Holidays are about more than the gifts

I want to talk this week about materialism. Or about Christmas. Maybe both. I want to talk about the spirit of giving. And the spirit of getting. I want to talk about mothers and about family and about good intentions.

I have a mother whose heart is as big as the sun. But she has always showed her affection through gifts rather than through emotional or physical connection. And when she gifts to those she cares about, she measures her love through quantity — not always quality.

Rather than one or two special gifts for me and my family members, my mother gives us piles of stuff that we didn’t know we needed or wanted. At Christmastime, she is in both an exquisite agony and ecstasy. There is the agony of making sure everyone has enough presents under the tree, that everyone knows exactly what they’re giving everyone else, that our stockings are stuffed to equal abundance so that no one finishes opening before anyone else. Because if my brother finishes before me he might think my mother loves me more than him, and then the stars would swallow the sky and the world would end and my mother’s Christmas morning would be ruined.

I would be lying if I said that as a child I didn’t love her heavy-handed gift giving. Of course I did. What child doesn’t love a stack of presents with his or her name on it? But as I’ve gotten older, my mother’s gift giving has begun to cause me pain. All those presents are not necessary. I certainly don’t need all those things. But I think what makes me so sad is that my mother, despite her good intentions and giant heart, is missing the whole point of gift giving when she gleefully stacks her many presents for us under the tree.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is a question: How do you tell someone who shows love through giving — and really get her to understand — that you don’t want her material gifts? That what you want is to listen to Bing Crosby together and help her decorate her Christmas tree one starry December night. That what you want is to lie on the pine floor in front of the fireplace and read your favorite old wintertime books aloud, Barbara Cooney’s “Holly and Ivy” and “The Snow Queen” and “Owl Moon.” That what you want is not clothes or dishes or earrings, not material things that are empty and cold but rather the warmth of her breath, her body beside you in the kitchen or the car, her company and the incandescence of her joy.

What I want this year for Christmas are memories. I wish I could tell my mother that.

I think it’s important to remember that the spirit of the holidays should not be measured by quantity but rather by quality. I’ve found that giving or receiving just one very special gift means worlds more, and feels worlds better, than giving or getting stacks and stacks of presents. The past couple of years I’ve tried to give non-material gifts as often as I can, not just for Christmas but for birthdays, too. This past summer for my mother’s 60th birthday, I took her down east to Southwest Harbor for two nights. We stayed at a beautiful old seaside inn. My memories from that trip will stay with me forever — and I like to think that she got more out of that trip than any material gift could have given her for her 60th.

I hope this Christmas that you are blessed by family and by firelight. And remember that memories are the best gifts we can give to those we love.

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