Thursday, December 22, 2005


In the political correctness of the season, I'd like to wish everyone a merry giftmas. It doesn't matter what holiday you choose to celebrate this time of year, one thing we all have in common is a well-developed appreciation for the time-honored ritual of giving. And no one's more thankful for that than Alan Greenspan, because a happy holiday season means a very happy economy. Hark the herald cash registers sing!

Over time, for better or for worse, the evangelical Christian underpinnings upon which America's version of the winter-time holiday Christmas was originally built were abandoned in favor of a week to celebrate secular consumerism. I'm not bitter about it, just a little melancholy. It is what it is, and certainly not what it once was.

Everywhere you turn, the customary greeting “Merry Christmas” has been replaced with “Happy Holidays!” Bethlehem has has been replaced by Best Buy, the birthplace of holy savings. And the three wise men may as well be named Bed, Bath, and Beyond. How did we get here?

Perhaps where we are is a function of WHO we are. America is a capitalist society that has thrived on a healthy exchange of goods and services for 230 years. So it’s really no Christmas miracle that commercialism has taken over. What had once been an occasion for family and friends to gather in celebration of the birth of a Messiah is now an excuse to shower lavish gifts on one another in a glorious exchange of consumer goods and services. And the more you spend on someone, the more you love them. At least that’s what the folks who sell the really high-end stuff would have you believe. Although, for the record, some of us still believe it's the thought that counts.

Choosing the right gift has always been an issue for me. Just ask my sister who got a Clapper from me a couple years back. I did not receive a standing ovation from the gift committee after that impulse purchase. I’ve since made up for it with some spa treatments and a little blue box. These days I start my Giftmas shopping a little earlier in the year to be on the safe side. Like April. I’m no longer a last-minute mall pinball, bouncing from sale sign to sale sign on December 24th, praying for inspiration.

Last year I bought my grandfather a cordless beard trimmer with a built-in vacuum that sucks up all of your clippings as you shave. It was one of those generic, can’t-miss gifts they sell at virtually every department store – but one I picked out specifically for him because I knew if he actually used it, it would make his life easier. I’d actually put a little thought into the gift and that made me feel better about giving it to him. Better than had I spent twice as much money on a Hickory Farms gift box showing off more meat than Elton John’s bachelor party. Who wants that? Besides Sir Elton, of course.

So much of what I see on television, hear on the radio, and read in the newspaper, however, doesn’t encourage this kind of thoughtfulness. Instead, I’m inundated with commercial messages that encourage conceptual laziness. Ads promise “easy” shopping experiences, easy return policies, easy one-click online shopping, and easy shipping. The thought behind the gift is a secondary consideration because gift-giving apparently should be “easy” first.

I’ll tell you what’s easy. Spending a lot of money FAST is easy. And in the absence of consideration, it’s also easy to buy a bunch of crap for which your friends and family will have little or no use.

Think Clapper.

Our “makes a perfect gift” culture has moved away from thoughtfully selecting meaningful holiday gifts to exchanging token articles of ambiguous value. I no longer feel like it’s the thought that counts, but rather that it’s the amount of money I spend. How did financial outlay come to represent my feelings toward a person?

Just a couple of days ago I was looking at the small mountain of gifts I’d bought for people this year, and although I was certain it was more than I’d ever spent, it just didn’t seem like enough. And the reason it didn’t seem like enough was because I found I kept putting dollar amounts on everything. I found myself comparing how much money I spent on my dad versus my mom versus my sister. I felt I needed everything to be even or I would be judged as a poor gift-giver. I didn’t want that label. That was my grandfather.

My grandfather was, by almost all accounts, an uncommonly fun guy. He had a smile and a joke for everybody in the room and always seemed to be in high spirits. Consequently, and not unlike yours truly, he was a pretty easy guy to like. He was magnetic. He had charisma. People enjoyed being around him because he could really light up a room. But, man, let me tell you, he was the worst gift-giver since the Trojan Horse came rolling into town.

Every year, he went garage-“sale”ing for holiday gifts. And he wasn’t shy about it, either. He’d tell you exactly where he found your gift and boast of the great deal he got on it. Most of his gifts were indescribable – you’d unwrap something and actually wonder aloud what it was. Then he’d laugh with a youthful exuberance and try to talk you into believing it was the greatest gift you’d ever received.

“You like that?! Isn’t that the shit? Man, I saw that and thought of you right away!”

It was hard to be disappointed when he was so excited. A few of the more memorable gifts I received from him included second-hand clothes, a hollow glass head, and a plaster bust he insisted had been specially rendered to look like me. I actually believed him until my sister unwrapped the same plaster head.

Oddly enough, I never judged him on his penchant for finding useless Christmas gifts. I didn’t look upon him with disfavor when unwrapping something I knew would live in the trunk of my car. And I didn’t appreciate him any less for the amount of money he didn’t spend on my present. Because the spirit behind his awful gifts was genuine: he was all about having a good time. (I do feel obligated to note that his eccentric gifts were typically accompanied by a generous amount of cash, which had a way of sofening the blow of unwrapping a used painter's cap)

My grandpa passed away earlier this year, so there won’t be any obnoxious gifts to laugh about this year – but I’ll never forget his holiday spirit. Because the more I shop and the more money I spend on the people I love, the more I’m convinced he had it right. It wasn’t about the financial outlay – it was about the thought. Yes, it was the THOUGHT that counted.

I think over the years that popular phrase has taken on a new meaning. When people say “It’s the thought that counts,” they usually mean that a gift should be appreciated because it is a gift. So even if it is something you don’t like or won’t use, you should appreciate that someone took the time and spent the money on showing they appreciate you. But for me, that phrase means something entirely different. “The thought” that counts is that you actually THOUGHT about the person when you bought the gift. You picked out something that you knew, thought, or at least hoped they would like.

Advertisers will say and do anything to replace thought with convenience. I'm in advertising -- I know. It's my job to talk people into buying things they don't need with money they oftentimes don't have. And there's no easier time to do that than the holidays. Guilt is a powerful motivator.

The last Christmas gift I ever got for my grandfather was that cordless beard trimmer with a built-in vacuum. I’d drawn his name in the family grab-bag and had to spend $50 on a gift. I remember I really struggled to find something before finally settling on a $29 beard trimmer. I picked it out because he was always making a mess in his bathroom and presumed, as a result, he probably wasn’t trimming his beard as often as he wanted. Yet after buying his gift, instead of feeling good about my decision, I only felt guilty that I hadn’t spent the entire $50.

He later told me it was the best gift he’d received that year. All he talked about was how much he loved that thing. The last time I saw him he was still talking about how great that gift was. I felt like I’d made his entire year with that $29 beard trimmer from Kohl’s. And I began to realize that it wasn’t about the money I’d spent at all. It was the thought that made his gift sepcial. Not the thought OF a gift, but the thought that went INTO it.

So here I am again, fretting over the amount of money I’ve spent on the people who mean the most to me, wondering if I’ll be judged on the quality of my gifts, wholly missing the point that the money doesn’t matter. It’s the idea that counts.

It saddens me to see how the WORD Christmas is slowly being erased from our cultural consciousness - I just pray we don't lose the spirit, too.

Merry Christmas everybody! Go ahead and say it. It feels good.


Snosher said...

Merry Christmas and the best
New Year ever ** Ü

Anonymous said...

I just ran into your page looking for the voices in a WhiteXmas card sent to me. Enjoyed the story of your Grandfather, his spirit, and the message about gifting. My wife created an oil painting this Chrismas, of me in the throws of musical bliss (I'm a singer/songwriter). It was the best gift ever. She captured me, then gave me back to me, in a form that will forever remind me of who I really am. An impassioned person. One who loves to live, who lives to love. Chrismas is about love, about life, about having fun living life with those you love and those who love you. I spent the entire holiday with my wife and her brother. Three days inside, outside the snow fell . . . then someone sent me this great version of White Christmas. The three of us listened to it maybe six times. Laughed, sang, and hugged each other, spending a few moments remembering our recently departed parents and thinking how much they would have enjoyed this ecard. We each had only one present this year, my painting, my wifes digital camera and her brothers new leather wallet with some much needed money. As sparten as it was, there was an abundance of love, friendship and honest sharing in the spirit of the holidays. it was, indeed, the best Chrismas ever. . . . .

Who ever owns this site, take care. It was a pleasure to read your musings.


AYNtK said...

Thanks, friends - I appreciate your comments!