by Chris Quilter
If you have a little humbug in you, as I do, I hope you are surrounded, as I am, by friends and family who go whole hog at Christmas or whatever you call the traditional end-of-year orgy of excess. As long as I am on board with the giving and getting of hope, peace, joy and love, they generously tolerate my misgivings about the other stuff.
It all goes back to when I was a child. (Cue violins.) History does not record who first found that Christ had gone missing from Christmas. I know it was firmly embedded in the Beaver Cleaver zeitgeist of my boyhood, which predated Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, atheists, nondenominational holiday displays, and the constitutional separation of church and state.
I was a sensitive child, racked by early onset cognitive dissonance. If the message of Christmas was “It is it better to give than to receive,” why did God make ripping open packages so much more fun? Why did my brothers get the presents He must have known I wanted? If you are forced to express gratitude for a gift even baby Jesus would have hated, isn’t it a sin of some sort? If Christmas was a test, I never even earned a gentleman’s C.
I’ve since learned that legions of people will admit to humbug tendencies if you promise not to tell on them, and that the steady application of good cheer will soften up just about any skeptic. And if all that’s true, how can I begrudge my siblings—who are not my rivals but my best friends—their love of Christmas just because they always got better presents? I’ve even come to wish that they got them from me.
Unfortunately, even people with the most intimate bonds of kinship are incapable of getting one another what they really want unless handed a list. In this regard, my father set a transparently poor example. We may have been kids but we weren’t stupid. “Love Mom and Pop” in my mother’s distinctive scrawl indicated to whom we should submit our holiday purchase orders. We also knew the difference between a Christmas present and a New Year’s resolution. So when we asked Pop what he wanted for Christmas, we weren’t fooled by his stock reply: “Just be nice to your mother.” Oddly, though, it never occurred to us to inquire, “What has Mom been telling you?”
I still cannot decide if it is better to ask for what you want or regret what you get. We all were taught that it’s the thought that counts. Yet who among us hasn’t opened a gift and wondered, “What were they thinking?” I’ll tell you who: my Aunt Fran.
My father’s baby sister is the kind of living reproach who reacts to any gift with surprise and delight. Even if she opened the wrong present—say the one you meant for me—she would exclaim trillingly and without a trace of irony, “A lump of coal! It’s just what I wanted.” And it would never cross your mind that she was lying through her teeth. After a lifetime of practice, it probably never crosses Fran’s mind either.
Christmastime is when most of us were introduced to the tricky moral concept of lying to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. I’m told most kids today learn this lesson early on, and insist on gift cards or money so they won’t be forced to chastise their parents who cheap out on the 16 GB wi-fi only iPad Mini.
I have given and gotten gift cards and certificates. But it troubles me to read that the fees we pay for them and the unspent sums we leave on them could retire the national debt. So I’ve settled on giving cash and cash equivalents. Still, I’m old-fashioned. “Here. Buy yourself something nice” feels a bit chilly. Happily, nothing defrosts cold hard cash faster than giving it to charity.
I started doing this a few years ago. So far, none of the nonprofits have complained about my real motives: I don’t have to go shopping, I get a tax deduction, and I consternate the younger generation in the family, who have taken to gently mocking my largesse. “A generous gift in your name…” they intone when the envelopes in their Christmas stockings are distributed.
I am not recommending that anyone follow my example. For one thing, the economy would collapse. Do feel free to use me as an object lesson, however, to frighten your children, grandchildren, or even seasonally stressed-out spouses. “If you don’t watch out, I’m going to give a charitable gift in your name.”
Laguna local Chris Quilter believes that a lump of coal is a diamond in the rough.