I’m giving serious thought to circulating a list of off-limits presents to my friends and family.
(1) Don’t buy me clothes. Unless you’ve snuck brazenly into my room at night with a tape measure, you don’t know my size. And you don’t know that I swore off novelty t-shirts years ago.
(2) Don’t buy me anything that requires framing. It’s a bigger expense than you realize. One of the coolest birthday presents I ever got was a poster signed by all four members of the progressive metal band Tool. It remains one of my prized possessions. But I realized soon after I received it that I’d have to frame it, lest it get damaged. So I had to choose between spending $100 on a professional frame job or $10 on a crappy frame from Walmart. I chose the latter – obviously less than what the gift deserved – and have felt guilty about it ever since.
(3) Don’t buy me books I haven’t asked for, unless you know me very, very well. Giving somebody a book is not so much a favor as an imposition. It amounts to telling them: you’re going to spend dozens of hours with this thing, or you’re going to feel terrible in a couple of months when I ask you how the book was.
(4) Don’t buy me something the household has run out of, or has broken, or has needed for quite some time anyway. It’s patently obvious when a gift is something you, yourself, wanted to have for your own personal use.
Please understand that this list is far from comprehensive, and that there are always exceptions. There’s also a good chance I’ll end up hurting some feelings with some of these. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Philip Roth, it’s that a writer is a bigger disappointment to his family when he’s not offending them. And it’s understood between us, I hope, that the thought is what counts. This is what has always held more weight.
With Christmas upon us again, my thoughts (like those of every awful, awful child out there anticipating Christmas with all the intensity and desperation of a heroin addict) are turning to the time-honored tradition of gift-giving. And the one word that keeps cropping up is: why? Honestly, the best-case-scenario for any of us is that we’ve managed to break even over all these years of swapping gifts. The math is pretty easy, actually, when I consider the understanding I had with my brother for most of the first half of our lives. I have a summer birthday; he has a winter one. And at each birthday, we’d exchange twenty dollars, tucked into birthday cards that oscillated between home-made and store-bought. We may as well have traded the very same bill back and forth, for all the sense it made.
We’ve grown older, obviously, and our gifts have gradually become more thoughtful. Of course, this doesn’t mean that choosing gifts for each other has gotten any easier. The best we can hope for, as is the case with anyone fretting about gift-giving, is that we happen upon something the other party didn’t know they wanted. It’s often a matter of luck, these days, rather than anything strategic.
But that’s birthdays. The ugliest capitalistic orgy during the calendar year is, of course, the “holiday season.” It grinds into motion this week with Black Friday, which appears in the Oxford American Dictionary under “self-fulfilling prophesy.” And as if that weren’t enough, we’ve also got Cyber Monday, Living-Beyond-My-Means Tuesday, Oh-God-Why Wednesday, and Kill-Me-Now Thursday. It’s the most wonderful time of year!
In the interest of full-disclosure, I have never celebrated Christmas. That’s right – at all. Before you ask: I’m not Jewish. My family has always been vaguely and non-denominationally Christian, and I grew up attending a church that celebrated Christ’s birth in September. My brother and I would receive presents from our parents, but it wasn’t the sort of laborious, ulcer-inducing compulsion that Americans have made Christmas of late. And it remained within our nuclear family only. This alternative timeframe, I’m meant to understand, is generally accepted by certain historians and the always-reliable Yahoo Answers. As I’ve heard it, December 25th was a deliberate decision by the Christian church to compete with the much more fun pagan holidays that fell during the same month.
I didn’t grow up with what I’d call a hatred of Christmas, but I learned to stand back and look on it with more objectivity than anyone else I know. I witness the annual fetishization of gift-giving to the point that it borders on sickening. Black Friday is a particularly loathsome invention, what with the gridlock and stampeding and inevitable deaths. People literally kill each other for halfway-decent deals. If I didn’t have a thankless job in retail, I wouldn’t even leave my house on Black Friday. But for the first time in my life, I’ll be thrust into the middle of the nightmare to witness the true depths of human depravity from the front row.
It’s a cliché by now to ask what’s become of Jesus in all of this. I’m not religious enough to proselytize to you, so I’ll remain simply mystified that we’ve turned this holiday into an excuse to empty our pockets and bank accounts in honor of Him. Families across the country, in fact, save money throughout the year so as to prepare themselves for the Christmas season.
Maybe I’m just a romantic or an outsider, but I grew up expecting nothing at all to come my way on Christmas day except for fellowship and a great dinner at Grandmama’s house. I’d sometimes receive unsolicited gifts anyway, and came away feeling guilty, despite myself, that I hadn’t reciprocated. Love needn’t be gift-wrapped and hand-delivered at an appointed hour; it’s valid year-round.
You’re a Scrooge and you’re missing the point, some of you are probably saying. And maybe that’s so. Maybe I’m a bastard for wanting to live in a world where I expect nothing and nothing is expected of me. The funny part is that I can’t tell whether this is more or less selfish than the alternative.
Before you head out into the mayhem and madness that is Black Friday, consider skipping it all and waiting until Small Business Saturday to kick off your holiday shopping season. On Saturday, November 26th (and throughout the holiday season), we are asking you to “shop small” and patronize your locally, independently-owned, home-grown, “brick-and-mortar” businesses. The second annual Small Business Saturday is a shopping holiday dedicated to supporting small businesses, created by American Express as a counterpart to Black Friday (which traditionally features deals–and herds of sheeple–at “big box” retail stores).
Why shop locally? Not only are our favorite, most unique shops in the area locally owned and operated, they also employ a wide array of supporting local services from architects, sign makers, contractors, accountants, and insurance brokers to garbage companies, attorneys, and advertising agencies. Local businesses are more likely to use other local businesses, donate more money to non-profit organizations, create more local jobs, preserve economic diversity, and be more present and accountable to the community.
Big-box retail stores like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Target may employ local people to work behind the counters, but these franchises and chains are all clones whose presence in the community does little to help out the local economy and a lot to clog traffic and hinder the success of smaller businesses. These stores enjoy national or international branding power and major economies of scale. They eliminate the need for local planning and require little in local services like advertising and banking, and the profits earned at large retail chains are not disbursed in our community–they are exported to places like Wall Street.
In the last decade, tens of thousands of our locally owned businesses have closed due to unprecedented competition from those larger chains and franchises. Numerous studies show that if just 10% of retail shopping dollars were shifted to locally-owned, independent businesses, millions of dollars in new economic activity and thousands of new jobs could be created. As our national economy continues to plummet and our citizens continue to protest, something as small as heading to a locally owned and operated supermarket like Shurfine (or a local farmer’s market), supporting non-profits and charity shops in your town, and choosing neighborhoods and artisan events over malls, shopping centers, and Wal-Mart can make a huge difference.
For more information on “going local” movements, check out these sites: http://smallbusinesssaturday.com, www.amiba.net, shiftyourshopping.org, susquehannasbn.org, www.buylocalpa.org/york, www.buylocalcoalition.com, and www.codoyork.com/lifestyle. Stay tuned to Unwound Magazine throughout the holiday season as we profile local businesses and shops to help you in your quest for finding the perfect (home-grown) gift for all the special people in your lives. And remember, don’t go to the mall–SHOP SMALL!
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