Fa La Freaking La

by Jennifer Ryan

Every year on Thanksgiving, family members gather around an enormous feast and list all of the reasons they are grateful. Every year on the day following Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the Internet because I can purchase all of my Christmas gifts online. With the click of a button, I can avoid the insanity that is Black Friday. Inevitably, we are treated to video images of crowds stampeding into stores and fist fights erupting over the latest gaming console or this season’s hottest toy. At least one news anchor asks, “Is it me? Or is this the craziest Black Friday ever?” No.

While I can’t say for certain when Black Friday became a cage match, I can say that Christmas shopping has been utter madness for decades. When I was in high school, I remember walking into an Oklahoma Walmart and seeing Tickle Me Elmo dolls all over the shelves. Later, I wanted to kick myself for not having bought one. Apparently, the dolls were the favorite Christmas gift for children, and they sold out quickly. Rich parents on the east and west coasts were paying hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for a Tickle Me Elmo doll. I suppose putting the screws to total strangers for a Tickle Me Elmo doll doesn’t exactly embody the true spirit of Christmas, which is sort of the point. I feel like “we” (meaning the collective society “we) have lost our way.

I got a little curious about the history of Christmas gifts, and I found this interesting article about the tradition. Although many Christians attribute gifts to the story of the Three Wise Men, the practice actually originated with the European pagans, who apparently got drunk and gifted each other fruit and trinkets during their Saturnalia holiday. The Puritans didn’t appreciate the papal roots of the Christmas tradition and banned celebrating Christmas here in America until the late seventeenth century. People typically exchanged homemade gifts and food. My father stuffed oranges in our stocking, which apparently is another custom that dates back to the nineteenth century. Some people link oranges to a story about St. Nicholas. A local man lacked a dowry for each of his three daughters, so St. Nicholas dropped gold down the man’s chimney. Others believe that oranges were considered a luxury, so people placed an orange in a child’s stocking as a rare treat. Christmas was already highly commercialized by the turn of the twentieth century. Some people were so disgusted by the consumerism of the holiday that they formed the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving (or S.P.U.G.), which counted Teddy Roosevelt and Anne Morgan as members. Anne Morgan was daughter of the famous tycoon J.P. Morgan. Right. Apparently, she needed to pinch pennies. Oh the hypocrisy of the filthy rich.

You can now see that lamenting over the Christmas shopping season is nothing new. Still, I sometimes consider shifting things in a different direction. This week, I took inventory of my son’s toys, which have somehow infiltrated every room of my house. Before Christmas and his birthday, I take a bag of toys to Goodwill in order to make room for new toys. Yes, I have “first world problems.” My child has so many toys that I have to purge them every few months. I’ve convinced myself that someone else may benefit from our donation, so I shouldn’t feel too guilty about our abundance. However, I can’t help groaning over the thought of yet more toys. I’m not alone either. This mother was similarly frustrated and had some great alternative gift suggestions that would reduce toy clutter, including museum and aquarium memberships. Making something for a child adds a little more meaning to the Christmas holiday. A particularly crafty person could try some of these ideas. I particularly liked the chalkboard town and printable dominos. Unfortunately, I’m not all that crafty.

Maybe you’re looking for a little more this year. Maybe you want to inject a little extra meaning into Christmas. Maybe you want to teach your kids something new. Or maybe, like me, you have a sadistic parenting side that even Darth Vader would find positively cringe-worthy. Why not create your own customized Christmas? Hide all your kids’ presents. Then, wrap a few oranges with an accompanying note that reads, “Wishing you a scurvy-free Christmas. Love, Mom and Dad.” Next, glue together a pyramid of Keurig k-cups. Don’t clean them out first. The spilled coffee grounds will add to the haphazard charm and demonstrate your lack of attention to detail. As your children open their gifts on Christmas morning, you can tell them about simpler times, when oranges were a luxury. Use the pyramids to teach them about the importance of recycling and toss in a little Egyptian history for good measure. Don’t give them the rest of their presents. Let them savor the moment in stunned silence. Only when their little eyes have welled with tears will you retrieve their “real” Christmas presents from their undisclosed locations….because lasting psychological trauma and a lifetime of painful memories are the hallmarks of an American Christmas. In the words of Martha Stewart, it’s a good thing.

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