they could ever use or have reasonable sized closets to hold it all in. I felt as if I were witnessing a dreadful gorge-fest, and I went home, tired and sad.

No one received gifts that year. I sent cards, and in each card I included a letter informing my dear friends and family that, believe it or not, I had more stuff than I could possibly use already. The stuff I really needed was very specific, and I could buy it myself. I let them know that I had sent all my gift-buying money to four organizations as donations. And I said that if they really wanted to buy me a gift, send the money instead to a non-profit they believed in. That didn’t make me a saint – we all do what we can. I was just so sick of the spend, spend, spend culture of the festive season.

The holiday season has its roots in Saturnalia, the winter pagan festival that was really all about gratitude and hope. (Those clever marketing whizz-kids, the early Christians, moved the celebration of Jesus' birth to winter, to bring more pagans over to their side). The festive foods of today still reflect that ritual: Sweets and puddings made of dried summer fruits are a reminder of a bountiful harvest and the sweetness of life. The evergreen Christmas trees and yule log were worshipped and signified everlasting life, and big fires were lit to give strength to the sun, for it was at the heart of life.

So, what is at the heart of life, and how can we celebrate it by not going crazy at Target or even – for those who can afford it – Neiman Marcus this year? How can we spread the festive season around a bit, so that others taste the sweetness of life? Me? I’ll probably go out to buy a few small gifts late on Christmas Eve, not to a mall, but somewhere with a main street and colored lights and I’ll feel a bit like an extra in one of those old movies about the meaning of the season. But by then I will have already sent out the more important gifts to the organizations I like to support. And no, I’m no angel – it’s just so much easier than the stuff-acquisition (even taking into account internet-ordering). And I never could belt out a carol on a full stomach.

I've not quite cracked the task of adding a video link, but if you go here, you'll find my favorite holiday song:


  1. Jackie, what a powerful and important post.

    Let's offer best wishes, charitable donations and a big hug to our loved ones this Christmas season.

    Louise Ure

  2. I'm really really bad at figuring out what to buy somebody who has everything. If I go small and sentimental I feel like a cheapskate, but with folks like that you can never go grandiose enough. The other thing I dislike is buying a gift for a coworker who I don't know very well. The office gift exchange should be banned once and for all.

  3. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Louise. The big hug is the best gift of all, and it can come any time. And Patty, you are absolutely right. There are people out there getting into debt they can't afford right now, trying to buy gifts that meet what they perceive to be the recipient's expectations - and no one wants to be seen to be a cheapskate. Personally, I think going to an estate sale when an old person has died is one of the saddest things - all that stuff that no one wants. It's the memories that count, not the size of the gift.

  4. Jackie,
    You know my feelings on this. One yacht would feed a country in Africa.

    Good job,


  5. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Jim. And no offense to our Naked Authors first class sailor, Our Patty - we know you're not the gin-palace-at-the-marina kind of gal.

    I don't mind yachts, per se, but why would you want one that's big enough to be called the Queen something-or-other?

  6. I almost hate to tell you, Our J, but gin HAS on occasion been consumed while sailing. Not by me, of course :o)

  7. from Jacqueline

    Patty, there's a difference between a gin and tonic or two while out on the ocean wave - I might have tried a weak one myself while clad in the Henry Lloyds, just to be social, of course - and a gin palace.

  8. What a beautiful, bittersweet song. (Bittersweet since war is NEVER really over).

    For my generation, there's a tad more cynical song that I can't get out of my head. Yes, it's Country Joe and the Fish at Woodstock. (Profanity alert)

  9. from Jacqueline

    Now you've gone and done it, Paul, you've just date-stamped all of us, because I'm sure there was a collective "Way to go," with your clip of good old Country Joe and the Fish. Thanks for that one - and isn't YouTube just great, you never know what you'll find there.

  10. Indeed, it's insane.

    Even worse, there are entire sites of people online begging for money to pay off the tens of thousands of credit card debt they've run up, insisting that they've learned to be frugal because they now shop at Old Navy and drink Dasani instead of Evian...

    We ask people to buy our kids consumable gifts--a chocolate bar means as much in spirit, and doesn't clutter up an already too-small house with a writer, an artist, two kids, three cats and a mess of hobby stuff.

  11. Jacqueline,
    What an excellent post.

    So much spending, so much stuff . . .

    We've got Chanukah, one of children's birthdays and Christmas with my husband's in-laws. There's also all the buying for kids' teachers (and there are a slew of them).

    I haven't stopped giving presents, but have changed what I give.

    For example, this year I bought the planting of trees for all of my children's teachers (19 people in all) through the Eco-Libris program. It just felt so good to do something right for the planet for a change.

    My best to you and all the Naked Authors for a joyous, heart-felt, season

    Pari (who has a blogger account but doesn't remember her password)

  12. Mike, I love the idea of consumable gifts - you can keep them for as long as you want, then eat and enjoy at your leisure. And Pari, I love the tree idea - I'll be checking out that one. Happy Holidays!