In this time of reflection, as the nights come sooner, the fires become cozier, and the new year approaches, I cannot help but reflect on the spirit of the season. Why has this time become so sacred? In a purely secular context, I can see how celebrations of light and hope have developed during the darkest time of year. There is something uniting about standing about in the cold, singing and holding lanterns that helps us appreciate the warmth and food that we do have. We hope for warmer and lighter days, but in the meantime, make the cold and dark bearable by fending it off in our own human way. Hence, feasts of hearty food to keep us warm and bright lights and fires to bring merriment to a time of almost complete darkness after 5pm. To follow Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, once we are sheltered, fed, and safe, in the company of friends and family, we can begin to express our gratitude for the comfort we feel.
This expression of gratitude can come in many forms. Letters, speeches, voicemails, hugs, all gifts. Gifts can come in many shapes and sizes…From the newest my-size Barbie to a new Kitchen Aid to stacks of unread books to silly re-gifted White Elephant gifts to a gamut of homemade treasures (cards, canned jams and vegetables, CDs, etc.) we express our love to people in gift form in many different ways. A gift could be a hug or a smile even, a pure expression of gratitude. This year, I have been especially bothered by the onslaught of commercialism that dominates America at this time of year. After Halloween (and during!) commercial companies take advantage of Americans’ desire to spend money by displaying a wide variety of cheap and often superfluous items for sale.
I attended the tree lighting ceremony in San Francisco this year, the day after Thanksgiving, and was overwhelmed by the already ubiquitous Christmas decoration- silver trees crammed into every corner at Macy’s, store windows displaying the “must needed” holiday dress, and of course all on sale for the Black Friday extravaganza. Why such a focus on commercialism? Why? The obvious reason is that for some reason we “need” to express our love and appreciation of people (and sometimes feel pressured into it) by buying and giving them gifts. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against gift giving (more later), but I am bothered by the focus on buying that pervades our culture. One of my favorite Seattle authors, Lynda Lynn Haupt, discusses these issues in a recent post on her blog The Tangled Nest. She and her husband put together a “Gift Guide” every year in an attempt to highlight the flaws in our unavoidably commercial society and come up with some ways we can combat the American buying addiction while still keeping with the selfless spirit of Christmas. They highlight a few gift ideas that they feel are in-line with a solstice gift exchange tradition- “an expression of the beautifully human realization that simple gifts freely given can lift the spirit, and that in the long dark of winter, a little spirit-lifting is essential.” Gifts such as local art, homemade crafts, food and garden kits, books, music, as well as experiences or donations. I think it is a wonderfully written guide and really made me think about the root reason why gift giving is so natural at this time of the year.
Some people choose to represent their beliefs in a “no gift” Christmas, but I do not believe in going this far. Gift giving can be such a selfless act. In an often fast-paced society, it is very important to step back every once in awhile to take score of what (or who) we are grateful for in our lives and acting upon this feeling of gratitude, putting energy into productive actions. This could be buying local art, something that I definitely did this year, in supporting Portland artist Katie Daisy. As is the case of many self-employed artists, I assume that they gain much of their yearly income around major holidays, and I am happy to support them in an attempt to promote more beauty in this often ugly world. Or gift giving could also consist in making your own homemade gifts and supporting local book stores. Though I’m not bothered by gift-giving per se, I think that it’s the obsession with commercialism that irks me so much. There seems to be an onslaught of money spent (I am not immune to this) at this time of year. The often transformative experience of giving gifts to those you love, shouldn’t it be carried out in other times of the year? Why only on Christmas and on birthdays? Though it is sometimes nice to have a seasonal reminder to act on gratitude, we could find ourselves even more fulfilled if we learned to give in our daily lives, either in objects or actions. There is nothing better than receiving a gift from someone just “because.” Or by making a practice out of affirming those we love regularly, not just in the context of holiday cards.
The origins of “Christ”mas itself often gets hidden behind the glitz and glamour of presents and Santa. Though this time of the year has been celebrated for thousands of years (discussed above), Christmas itself began as the celebration of new life amidst desperate circumstances on an undoubtedly cold evening (after all, Bethlehem is in the desert of Israel). Though the three kings brought Jesus gifts to celebrate his birth, commercial gift giving was certainly not a founding tenet of Christmas. However, expressions of gratitude that new babies naturally inspire, were certainly present at the “First Christmas.” And selflessness is often wrapped up in these expressions of gratitude- the simple act of relaying energy from ourselves to another person.
Now, being grateful. What does it mean? How does it manifest in our bodies and our thoughts? In a season inspired by gratitude (think “Thanks”giving), what a more ideal time to reflect on this emotion? It can manifest in a swelling of the chest, an inadvertent smile, or a twitch of the arms to give a hug. A “Thank you for being in my life. You are good.” But there are things in one’s life that are a little harder to pinpoint. The things we take for granted. How do we fully thank our life’s circumstance? For instance, the chance for me at this time of my life to take a step back and figure out what I want to do in the future. Few people get this chance to reflect in such a relaxed manner. Do I make a list of these things in my life that are just “there,” to try to compartmentalize them, to name them, in hopes that I won’t take them for granted any more? Or do I just let them be/let them pass?
This season, I want to be more thankful. For my family, who have been here for my whole life and who are harder to shake than friends. And friends, who are often family. People rarely take a step back to think of their lives in perspective. And yes, I agree that it is often hard to take a step back when you may be so involved, so deeply loving life. Or even in the midst of skimming on the surface, going through the motions, it’s hard to put things in perspective. It’s so evident, this power of hindsight…you may not even realize you are grateful for something or why you are grateful for it until afterwards- days, weeks, months, even years after the fact.
But as much as we can, let’s embrace this idea of thanks. Gratitude. Naming those things or people who give us happiness or challenge us. Try to put that gratitude into the world. Maybe in gift form, maybe not. Because as Haley Joel Osment said in the blockbuster hit “Pay it Forward,” our actions really can trickle down to affect many, many, more people than we could imagine. As we put this gratitude into the world more, it will come right back to us, positivity begetting positivity, a powerful chain of Christmas spirit leaking out into the world.