In Praise of Simple Gifts

Gift. Say the word and many levels of meaning go through our minds! When preparing for the Christmas holidays, "gift" can be a loaded term, one that provokes equal parts of anxiety and joy.

In our consumer society, the idea of "gift" is no longer simple, no longer free. The forces of consumption have taken the pure and simple concept of "gift" and layered that concept with staggering traps.

As individuals, as families, we must try to preserve simpler values against an economy, a retail institution, and an enormous idea machine, all devoted to a single goal: to persuade us to spend money on holiday gifts. Can we find a way back to the simplicity of old? How will we keep our balance in holiday giving?

As we make out holiday gift lists, we contemplate gifts and giving. One by one, we'll review the names of those we love. We'll call them to mind, think of them, draw close to them as we plan. A loving exercise. A simple exercise. A happy exercise ... if we keep the idea of simplicity up front and center.

But too often, we also experience stress! A gift no longer says, "I'm thinking of you, I love you, I hope to make you happy!" No, a gift now proclaims our taste, expresses our aspirations, broadcasts our budget, and stands as a pawn in a highly complex retail transaction. What was once a small and simple act of love is now a venture into high-level consumerism.

We've been encouraged to see each and every gift we give as a test. What high standards we set!

Our gifts must "speak" to the recipient in a very direct way. Will we find the "right" gift this year? Will we take into sufficient account our loved one's habits, preferences, causes? Will we spend enough? Too much? Will we have a reciprocal gift for all who give to us? Will our children be shamed before their friends if we don't provide "enough" to answer the schoolyard question, "Whadjagit?"

Too often, we measure our gifts against the world, not against our hearts.

We worry that our gifts will seem too modest to family members who enjoy greater financial resources. We measure our gift-buying decisions against a hundred daily suggestions, from the newspaper to the television to the other mommies on the park bench, that our efforts are falling short, are not enough.

To our shame, we participate, too! We line up, shivering with cold and docile as sheep, outside the store offering this year's media-hyped, over-priced "hot toy".

We nudge this recipient or that with gifts that reflect what we think they should be, should become. We appraise our own gifts with a sharp consumer's eye--did they measure up? We overspend, telling ourselves we'll worry about the bills when they arrive.

Despite what we know about the commercial manipulations practiced during the holiday season, we buy it--and buy it and buy it and buy it.

Time to stop! As we count down to Christmas, reach for simplicity: simple gifts, free gifts, gifts of time and love and friendship. Gifts you'll never see spotlighted on a red-clad table at your local mall, or catch languishing at next summer's garage sale.

Warm cookies on a cold day. A favorite book, re-wrapped and handed on to a friend who will treasure it. Board games that bring the family together around the kitchen table. The spirit of the season is in the simplicity ... and we can recapture it, by listening to the quiet voices within.

Making a list for Christmas giving? Let us steel ourselves against the crass and blatant calls of the gift industry. It's time to reclaim a sense of pure, right giving.

Giving from one heart, to another heart--no wallet standing between, no cash register exacting a toll, no invisible judge and jury weighing our choices. This is the season of the simple gift: reach for it!

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