When I asked my young students what they wanted for Christmas this year, most gave me a long list of mal-pronounced Spanglish names of plastic toys, straight from the Hasbro or Mattel catalogue. Older kids wanted the latest game consoles for their XBox or new cell phones. Thankfully, at least one girl wanted a book.
When the kids turned around and asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told them that I wanted nada, they looked at me like I was the dumbest person, if not on the planet, then at least on our street. Nothing? What do you mean nothing? Who would not want to get presents for Christmas? In their minds, one had to be pretty daft not to profit on such a free-for-all occasion.
Of course, it is to be expected that kids want presents. If you have become accustomed to be given piles of stuff during a certain holiday, be it thanks to Santa, Baby Jesus or like here in Spain, the Holy Three Kings, you are not easily going to give up that receiver habit, even long after you have discovered that the actual giver does not live on the North Pole.
I have heard many adults bemoan the burden of Christmas presents – who to buy for, what to get for someone who has everything, and when they will manage to find the time to go and purchase these things. Still, most continue the habit, as if it was an obligatory omen, or a necessary curse of the season. Some people organize a Secret Santa, where each guest buys a single present for one person in the party, with purchases usually limited to a symbolic sum. At least this means less shopping, but you still have to buy stuff, generally something that nobody wants and more importantly, nobody needs.
It was different a few generations back, when people owned a single good Sunday suit and when children were lucky if they got one tiny toy for Christmas. Giving and receiving presents is really a luxury phenomenon. For the past 50 years, our gift giving has followed the same upwards graph as our chocolate consumption. While sweets used to be something exclusive to Saturday nights, now they are consumed anywhere anytime in an endless supply of daily treats. Our shopping habits follow a similar pattern. We, the lucky few who live in peaceful and relatively affluent countries give ourselves presents whenever we want something, and thereby more than satisfy our own needs for gifts. So why do we need more?
Not to add to my family’s overfilled cupboards and closets, a few years back I began to give them gifts of hens to a family in Africa, schoolbooks to children in Pakistan, or part of a well in Bangladesh instead of regular Christmas presents. However, since most of my funds ended up as running costs for a non-profit, I decided that it was an ineffective way of helping. These days therefore, other than making my 88-year-old-mother a calendar, I don’t give Christmas presents. It is not that I am a disciple of Mr Scrooge. I am just not a great believer in a mass gifting tradition that has regressed into a rather manic consumer spectacle. I actually do like giving, but preferably what and when it is not expected.
By all means, we should sing, cheer and rejoice in the festive season, but why does our love and care for each other have to be measured in volume of gifts? As my parents grew older, they started giving each other presents of experience rather than things for birthdays, holidays and anniversaries. I certainly prefer this, as an experience can last much longer and result in much richer memories than physical objects, even if it is just a road trip to a neighbouring town.
As far as myself, I do not want anything for Christmas. It is not that I want nothing in particular. It is that I want particularly northing.
We do not need anything. I consider us rich beyond belief. My husband and I have loving friends and family, near and far away, and though I would like to see them more often, the Holy Three Kings cannot help me much with the travel arrangements.
We enjoy a peaceful life without fear of war, terrorists or lethal pollution. We have nature at our doorstep. We have a lovely home and though it is only 3 meters wide and might have a couple of cracks and a few dangling wires, we’ve got a roof over our head which is more than most people on the planet can dream of.
We do not need more trinkets. We are fed and clothed, healthy in body and remotely sane of mind for our many years. I ask myself, if I can still see the stunning blue Andalusian sky, smell the jasmine on our terrace and hear the sheep baahing down the street in the morning, what more can I possibly wish for?
I could have told my students that I wanted World Peace and a reversal of Global Warming, but such lofty goals cannot be hidden under a tree. Though we may wish for joy and happiness, these are values that must be cultivated within, and cannot be contained in a Christmas stocking. The greatest things in life are free and the real gift is being here to be able to enjoy it.
So on this Winter Solstice day, I wish you all the very best for the season and for the year to come.