Values in shrink-wrap

Thursday, December 29th, 2005

Amid the love and ripped shrink-wrap plastic of Christmas, my 7-month-old great nephew, Joey, sat contentedly gumming the cardboard label on a stuffed pink elephant he’d been given – his grin piercing the excesses of the season that lay crumpled all around him.

Bear with me for a moment, please, while I tread gingerly through the cliches of this time of year and examine the complexity of giving. We need to give, we need to receive, but we don’t need all this stuff, which is a problem, considering that Christmas-Hanukkah buying fuels the retail sector of the economy, accounting for a quarter of its annual revenue.

If you read business news as infrequently as I do, and aren’t inured to the lingo, headlines such as this one atop an AP story a few days ago – “Post-Christmas Sales Keep Shoppers Buying” – seem to conceal the desperation of a drug addict.

“The day after Christmas offered merchants another shot at getting consumers to open their wallets,” the story informs us, “with retailers hoping customers would be lured by sales and come to spend their gift cards, which are recorded as sales only after they are redeemed.”

I’m not religious, but something here strikes me as obscene, if not insane. The season for affirming our deepest values has mutated to the season for jump-starting Wal-Mart. Doesn’t it seem as though more than just our gift cards need redemption?

Yet why should I be shocked that raw consumerism is such an intimate part of Christmas? It’s been that way throughout my lifetime. But when I was a kid, there was a protracted battle against it, a cry among the religious to “put the Christ back in Christmas” that put the brakes on the forces of commerce, or so it seemed. Now there’s been an all-out surrender to these forces.

The battle for the soul of the season has a lot more to do with fending off consumer overkill and the almighty dollar than it does with fretting about rampaging political correctness.

Perhaps I’m only noticing this because, as I age, I feel a deepening reverence for family, connection, community – the values of the hearth, which I find myself especially aching for at this time of year. Surprise, surprise. The yearning for sacredness is poorly served by retail hyper-drive.

But I say all this confessionally. Even though I am a perpetually harried, last-minute shopper, when my sister broached the subject of somehow cutting back on Christmas this year – buying a Third World family a water buffalo through Heifer International in one another’s names, say, instead of giving out the usual books, scarves, scented candles, etc. – I remember my distinct lack of enthusiasm.

I couldn’t imagine Christmas without that morning crinkle of wrapping paper and the ritual emptying of stockings stuffed with lip balm and boxes of raisins. And then, of course, there’s the super-revved anticipation of the children (the ones slightly older than 7 months). Can’t let them down. In any case, the conversation about a less commercial holiday never got off the ground.

All of which leads me back to Joey’s big grin as he ignored his present and sucked rapturously instead on the cardboard label that was meant to be thrown away after purchase. Of course, he was securely in the arms of his grandma at the time – and in fact all of us were together, secure and basking in one another’s company.

This is when it occurred to me that whatever we were looking for on Christmas morning was not to be found inside the wrapped boxes but in spite of them. The act of giving may have been symbolized by the presents – the more shrink-wrap, the less symbolism – but the loot spread out before us was, in fact, a lot less than it seemed, no matter how much it cost. The opened gifts were the empty shells. The point of it all – our love for one another – was intangible.

That night, the adults sat in focused reflection, each of us reviewing the highs and lows of 2005 in a very personal way. The time we spent doing this was far more powerful than the gift-giving; indeed, I oozed with joy as we shared our lives in this way.

Since then I’ve been talking to others who in one way or another have flouted convention and bucked the commercial drift of the holiday season, which makes me think it’s time for a new public dialogue about the holidays. So I throw the question open: What do you do to reclaim the season’s spirit and free its values from the shrink-wrap? Let me know. Maybe we can start a movement.