The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers; …
William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us”
I’m not sure what exactly this post will have to do with Unitarian Universalism, but ’tis the season. I feel like tonight I have a chance to dispel some myths about the rich and the lavishness of gift giving.
There are probably thousands of listicles being enumerated now with suggestions on what to get “the person who has everything.” I’ve been accused of being that person. But I think the challenge that people really mean by that phrase is that they don’t know how to shop for someone whose life is sufficiently luxurious. I don’t have everything. I don’t want everything! Everything has a way of accumulating on the hall table and the cocktail table of the TV room and the floor of the coat closet, and when it does I get anxious to get rid of everything.
It’s the Thought That Counts
When I was in high school and college, I had a friend whose family is far richer than mine. In that class-levels chart that I posted a few months back, locate her in the “Global Elite.” Her surname is probably on a building near you. We’ve had a falling out since that time, but for a while, she was my best friend. I mention her because in shopping for me, money was no object for her and because it wasn’t, she didn’t give me extravagances.
She was one of the best Christmas gifters I’ve ever known. One year she gave me a gift card to The Strand, knowing very well I was capable of spending an entire rainy day in that Aladdin’s Cave. (If you’ve never been there, put it on your list for ‘next time I’m in New York.’) The value of the card was high enough to mean a few rainy days and armfuls of books, but short money can go a long way in a used bookstore. Fifty dollars. Another year she gave me a can of three hard-to-find orange dot squash balls and a PEZ dispenser. Two of the best gifts, most personal gifts I’ve ever got. This wasn’t being a cheapskate, it was being really attuned to what made me tick at the time. It really is the thought that counts.
I have received lavish gifts at times. I’ll talk about them here some time, probably. But the thing about those is that they’re more likely to turn up on a random Wednesday afternoon that suits the giver and when there’s not much of my audience than they are when the family is gathered ’round the Christmas tree.
Things Won Are Done; Joy’s Soul Lies in the Doing
I’ve asked around a bit recently. There’s a distinction between my upper class and upper middle-class friends, and it’s that ephemeral things like vacations and events are very common gifts with the “uppers” and bigger-ticket household items are more common with the “upper-middles.”
For instance: This year my husband and I got my parents a subscription to a chamber orchestra season. I know they’ll maybe go three times out of the eight and enjoy that, and also really enjoy giving away the tickets they don’t use for the five other concerts. This will be the second Christmas when I give my younger sister a flower delivery service. She gets some flowers for her home that I know she won’t buy herself, and I get a goofy selfie with the bouquet each time one arrives. (It might be a gift for myself, come to think of it.) My bestie is giving her brother and his wife a hot air balloon trip. Another friend is planning a week in the Caribbean for near and dear.
My upper-middle friends told me about watches and a Kitchenaid mixer and electronics. I assume there’s plenty of crossover; I know my mother well enough to expect a green sweater and I wouldn’t be surprised to be given some kitchen items because everyone knows I take out my aggressions on a cutting board. And I assume there are tickets and events and vacations being given among my upper-middle friends. But in my non-scientific canvassing, this is the difference I discovered.
The substance might be different, but the form isn’t, and the graces of Christmas are the same for everyone. The great joy of Christmas is in the giving, not in what’s given. I truly think that doesn’t change no matter what invented “level” of society a person stands in. Love is love, and what’s more loving than trying to delight the people who matter most to you?
My favorite Christmas gift of all time bridges the categories of things and events, and I had to make some promises to get it at all. It’s on my left hand right now, a small circle of metal with some rocks dug up out of the ground and shined up. It came with party a few months later.
Thanks for Humoring the Digression
I am writing this in New York City, where I’ve worked part of the week. It’s after midnight and the city may never sleep but I need to. My husband and I are leaving on Wednesday to spend Christmas with his family, and we are flying private from Teterboro. We don’t do that often. I think I’ll take that as my next topic, what private flights are really like. I am not sure if I will find time to do that before the holidays arrive, though.
I said at the outset I don’t think this has a lot to do with Unitarian Universalism.It doesn’t. But I hope it draws back the curtain a bit and maybe dispels some prejudices. So that’s First Principle. I guess.
Just in case I don’t make it back here before Santa gives me my lump of coal, let me say that I hope you make many joyous memories this holiday season. Let your heart be light, and let your light shine.
Illustration: Poster, Humours of London #2, Tony Sarg for the London Underground, 1913.