Unwrapping Christmas

Feeling frantic rather than festive? Here’s why gift-giving should be brought back to basics

Soprano verses about peace on Earth emanated from the ancient monolith that was my parents’ Fisher cassette deck. I watched with wonder as my father fastidiously draped the last of the warm lights through the upper boughs of the tree in our living-room window. Marvelled as they gently winked at me, like stars from a distant galaxy.

The sweet, earthy fragrance of pine permeated our house. The smell mingled with the mugginess of the early morning air, alive with burgeoning cicada-song and the promise of a scorching summer day.

Mum was attempting to sort through the hodgepodge of decorations that lay all around. Some were whimsical and decidedly unique; others tacky but lovingly handmade; many were nostalgic heirlooms, imbued with the holiday memories of years gone by.

Bracing against the flue of the fireplace, the belly of which housed its own set of candy-coloured bulbs, Dad reverently preened the pinnacle of the tree in anticipation of its crown – a heralding angel encircled by a filigree star. As the sounds of violin and carollers in chorus faded to the raspy humming of the cassette tape, Mum and Dad exchanged a conspiratorial glance. ‘Here it comes, pumpkin!’ Dad announced with an expression of mirth.

I stood stock-still. From the Fisher I could hear a faint and magical tinkle. The sound of sleigh bells. As their cheerful jingling swelled from whisper to crescendo, I could feel my heart swell with them. I seized my sister’s hand and we whirled through the lounge room as if we, too, were dashing through the snow. Jingle Bells. The anonymous rendering of this classic carol on that cheap cassette was my childhood favourite.

Magic or mayhem?

While I have – regrettably – grown up, and my tastes have changed (I now favour the crooning of Crosby and Como), I am still enraptured by this time of year. It sounds like a cliché (it is): but I really do believe in the magic of Christmas.

But for many, regardless of creed or circumstance, the holiday season can be more stressful than spellbinding. This may be for any number of reasons. An often-overwhelming number of social engagements. The required catch-up with relos who know how to push your buttons. Feeling isolated in the pressing atmosphere of festive cheer. An ever-present and extensive barrage of Christmas songs – although, as you may have guessed, I’m a veritable elf and partial to the yuletide tunes. And then there’s the staggering financial pressure, the one that comes part and parcel with gift-giving.

All I want for Christmas

Picture a familiar scene from a festive film: manic shoppers, frantically checking their lists (and checking them twice) in the crush of retail centres and congested carparks. All to an Infinitely upbeat loop of Mariah Carey. Often, the holidays become tantamount to an almost never-ending retail slog. And whether you’re savvy enough to purchase a few presents online and avoid the crowds, the all-encompassing expectation to play Santa may have you feeling more like Scrooge. So why do we burden ourselves with this pressure to bear gifts, to the point of saying bah humbug?

What’s in a gift?

Anthropologists and sociologists have a long-held understanding that the act of exchanging gifts is a vital process for upholding social relationships – in almost every culture, worldwide.

In exploring the gift-giving systems of so-called archaic societies, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss came up with several key theories about the underlying meanings in the exchange of presents.

One aspect is that exchanging gifts is an expression of an existing social relationship (or even the marking of a new one), and the value of that relationship is represented in the gift. So when your sister unwraps that set of ornate bookends that cost you a week’s rent, and you look down at the funky pair of socks laid bare in your lap (in truth though, who doesn’t love socks?), there’s apparently a subtext of status and prestige being played out. Yeeesh, that’s a lot of pressure. Another key characteristic of gift exchange relates to reciprocity.

Although we may like to believe in our own altruism and generosity of spirit, according to Mauss, gifts are rarely ever given without ‘strings attached’. The gift exchange cycle is essentially a series of obligations: to give, to receive, and to return. So when you devour a sumptuous dinner at a friend’s house, but don’t deign to supply dessert, you might be committing a festive faux-pas. The theory is that when we refuse a gift or fail to reciprocate (with something of equal value), we threaten the fragile fabric of our relationships. Crikey.

Given these ideas (ha! get it?), it’s no wonder we feel the weight of expectation when ‘tis the season to be generous. Well, what if we brought gift-giving back to basics? Scrooge bought Bob Cratchit a simple turkey – okay, it was twice the size of Tiny Tim – so that he could feed his family on Christmas Day. Perhaps we can follow this example and exchange gifts of a humble nature during the holidays.

Back to basics

If you’re a culinary creative, why not bake some biscuits for friends and colleagues? Pop them in an inexpensive glass jar and finish with a ribbon for a festive flourish. If you’ve a speedy knack for knitting (firstly, share your secrets), create a lightweight throw or blanket for a loved one that they can use year-round. Maybe you’re a plant whisperer (again, what’s your trick?). Offer to do some work in the garden for an elderly neighbour. There are endless possibilities for thoughtful gift-giving that need not subscribe to the social pressures of spending.

After all, the tale of Scrooge makes the case for generosity – but the quintessential messages in A Christmas Carol are those of kind-heartedness, hope, forgiveness, and coming together.

The ultimate gift

One Christmas morning in my teens, my hand delved into the furthest reaches of my Santa-sack and wrapped around a small, rectangular parcel. As I peeled back the paper wrapping, I glimpsed a corner of faded red plastic and felt my heart begin to skip with joy inside my chest. Here We Come A-Carolling. It was the beloved cassette from my childhood, imbued with the spirit of Christmas Past. My parents had bestowed it to me.

The greatest gift I’ve ever received wasn’t elaborate, or expensive, or side-lined by social expectations. It was small, and humble, and characterised by treasured memories – made in moments of peace, and hope, and joy.

The heart of the holidays has nothing to do with a present. But it involves being present – in whichever way you choose to celebrate. And that, in itself, is the gift.

Words: Erin McDonald

This article was originally published in Issue 18 – Great expectations

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