Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, as good a man, as the good old city knew, or as any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him. –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
It strikes me as odd that trees turn to sticks, sloughing off their foliage just weeks before we’re thrust into the requisite, gift-giving season. It’s as if nature is shrugging away the last vestige of its bountiful, autumn gift in protest of the holiday trappings–trappings that can feel as prickly and barren as an unadorned oak tree in winter.
What’s even more unfortunate is that this sacrosanct undressing opens my expansive set of office windows to an unencumbered view of the Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s as if the beautiful oak outside my windows, emblazoned with red and yellow in the Fall, is shedding its leaves as a callous tribute to one of the least desirable trappings of the holidays: last minute gift shopping.
There’s an economy to gift-giving, one that would make Scrooge proud. Mind you, I’m not talking about the dollar value of the gift. I’m referring to something much broader and more subconscious than that. There’s the transactional analysis between the gift giver and the receiver where the tone, gesture, chosen time, and type of gift all communicate the level of value the recipient has to the giver. We instinctively know, upon receiving a gift, what it truly cost the giver. We instinctively know, upon receiving a gift, our relational value by virtue of the giver’s choice.
One wife who receives perfume from her husband every year knows that it’s his expression of familiarity, care, comfort, and thoughtfulness. She knows that he is secretly communicating that he loves her scent and he is still committed, year after year. While another wife, upon receiving the same yearly gift knows it’s her husband’s uninspired expression, an unwelcome interruption to his hurried, holiday pace.
No pressure, right?
One of the sticking points of the holidays is all the “gifts” we give in reaction to intuitively understood expectations. We give of our time, energy, and emotional resources. We give away those last, solid three minutes of uninterrupted space to add extra holly to the table decorations. We give away moments of laughter with a beloved friend to sprint through the mall and grab the last, shiny gift card to (insert relative’s favorite restaurant, clothing store, or holiday event). We give away the opportunity for silence, solace, breath and immerse ourselves in chaos, noise, and crowd.
Please don’t mistake me, here. I love moments of frantic, fast-paced, shopping and delicious, party noise. I love to immerse myself in surround sound laughter, jokes, and stories around hot chocolate or wine during this time of year.
However, if there is an economy to gift giving, and if the definition of giving can be broadened to include time, emotional reserves, and energy, then a transactional analysis would say we have limited assets to give. How many of us approach the holidays as if we have infinite energy and emotional resources only to come out on the other side in the red? How many of us feel worn and aged by the season, wondering afterwards how we’ll ever be able to generate more emotional revenue?
When we indiscriminately give away our “gifts”, we run the risk of depleting our resources to the point where we can’t give the offerings that truly matter to the people who truly matter. Read that again, and slowly. We can’t give the offerings that truly matter to the people – who truly matter.
In case this is all sounding too theoretical, and on the strong chance that you’re bored with (or panicked by) the economy metaphor, let’s talk details. Most of us have a good idea, early on, what the holiday landscape will look like. There are the annual parties, children’s performances, work outings, volunteer opportunities, etc. So as we take a moment to observe that landscape, it’s important to ask ourselves a few questions:
- If I attempt to do it all, will the people I value suffer?
- Which activities provide the most meaning to myself and the people I care about?
- Which activities unnecessarily deplete my reserves?
- Which activities are really just noise?
- What is my mission for this season? In other words, what would give this season true value?
As we ask ourselves these questions, we can choose to make the people and things we value most a holiday priority. Since gift giving communicates how much we value the other, maybe we can all broaden our definitions of giving this year, and think carefully about to whom, how, and why we choose to give. Maybe the best gift you’ll receive this year is the holiday note from a friend scribbled in marker on that faded, blue card. Maybe the best gift you’ll give this year is a radiant smile, a meaningful embrace, or a can of soup to someone in need.
If each of us embraced this concept of intentional giving, maybe we would look a bit more like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol; our experience of the holidays would be transformed and transformational in our own hearts and in the world around us. And like Scrooge experienced, maybe a bit more merriment would return to our season. Could we possibly have that twinkle in our eyes, and a lightened, bouncing step through the holidays?