What to give this Christmas?

2020 is a year that many of us can’t wait to see the back of. It’s a year in which we’ve had front row seats to a series of travesties as our elected representatives have done one silly thing after another. It doesn’t much matter where we live – few world leaders today seem up to the job. We want to look towards 2021 with some semblance of hope but fear and uncertainty are fuelling the fire on which the chestnuts of COVID, Brexit, the US Presidency, and the EU Rule of Law are merrily roasting.

2020 will see a Christmas of a different sort. Curfews and travel restrictions combined with limits to the number of people who can gather in one place are wreaking havoc on holiday plans. For many expats (myself included), it’ll be the first Christmas they won’t make it home.  The spike in online sales speaks to the level at which some are using presents to compensate for their absence. And yet if COVID has taught us anything, surely, it’s about the difference between want and need.

I’m a year-round Christmas shopper. When I see something that sings someone’s name, I buy it. This year though, I’ve not been anywhere. My travel stopped in February and with it, my shopping. I’ve had to rethink my strategy but thankfully I know enough talented people who could make what I needed or provide a service I could pass on. I’m all for supporting local artisans and talent.

In the run-up to Christmas every year, I find myself trolling through my list of watch again/read agains.

George Monbiot’s timeless 2012 article On the 12th day of Christmas your gift will just be junk is one I revisit every year to remind myself why we need to keep our planet first and foremost in our mind when we shop and why we need to be responsible givers. Rather than buy stuff that will end up in the trash before January is out, Monbiot suggests that we should:

Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for God’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.

A more recent discovery, Mathew Salton’s short film Santa is a psychedelic mushroom, is one I will be adding to my Christmas watchlist for years to come. In it, he recounts a story from Lapland that describes Santa as a shaman who came not bearing gifts wrapped in glitter but rather gifts of healing and of problems solved. How nice would that be? I’m sure anyone suffering the aftereffects of COVID would happily trade just about anything to be back in full health. What would those who have lost friends and family to the pandemic give to have them back around the dinner table just one more time? Health and wellness are gifts we take too lightly.

Another stalwart is David Whyte. In Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words he has this to say on giving:

The perfect gift may be tiny and inexpensive but accompanied by a note that moves the recipient it can be enormous, extravagant, and jaw dropping as a courageous act of flamboyance and devil-may-care love; but to give appropriately, always involves a tiny act of courage, a step of coming to meet, of saying I see you, and appreciate you and am also making an implicit promise for the future. Little wonder then that the holiday giving that is none of these, that is automatic, chore-based, walking round the mall-based: exhausts us, debilitates us, and in the end is quite often subtly insulting to the one whom we eventually give the random item.

Subtly insulting? Random items? Surely not! Are we giving for the sake of being seen to give? Are we giving for all the wrong reasons? And are we destroying the planet in doing so?

Giving is an art. We might get it wrong a few times before we figure it out, but as with anything, practice makes expert. There lies an example in itself. The phrase, practice makes expert, was shared with me during the week by Elena Mas. In doing so, she gave me a gift that I will use over and over again. That is the art of giving that Whyte talks more about. That is the insight.

Social media is alive with Christmas-themed videos and memes. One of the nicest I’ve come across is the story of a kid asking his dad whether there really is a Santa Claus. His dad, in turn, asks him if he’s ready for the dangerous gift that is the truth because once you know something, you can’t unknow it. The kid says he’s ready. He wants to know. His dad tells him that the Santa Claus in the red suit is the version kids get to see because they’re too young to really understand that Santa isn‘t a person, he’s an idea – the idea of giving without thought of thanks or acknowledgement. Santa is about looking for opportunities to help people. How lovely is that? How lovely would it be if, instead of giving presents wrapped in paper and tied with ribbons, we simply helped someone out? If instead of buying something we gave of ourselves, of our time. Make that phone call. Write that letter. Send that Christmas card.

An old favourite is this short poem-cum-suggested-gift-list by novelist, journalist, and humourist Oren Arnold (1900–1980):

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Christmas 2020 has an introspective feel to it. It seems more about looking in than looking out, more about staying home than going out, more about being content than giving out. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing to celebrate the season, be safe and be well.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir | Boldog karácsonyt mindenkinek | Happy Christmas to you all.

First published in the Budapest TImes 20 December 2020

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