"Julian" (not his real name) delicately placed five items on the table in front of me and carefully chose the paper for each gift. Gold foil for his sister. Cream with golden musical instruments for his mother. Gold with pictures of candy for his grandfather. Each gift wrapped in gold.
Last Thursday I wrapped Christmas presents picked out by young people in the residential treatment program where I work. Each year, items are donated by the local community and churches around the state, to help make Christmas special. People are incredibly generous, donating toys, journals, clothes, make-up kits, hand-knit blankets, books... anything a child or teenager might want. Many of these things are given to the children, but a variety of items are set aside to create a "store" where the children can "shop" by picking out gifts to give their family and loved ones.
Some of our kids don't have anyone to give a Christmas present to. Their staff work as a team to create a special Christmas for them; and these children are allowed to shop for 1-2 staff, to experience the act of giving and receiving. Other kids have parents or foster parents, cousins and siblings. Some have very complicated families, with siblings they don't know very well because they've never lived with them.
Many of our kids approach the task of gift-giving with nonchalance and bravado. It's just something they're doing because everyone is doing it and it's Christmas, and whatever. They aren't thoughtless, just self-protective and afraid of making an effort that might result in rejection. Other kids are deliberate, thoughtful, and precise in their choice of gifts and gift wrapping. You can tell that they are holding their loved ones in their thoughts and allowing themselves to want each gift to be appreciated.
Here is what I want to say about Christmas and commercialism: it's not about things. But that doesn't mean that gifts don't matter. Christmas presents are a symbol--a vessel through which something is communicated. If you start to get caught up in caring about the price tag attached, or believing what other people think is signified by a particular item... well then you are misunderstanding the nature of symbols.
An expensive watch does not communicate more than a matchbox car chosen for a dad who likes racing. Yet jewelry is a wonderful gift for someone known and loved for their sparkle.
I'm trying to keep this in mind as I finish my Christmas shopping and wrap everything up in bright, store-bought paper. As I wrap each present, I will think of the love of my family and friends and the blessings they bring into my life.
I would like to live more simply--to be able to hand-knit an organic cotton shawl for my mother, compose a love song for my partner, take seaglass and scavenged wire to fashion a necklace for my sister, and whittle toys for my kids. I know that there is an unseen cost that comes with factory-printed wrapping paper and toys manufactured in china.
Imperfect and store-bought, expensive or bargain-bin: these gifts that I give and those I will receive are a sign of love and appreciation. Just a sign. Nothing more, but also nothing less.
These gifts point to the gifts that my loved ones are to me. I don't particularly deserve them, yet here they are.