Thursday, December 23, 2004

Joanie loves tchotchkes

(Okay, I cribbed the title from an article on Smartmoney.com, but it was too delicious and I couldn't resist...)

As some who know me face to face will vouch, I not only love Christmas, I love to talk about the history of Christmas. I could pretty easily fill a couple of hours just talking off the top of my head about the evolution of the various elements of our celebration: overindulging, tipping the paper boy, gift-giving, Santa Claus, you name it. I generally try to stifle this impulse, of course, because people tend scuff their feet and look around nervously for an exit when I start. Nevertheless I was delighted to find on the NYTimes Op-ed page, a brief history of Christmas gift-giving that others might find interesting, too. It is entitled Christmas Past and Presents by William B. Waits (sorry, free registration required). Waits is the author of The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving, which I confess I have not yet read. (If you are looking for an excellent history of Christmas in America, I can recommend -- on the basis of having read it, loved it, and used it in Christmas-keeping workshops -- Stephen Nissenbaum's book The Battle for Christmas.)

I particularly liked the quote that Waits included, unattributed, which described early twentieth century Christmas gifts: "tawdry and gaudy gimcracks, flimsy gewgaws, ephemeral and unbeautiful; purchased often with lassitude, received with distaste, and soon relegated to the limbo of attic or ash heap."

Waits sums up his essay with a solid conclusion: "The general success of the Progressives in reforming Christmas, as well as previous efforts to mold the festivities, supports the notion that the celebration can be changed, just like any other cultural phenomenon. So don't accept current complaints that Christmas has spun out of control and dictates our holiday behavior, driving us to ever-higher levels of spending. People can and should run the celebration, not the other way around."

I think this is a very solid point, and I would make a similar argument about all of our cultural practices -- in fact, I have been trying to make such an argument in previous posts such as "Europe Rising".

Moving back to Christmas, this year my wife and I actually decided not to give each other gifts. Our rationale was that during the year, if we want something, we have little compunction about simply going out and getting it. So there is nothing we particularly want, even less that we need, at least in terms of "stuff". Instead, we decided to give each other the gift of time: we sat down and figured out a list of ten or so things we want to do together in the next six months. Some of these activities are as a family, some are just the two of us. But as two people who both have demanding fulltime careers, we realized that this sort of thing would be the true gift.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with gifts per se. Our daughter, for example, will receive a pile of them from us and her grandparents. But part of the reason it is so magical for little children is that they don't have the power during the rest of the year to go out and purchase whatever they want. When they do, say during their teen years or later, the Christmas present is less of a gracious gift and more just another thing they get.

Sure, we won't be doing our all to support the economy during the crucial fourth quarter, but I honestly don't care. That's not what Christmas is about, anyway, and the more we think it is, the more we get away from an enjoyable, refreshing, humane (and, yes, Christ-centered) Christmas.

So, Joanie may love tchotchkes, gaudy gimcracks, and flimsy gewgaws -- but Joanie doesn't live in our house.

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Blogger Doug Wood said...

I admit from the outset that I haven't taken the time yet to read the NY Times editorial, but comment only from your post. I found it interesting in comparison to a Kathleen Parker column I read yesterday (http://www.townhall.com/columnists/kathleenparker/kp20041222.shtml) regarding the new movement to put Merry Christmas back on the lips of the American public.

It seems many feel that having stores and corporations say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas has watered down the season and taken us all from its true meaning. It is a movement that though it may seem productive and Christ centered on the surface, may actually serve to further secularize Christmas, in my mind at least. I can't imagine that urging all of the store clerks to say Merry Christmas to me as I and others overspend on needless things in the name of Christ's birth will in any way strengthen my connection to Him. Do we really need more store clerks saying Merry Christmas when they really mean "NEXT" (get out of the way there's another customer behind you). It seems to me we won't invoke the true meaning of Merry Christmas by saying it more, but instead, though we may say it less often, by meaning it more.

Thursday, December 23, 2004 2:35:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thanks for the Parker reference, I'll check her out.
I think my underlying point in the post, which is congruent with what you said, is that we (many, if not all) seem to have lost much communal memory of a Christmas beyond the stuff, and since American public life is constructed to focus on commerce (rather than relationships, which we've talked about), there are very few resources in mainstream culture to renovate Christmas. (Wow, I can't believe that was just one sentence!) So I agree that making clerks say "merry Christmas" solves little or nothing. What we need are people willing to say "Merry Christmas" and mean it, as you suggest. For some, the "merry" part may mean fewer (or no) commercial gifts, but instead a fulfilling time with family, friends and church. For others it may well involve purchasing gifts, (why not? it can be fun) -- but if it involves mall parking lot rage, or crushing debt, then maybe our yearnings for a fulfilling season might be redirected. And I don't feel responsible for helping corporations meet their sales goals. This was the concluing point in my post, that is that we can reshape cultural practices, rather than being victims of them.

Thursday, December 23, 2004 2:46:00 PM  
Blogger MP3 Doctor said...

Hey, great blog! Keep it up.

I have a holiday shopping site. It pretty much covers holiday shopping related stuff.

Come and have a look if you get time :-)

Thursday, October 06, 2005 8:37:00 PM  
Blogger The Home Theater Wizard said...

Thanks for letting us post comments - very cool of you. I work online with my own home based business website. I

have a christmas gifts site. It pretty much covers

christmas gifts related stuff.
Check it out if you get the chance. Thanks again!

Sunday, October 09, 2005 7:25:00 AM  
Blogger bill naka said...

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Monday, October 10, 2005 2:22:00 PM  
Blogger Amon said...

Well done on a nice blog Jason. I was searching for information on history of santa claus and came across your post Joanie loves tchotchkes - not quite what I was looking for related to history of santa claus but very nice all the same!

We're all getting ready for Christmas and I've just put the finishing touches to my new site specially for kids, or rather their parents and relatives. You can go there and get Santa to send a really nice personalized letter to a youngster. It's great fun! If you have a moment, perhaps you'd enjoy taking a look: Letter from Santa .

Well, a merry Christmas to you and yours!

Saturday, November 26, 2005 6:19:00 PM  
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Sunday, March 05, 2006 1:35:00 AM  

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