A gift-giving guide, of sorts

This year, I was determined not to succumb to the holiday madness. I was determined to celebrate simply, to leave wide open spaces that might fill with more meaningful things than spending and eating and drinking and making pretty.

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That is why, several weeks ago, I responded to an email from our school’s teen parent program coordinator, asking for gift donations for our pregnant and parenting students.

With the email was a wish list from the students, with a gift request for themselves and for their child. The things on the list for themselves broke my heart just a little:  coats, boots, sheets.

When I was in high school, I wanted records and books and Brittania jeans. I didn’t need to ask for coats and boots, and certainly not sheets for my bed.

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When I was in high school, there were no teen parent programs in high schools. There weren’t teen parents in high schools. That doesn’t mean there weren’t teen parents. My family was full of them–young women born too early for Roe v. Wade, the Pill, and empathy for pregnant, unmarried young women.

One student on the list jumped out at me. For herself, she wanted yarn, knitting needles, and book on how to knit. I thought of my grandma, who created art with needles that I still treasure. This student’s daughter is due in February, the month my children were born.

I signed myself up to sponsor her.

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As I have watched my children struggle to buy gifts for many family  members, I have questioned (again and again) what this season is supposed to be about. My kids have bought meaningless gifts from the Dollar Store–because that is all they can afford, given the number of family members they feel obligated to give to–that they do not want to give and that will quickly be forgotten by those who receive them.

I have talked long about gifts that can be made, and gifts of service. And yet, somehow, they feel they must purchase gifts. “I don’t even really like Christmas anymore,” one child sighed, weary from the strain of such giving.

I have talked also about not giving. I’ve shared with them that I no longer give from feelings of obligation. I give what I can afford. I give what feels right. I’m learning to resist the societal pressure to give something–anything!–because it is Christmas.

It means I don’t receive as much as I used to. I’m OK with that. I don’t want as much as I used to. And I feel good about what I give.

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While I have enjoyed finding things for our kids, and I’m looking forward to spending time this weekend on making my mom’s present, I have to say that the most joyful moments of the holidays so far have come in shopping for someone I don’t even know.

For the first time I visited a local yarn shop, Littlelamb and Ewe. I spent a lovely half-hour with the mother and daughter shop owners who helped me. They were wonderful, and I got a much better deal than I would have if I’d shopped at the big chain craft or fabric stores that are also in our community.

I got to spend another half-hour rekindling my love affair with Carter’s. Reminiscing about my own children’s baby days, remembering what things I most needed and appreciated, took me back to some of the sweetest days of my life.

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Although I was raised as a Catholic, I am not a religious person now. While I admire (very much) the ideals attributed to Jesus, I do not identify as a Christian. I once wanted desperately to be a person of religious faith, but the simple truth is that I am not, and I cannot will myself to be one. My philosophy is more in line with that of Penn Jillette:  Lack of religious belief makes my life more meaningful, not less.

And yet, Christmas–which I have participated in all my life–is a religious holiday. I have tried (and tried and tried and tried) to enter into it from some kind of secular, cultural place. I have tried to strip it to its core–it’s about giving, and hope for peace, and love–but I can’t reconcile the core with the things our culture does to celebrate it.

This year is different for me. It’s the first time I’ve given with no thought for reciprocity. I’ve given with no sense of obligation. I’ve given to honor those I’ve loved and to make at least a few small things a little easier for someone going through a challenging time.

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It has not escaped me that Mary is the archetype of the young, unwed mother.

As I, like so many of us, have grappled in this season of supposed joy to absorb and reconcile the horror of last week’s events in Connecticut, it has not escaped me that, were Jesus to walk among us today, he would likely be deemed mentally ill.

I really don’t know how these dots connect. Although I have faith in few things, I do have faith that they connect. I have faith that if I keep looking, the lines will appear, and some coherent picture will be revealed to me. I have faith that love is what the lines are made of, and that giving from love is the only way this holiday–this whole, messy, complicated, dumbfounding world–will make any kind of sense.

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Wishing the holiday could be as simple for me now as it was then.

Wishing all of you who read us a peaceful, meaningful holiday. I need to take a little break from here to regain my breath, my balance, and my joy. Looking forward to talking with you again after the new year.

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