As the snow falls over Bedford Falls in the final scene of It's a Wonderful Life, the townspeople gather in the home of George Bailey to donate what money they can to help him stay out of the clutches of Mr. Potter.
George has just returned to his family from his travels with the angel Clarence, who, in response to George’s suicidal contemplation, shows him what the world would lose if he’d never been born. George returns to his life, reinvigorated by a spirit of hope for the future and bolstered by the goodwill of those who love him.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas movie, but it’s not about commercial exploitation and presents and marketing. It’s about real giving. No image of giving at Christmas means more to me than this film's finale.
I do sometimes wonder, now that we’ve got a child in the house, about how I should deal with the Christmas craze that has earmarked an entire season for buying and giving gifts.
Six months ago I became a father, and this year will be my first Christmas with a child. I’m very much looking forward to it. My son doesn’t yet understand what happens in post-Thanksgiving American culture and Christmas does not yet mean anything to him—historically, religiously, or, best of all, commercially. I plan to make the most of these years while he’s young enough to not need gifts to be happy at Christmas; to try to show him it’s not about presents, but giving.
To be sure, he’ll get presents. Many. He has two grandmothers, and they want his life to be full of love and learning—and toys. I do not blame them because I want his life to be full of these things too. But I do sometimes wonder, now that we’ve got a child in the house, about how I should deal with the Christmas craze that has earmarked an entire season for buying and giving gifts.
I love Christmas. A whole lot. I try to be a conscious consumer, but it can be difficult in the overzealous commercial environment that is the United States in December.
I get swept up in the season. I love the music and movies, the tree, the nog, the spirit of wonder and joy. I know it’s sappy, but still love it. My love of the holiday relates directly to the connectedness it breeds: Connection to my family and friends, yes; but even more, a connectivity within our culture. Whether you celebrate Christmas or ignore it or despise it, you certainly cannot escape it.
And one way connection occurs is through exchanging gifts to show appreciation for one another.
A sizeable portion of our calendar and budgets are devoted to gift-giving. According to Gallup, the average American consumer will spend $786 this year on presents. Americans, it seems, love to buy gifts for others. Whether you find that number too high (or perhaps not high enough), apparently we're going to spend it.
And not just on babies. My son's grandmothers also asked me for a Christmas list.
I look around my home and our shelves are already full of the bits and bobs we give each other for the holidays. We’ve enough books to open a library and no place left to put any additions. Yet we keep asking for more (we all have our toys).
Now, with the baby, our home is filled with even more stuff—plush animals and bouncy chairs and swings. And he’s yet to experience a single Christmas or birthday.
So this year I made a holiday wish list, keeping in mind the good people of Bedford Falls. I know it’s not really necessary to spend almost $800 on stuff for our shelves—even on adorable six-month-old-baby stuff.
Here's what I asked for.
1. A family treeEach family's story is unique, and learning that story is priceless. I know bits and pieces of my family history, but have always wanted to dive deeper into where my family has come from. These stories are not always beautiful—I know parts of my family’s history are not—but knowing how we fit into our own families, and how our families fit into our shared history, is an important part of being an informed, civic participant.
2. A donation
A professor I had once said that the world can never have too much idealism. There’s no shortage of needs to be met in our world, and no shortage of inspired men and women working to meet them. And they desperately need our money.
I have my many interests and organizations I’m hoping to contribute to this year.
Instead of giving to me, I’ve asked others to donate to them. In fact, I've written about two of them for YES! this year: Men as Peacemakers, and The Harry Potter Alliance.
3. A take-away
Rather than getting something, I'm asking people to take some stuff away. Come over and join in a Christmas take-away. Take something of mine, as a gift. Afterward, we’ll donate the rest.
You can take it even further and offer a free home de-clutter and re-organization. Pick up some simple baskets and bins to fit the decor, spend an hour together going through the house, then provide some much need feng shui. Note: This is an especially valuable gift to parents of young children.
Stories help us grow, learn empathy, and actually create change, if we’re willing to let them.
The stories that we have in common—our popular culture—are the shared experiences of of a diverse population. Through them we understand ourselves, and each other, better. Dig in, and you’ll find beautiful, strange, inspiring, responsible, equitable, gracious, and powerful gifts.
I'm asking for the graphic novel series Saga, a sci-fi story about starting a family committed to nonviolence in a time of war (the core of a story that also includes robots and ghosts, war and bounty hunters, and a galaxy in chaos). The book won this year’s Hugo Award for Best Graphic Work and writer Brian K. Vaughan won an Eisner Award. The artist behind Saga, Fiona Staples, is also being lauded for her work this year.
Also on my list is the new Soundsupp.ly drop. Soundsupply is an innovative music sales company that combines bits of music from ten artists sold in bulk for a flat rate. Soundsupply is a music selling system based on direct-to-artists sales, where all profit is equally distributed. Good, responsible shopping. And the music is always great.
5. A break
I’m a bit obsessive. I care about culture and politics and environmental activism—a lot. There’s one thing most folks like me have in common, regardless of our commitments: We never stop working. Or, when we stop working, our minds still swim in a sea of dedication/obsession marked by constant smart-phone use or random discussions of the day’s Twitter highlights. Activists rarely take a break.
This year I’m hoping for the gift of clearing my mind and cutting the cords: To take a night or, if possible, a weekend to get away; to leave the smart phones at home and go out for dinner and a movie or a play or a long walk. If it weren't so cold where I am, I'd pack up the family and go canoeing at the lake; go camping; go hiking; go somewhere it’s clear there will be no discussing work, no checking Twitter, no visiting the Huffington Post.
I’ll probably give this one to myself.