"In My Meditation Garden"
The other day I heard someone say, "I'd like this Christmas season a whole lot more if it weren't for all the gift-giving." I've been reflecting on that little off-hand remark and the more I've thought about it, the more I find myself agreeing with it.
I think our modern-day version of "holiday gift giving" has gotten way out of control. It has turned into a burdensome task, often financially draining, weighing lots of people down, making this time of the year far less enjoyable than it otherwise might be.
Regardless of whether or not someone actually celebrates "Christmas," "holiday gift-giving"" has become a necessary and expected task in the ordinary routine of life for this time of the year. Many employees are expected to give their boss a gift or to exchange gifts with colleagues. Students are often expected to give gifts to their teachers. The paper boy expects a gift, so does the mail carrier, the babysitter, the gardener and the hairdresser.
While some of these "required" gifts are given out of love, kindness and gratitude, many of them are given as a means of garnering favor or assuring good service for the year to come. I know plenty of people who give a holiday gift to a supervisor for the primary purpose of staying on his/her good side, and a gift to the paper boy assures that the paper will be delivered every day on time.
When I was a parish priest we were always very careful about limiting the kinds of often-elaborate gifts that the children (especially children of wealthier parents) would give to their elementary school teachers. While these gifts were usually given to thank the teacher, in some subtle ways they were sometimes given to "bribe" a teacher- "remember what I gave you when you grade my child's essay or write a recommendation."
It also seems to me that, even "gift giving" among family and friends can be driven by the principles of necessity and utility. People often give presents to other people from whom they expect a present in return, and the amount or value of the gift is also commensurate with what they expect to get back. So, for example I might give my neighbor an elaborate basket of fruit because I expect she will do something similar for me, or I will give my brother a nice gift certificate because I know he is going to do the same for me.
I sometimes wonder if the "gift giving" behavior in today's culture may actually be quite symptomatic of the way in which we treat relationships in general. Many times our relationships with others (even with people we "care about") look a lot more like a business deal than a relationship based on love: "I will care for you and do nice things for you IF you do the same for me; and when either of us stops behaving this way, the relationship is finished."
What looks like love can easily be little more than "narcissism" in disguise.
I am reminded of something Saint Paul wrote in his famous "Canticle on Love," and I particularly like this translation:
If I speak with human elegance and angelic ecstasy but do not love,
I am nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
I'm bankrupt without love.
Love cares for others more than self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always 'me first.'
Love doesn't revel while others grovel.
It always looks for the best,
Never looks back, but keeps going to the end no matter what.
I'm not at all in favor of eliminating all gift giving at this Holiday/Christmas season. However, I am very much in favor of re-thinking why we give a gift, giving not out of necessity or utility but always out of "love," - good advice for how and why and what we give in all of our relationships.