I think I might have reached a breaking point this year. Well, you all know I’ve been cracked for a long time, but I’m talking about a different kind of break.
It started when I read a Facebook post by a friend in London right around Black Friday complaining about how disgusted he was that “American consumerism” was creeping into the UK.
“Humph,” I thought. That was pretty offensive, painting all Americans with the same greedy-consumer brush. Now, I don’t like the way we’ve turned Christmas into a bloodbath of buying either; I never have. But we’re no worse than anyone else. Right?
But I started actually paying attention to all the emails I was mindlessly deleting. I normally get half a dozen or so emails that I delete without reading from stores every day, but with the advent of Black Friday that number suddenly quadrupled – or more. Email after email promising the best deals on, well, everything. I mean, really, everything. (One offered incredible savings on Viagra. I’m not really sure how I ended up on that list.)
Then my six-year-old granddaughter and I were watching something on television, and there was a commercial for Jaguars (the car, not the cat). I said, “Now there’s a pretty car. I’ve always liked those cars.” Just an off-the-cuff remark. Made to the air, really, not to my granddaughter. But she’s nothing if not quick on the uptake.
“Go buy one, Grandma.”
I laughed and explained that they were way too expensive and besides, I didn’t need one. I had a perfectly good car.
“But you want it, right?” she asked.
“No, I don’t really want it. I just like it.”
This perplexed her. To a six year old, if you like it and you don’t have it, that means you want it.
So I tried to explain. This was not as easy as it sounds. I tried to tell her that you can like something but not really want it because it’s not practical, or it’s not in your budget, or there are other things you need or want more. Sometimes you have to make choices between things. You just can’t go buy everything you see that you like.
“Oh,” she nodded, understanding. I smiled, pleased to have imparted some grandmotherly wisdom.
Then she said, “Okay, so just put it on your Christmas list.”
Over the few days since Thanksgiving, we have been inundated by ads and sales pitches and every store everywhere using Christmas as a way to make us spend every penny we have NOW. Of course it started well before Thanksgiving; it just amped way up after. Black Friday is now a week long. Then there’s Small Business Saturday. And Cyber Monday.
Give the perfect gift. We have what you need. One-stop shopping. Free shipping. Fifty percent off. Super sale. Shop in your jammies from the comfort of your own home. Come in before noon for extra savings. Free lip gloss with every purchase of six billion dollars or more.
And then I saw the ad that put me at the breaking point. It said:
Put the “I” back in “gift”
There it was. It’s been heading that way for a long time now, but finally someone had the nerve – or just the honesty – to come right out and say it. Put the “I” back in “gift.” (A play, I suppose, on putting the “Christ” back in “Christmas.” But that’s a whole other blog.)
All these crazy awesome great incredible never-before-and-never-again “Christmas” deals aren’t really geared toward helping us find those perfect gifts for people we love. They’re geared toward making us want stuff for ourselves. They’re geared toward fueling our own desires. They’re geared toward making us think we can’t pass up those jeans because they are, after all, so cute and fifty percent off! Or those tops that are only ten dollars each. Or OH MY GOSH those adorable boots that I have to have because, well, I don’t think I have any in that particular shade of brown.
They’re geared toward putting the “I” back in gift. The “me” back in “gimme one of those!”
When I was a little kid, there was a store in our town (Dayton, Ohio) called Rikes Department Store. Every year at Christmas they set up a big section with things that children could buy for their parents and brothers and sisters. Parents weren’t allowed in; they would drop their kids off and Santa’s elves would accompany the children around, helping them pick out things according to their budgets. My brother, sister, and I looked forward to this every year, and then we’d go home and wrap up our treasures. Of course we loved getting Christmas presents, but just as much – okay, almost as much – we absolutely loved watching Mom and Dad, and each other, open the little gifts we bought them at Rikes. Most years, I admit, we couldn’t wait, so we kids would sneakily show each other what we’d bought for one another almost as soon as we got home. Yeah, I know, but we were kids; what can I say? The point is, we didn’t go in there and get sidetracked by things we wanted. We spent a whole afternoon every year with Santa’s elves picking out things for the people we loved, and we loved doing it.
Let me share just one more story, a story about finding a perfect gift. It doesn’t happen often. Many times we can find a really good gift for someone we love, something we know they will like. But it’s pretty rare that we find a perfect gift. I’ll bet everyone reading this (both of you? Maybe all three of you?) has, at one time or another, found exactly, precisely that perfect gift. And when you do, isn’t it the most wonderful feeling ever to give that gift?
I gave my dad the perfect gift once. Dads are hard to buy for, especially when you’re grown up and you know ties and after shave just don’t cut it anymore. One year, for his birthday, I gave my dad Life Magazine’s 50th Anniversary Collection hardcover book. Now, this was not the perfect gift heretofore mentioned. But as he was looking through this book, he muttered, “I wonder if it’s in here…”
I asked him what he was talking about, and he told us – for the first time ever – that his picture had been in an edition of Life magazine. He couldn’t remember which edition, but it was at the end of WWII, and it was a picture of him and another soldier supposedly raising the flag over occupied Japan (they were, he said, actually just fixing an antenna, but it made a good picture).
That picture did not make it into Life’s 50th anniversary book, so between Dad’s birthday in September and Christmas of that year, my husband and I scoured all the antique stores we could find, thumbing through every edition of every Life magazine for that period of time.
Finally in early December we came across the September 10, 1945, issue, and there on page 29 was my dad, holding onto a flagpole. I recognized him immediately, even though his face was partially shadowed, by his build and the way he was standing, with his hand on his hip. My dad.
I got him a jacket, too, and put the magazine in the box under the jacket. When he opened up the box on Christmas, he pulled out the jacket and thanked us with that oh-another-jacket-that’s-nice kind of smile, but when he went to put it back in the box he saw the magazine.
I will never, ever forget the look on his face.
He dropped the jacket and oh so carefully lifted out the magazine. He slipped it out of its protective plastic cover and stared at it. Then he opened it, turning the pages ever so gently until he came to page 29, where he just held it in his lap for the longest time. When he looked up at me, he had tears in his eyes. And my dad never cried.
“Well, I’ll be,” he finally said.
And that, my friends, is putting the “I” in gift. It means I found it. I found something that someone I love will treasure. That will make the heart of someone I love sing. That will make someone I love know that I thought more about them than just walking into a store and seeing a scarf and thinking, “Yeah, that’s okay, they’ll probably like that. Ooooh, look, those jeans would look great on me!”