My Dilemma, Presently

christmas_tree2.jpgEvery Christmas morning, my sisters and I tumble downstairs, pause to survey the adorned Douglas Fir and its outlying territory, then continue to the kitchen.  It’s a family tradition that before fingertips ever meet wrapping paper, we sit down to a big breakfast of bagels and lox and scrambled eggs with onions.  In my less ripe years, I considered this practice illogical frivolous excruciating; however—predictably—as the son of God’s1 birthdays have accrued, I’ve discovered pleasure in the affair. The frequency of fully populated family breakfasts has shrunk since two of three children have moved out from under our parents’ roof and I think we all appreciate that this Christmas meal not only guarantees full family attendance but also promises that each party is going to be upbeat, which I’m not sure how other families work, but let’s admit that the wear of most days isn’t conducive to an atmosphere where all the faces at a table are invariably smiling.  

Now, I don’t know if you’re able to infer based on the dishes2 we consume during this small ritual, but we’re not technically, like, Christian.  My father’s family is Catholic yet my sisters and I were raised as Jews and this holiday, along with Easter, serves as my primary personal link to a religion I’ve learned about mostly from having to read the New Testament in high school as a piece of literature.  I bring this all up because, to me, celebrating Christmas has nothing to do with honoring the potential messiah’s birthday and everything to do with hanging out with people whose genetics I share, and—let’s be honest—opening presents.

christmasgift.jpgUp until around the early stages of adolescence, Christmas morning did the same thing to my brain as the first girl whom I saw with no clothes on later would.  Intense anticipation, loss of reason, catharsis, a slightly misdirected yet palpable feeling of victory, unbridled joy, etc.  Since then though, the mania once induced by this activity (exchanging presents) has been shaved down into more muted enjoyment. I have a few theories on why: 1)  Something changes when presents turn from things that have no practical purpose (i.e. they’re gifted solely to make you smile/entertain you) into functional items.  The id-driven “oh-wow-a-nerf-gun!-thanks-mom-and-dad-I’ve-got-to-open-this-right-now-and-shoot-these-awesome-foam-balls-at-the-dog-until-she-eats-one-and-then-we’re-all-in-trouble” line of thinking doesn’t seem as quick to embed itself in your head when you’re presented with cool new espresso glasses.3   2) Or maybe it’s not the second-generation, less puerile gifts that fail to trigger a certain part of your cortex, but rather it’s you who has matured as a person and who now feels not only less concerned with getting as many toys as possible all the time4,  but also a little bit self-conscious about receiving without giving back, and this new Christmas horizon opens up where you’ll now have to devote a lot more of your planning for this exciting day toward how to make the people who love you smile with whatever you intend to give them.  3) You, at some point, see someone of the opposite sex undressed for the first time and accordingly redefine what excites you. 

gift-tags.jpgThey are all three a little partly true, but here I’d like to look more at theory number two, because the solipsistic pleasure that growing self-awareness ultimately robs from most people on this holiday is generally replaced by a satisfaction earned through attempted empathy and the act of giving.  Like, it feels good to make other people joyful, which is why I’ve spent in the more recent half of my life a shit-ton of hours crafting and collecting gifts tailored so precisely and thoughtfully to the receiving party and his interests that no more succinct, appropriate adjective exists to describe these presents than ideal.  Books and music (store-bought albums and homemade mixes) and gift certificates for cooking classes and framed family photographs and I can’t remember what else. 

But things have arrived at a point where now even the prospect of giving doesn’t offer the appeal it once did.  A lot of these ideal offerings, it turns out, miss the mark and sit unexchanged and/or forgotten at the bottom of closets everywhere.5 More than that though, it’s become really difficult for me to swallow the huge disconnect between the intimacy a present is meant to reinforce and the impersonal, commerce-driven means by which the majority of gifts are obtained. Which is obvious, I know—if not whiny and hypocritical too.  But I went out last week with the intention of doing my holiday shopping and had to abandon the endeavor like fifteen minutes in because I lacked the fortitude to go on.  The first stumbling block: recognition that when you travel to one location (even if said location is a big old mall with lots of different stores) in the hope that you can cross off everyone on your list, you will probably be forced to make compromises, i.e. grease yourself into believing that your mother, who breaks out in hives at the touch of wool, will look great in this cashmere sweater.6

holidayshopping.jpgThe corollary and maybe more important recognition: it’s incredibly off-putting to look around these places, at other hungry shoppers, and come to understand that either whatever store you’re in is so comprehensive it truly has something for everyone or (more realistically) what you’re buying is not that personal a gift; you are simply purchasing your loved one something she might not care about because that’s the rule of this holiday and you need to be able to say that you’ve complied with it. 

The logical way to curb this effete bitching is I should shut up and make the presents myself.  But (also realistically) I don’t know where I might find the hours it would require to craft something7 worthy of the people to whom I want to offer the creation.  And now time is running out.  The places I couldn’t stand a week ago are becoming more unbearable as I write.  Too few hours exist between now and Christmas to even consider beginning the self-constructed presents. 

What are my options?  I can hope that the people related to me read these words so I can cite them as a pre-emptive defense, like those notes that accompany children’s transparent explanations to their teachers as to why last night’s homework wasn’t completed.  Or I could use the platform this piece offers to declare publicly how important my family is to me and hope that that softens the blow when we circle round the tree the morning of the 25th and I show up empty handed.  That sounds like a better option.  So.  To my family, Please don’t interpret the possible lack of gifts next Thursday as any indication of how I feel about you, because I love you all very much.  That’s the best I can do.  See you at breakfast.

1 Evidence still pending.
2 The bagels are everything and onion and none of that cinnamon-raisin bullshit.
3 Don’t get me wrong, the espresso glasses are great, Amy.  There’s just this inevitable transition that happens.  Although I think this all helps me understand why so many adults give each other liquor for the holidays.  Unless you want to argue that not only does liquor have a practical purpose but that its purpose is even more significant this time of year.  I don’t know.  Maybe from now on I’m just going to give out cartons of cigarettes and iPhones. 
4 Especially if you’ve already got a fair number of toys in the first place and now are becoming aware that there’s something a little bit silly or off about having one day solely devoted to beefing up your stockpile of fun-time stuff, which stockpile is formidable as it is. 
5 Maybe it’s hard to actually come up with ideal presents when there’s a deadline for the offering of the gift.  Wouldn’t it be much easier to simply act guided by the philosophy that when you come across something that you know someone you love will love, you simply get it for that person right-then and give it to them immediately, instead of binding yourself to social conventions which dictate you wait until the end of the year (or her birthday) to present them with the present? 
6 Hypothetical.  My mom does fine with wool.
7 Times however many people I want to give presents to.