Sometime in the month of December 1998, I was standing in a very long, slowly-moving line at Borders in South Portland, ME. I was clutching a couple of books in my hands — one for my mom and another for my boyfriend Scott — that I intended to give as Christmas gifts.
I’ll never forget how severely depressed I was in that moment. My father had just died of cancer in November. My mother was, of course, a wreck, and my job of consoling her was impossible. And in those days, I was living on my own (mostly) in a rathole of an apartment in Lewiston, working in retail (which meant, in December, working nearly every waking moment of every day), and struggling to pay my bills.
I could barely afford the books I was holding in my hand. I could barely stand there and endure the holiday music that blared incessantly from the wall-mounted speakers. I did, however, manage to gaze around me at the dozens of tables of last-minute impulse buys and brightly colored bargain books around which we in line were all snaking our way toward the registers, and I did also manage to notice the looks on the faces of nearly everyone else in that line — unsmiling, unfriendly, exhausted. “Let’s just get this over with,” we all seemed to be thinking.
And then, I had an idea. I will get this over with. I stepped out of my place in line, placed the two books back where I found them, and walked out of the store with an incredible sense of relief.
It was at that moment that I pretty much dropped out of Christmas.
The one thing I wanted — and that my mother wanted — more than anything was to have my father back. How was a stupid book about cats going to assuage that?
She and I didn’t exchange gifts that year. It seemed pointless. It was pointless.
There have been a few exceptions over the last fifteen years — including a gift or two for my mother before her death in 2007 — but very few.
As the old cliche goes, the best things in life aren’t things. Yes, things are nice. Some things are even necessary. But I find the idea of compulsory gift-giving to be a grotesque one. The giving of gifts should be a joy in and of itself, not a stress-filled obligation.
Many do agree with this sentiment. Others point to the religious origins of the holiday as a respite. I am not a religious person, so I find no consolation in these various myths.
But there is music.
For the last four Christmas seasons, I’ve been a part of a tradition of sharing the music of Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas in a live concert setting. The message of the original TV special was that of that same exasperation that I felt standing in that long line at Borders all those years ago — commercialism run amok. I’ve heard many folks say to me that it has made their whole holiday season, that it has brought the true spirit of Christmas back into their lives. Music has the power — and, indeed, the tendency — to do just that.
So, I won’t be giving any store-bought gifts tomorrow. Hopefully, I won’t be receiving any either. The only gift I want — tomorrow and every day — is the loving presence of dear friends and loved ones. That should be enough for anyone! It’s certainly more than enough for me.