For someone who wrote for a gift-list site, I admittedly was never one for giving gifts. Call me frugal, call me dull, call me a grouch, call me what you will, but I would call myself content.
If I needed something, I bought it myself. And if I wanted some dopamine-inducing trinket, toy, or simple pleasure, I would forgo it. I prefer to avoid excessive consumption, as I like to keep my footprint small. And one day any little purchase I made would become clutter anyway, so why bother?
And so I rarely go to stores. I rarely shop, even during Christmas times. Christmas, above all else, represents the worst of the first world's overconsumption: boxes, material goods, and endless amounts of unnecessary wrapping paper that is not recyclable due to its waxy and glittery finishes.
But due to love's many obligations, I followed my girlfriend Emma and her friend Sierra on a holiday shopping excursion. We went in search of gift bags for Emma's Christmas presents. A simple trip. In and out, I thought.
We went to a Home Goods store, a warehouse of housewarming knick knacks and end table ornaments: plastic Christmas trees, plastic candelabras, miniature plastic fire trucks with wreaths on their hoods, plastic snowmen, plastic-capped LED string lights, and of course a plush snowman which sings and dances when you press its hand. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" played on loop from its tinny-timbred speakers. I watched a toddler, with a dollop of snot dripping from its nostril, pinch the snowman's hand over and over, never letting the song finish before setting the snowman off again.
We wandered through the store. Emma and Sierra ran their hands over the items on the shelves like the flapper on a game show's wheel.
"Ooh, this is nice." Emma held up a succulent nested in a hanging glass ball. Festive green and red stones surrounded the plant. "It can be our gift to Grammy…from the two of us."
"That's tacky," I said.
She jabbed her tongue at me and walked away with the plant, disappearing around the corner.
"What's your problem?" Sierra asked.
Sierra glared at me. "Since we've entered this store you've been super judgy."
I ignored her and stepped quickly after Emma, who was eyeing up a wreath the next aisle over.
"Where are the gift bags?" I asked, reminding Emma why we came here.
"Oh, we passed them. They're by the entrance."
I sighed, turned away, and started for the entrance. The bags were there - in a wire bin six steps from the front door. We could have left fifteen minutes ago.
To me, this - this whole store, this whole shopping experience - seemed wasteful. Wasting time, wasting resources. I was raised in a pragmatic household, in which we liquidated our gift-giving festivities, filling envelopes full of money instead of buying gifts. It made Christmas day less eventful, but it made the time before and after less stressful. No one had to take hours upon hours to shop for gifts, nor did anyone waste any time returning them. We simply received our token checks and twenty dollar bills, and we went on our merry ways.
So as I stared at the gift bags, wondering which one to pick, I could only see a pile of trash. None of the bags were recyclable. None were memorable or heartfelt. Not one made me say, these gift bags are integral and absolutely necessary to finding the joy of Christmas.
Emma and Sierra found me minutes later. I held an assortment of bags in my hands.
"Will these work?" I asked.
Emma took the bags from my hands. "God, you're the worst at this," she said, exasperated. She chucked the bags back in the bin and sifted through for another set.
"Those were so tacky," she said.
"They all are," I said.
Emma looked at me and shook her head again.
Christmas morning hasn't meant much to me for many years, if you couldn't tell. But I never thought I was missing anything.
This year, unable to leave the state of Vermont due to COVID, I remained in the cold north with Emma, and celebrated with her family.
"You're in for a treat," she told me. "My mom is spending a lot of time on your gifts."
"I really don't need anything," I said. I relayed this to Emma many times. In return, with a mischievous smile, she would always say, "I know."
I truly wanted nothing. Why couldn't she see I was content? I am well fed, and not in squalor. I have a cell phone, an automobile, running water, a warm bed, a saxophone, and even a snowboard. For someone who prided themself on not wanting much, even I had many superfluous things (like a saxophone and guitar). I wanted nothing. And I especially didn't want to be a burden on Emma or her family.
"Truly, I need nothing," I said again.
"I know…it's okay."
I think Emma added the latter to let me know it was frivolous to argue. The gifts - if they hadn't already - would be bought, and she accepted my statement like an apology. And when Christmas day came, I understood.
Presents littered the tree in a scene I had not witnessed since the early, sugary cereal days of my youth. The tree was in a nook, a turret corner that jutted from the house. Presents filled the nook - wall to wall - so that one couldn't touch the tree without stepping on a carefully wrapped box. Glitter, tinsel, bows, and reds and greens colored the scene. It was stunning. A work of art.
I, Emma, her parents, her sister, and her "Grammy," sat around a nearby coffee table, hot chocolate, coffee, and cranberry mimosas prepped and ready.
"So who's first?" Emma asked as she began reading the name tags on the sea of gifts. She handed out packages left and right, and immediately the room was filled with the sound of tearing paper. Discarded wrapping paper would, by the end, fill a trash bag big enough to swallow the tree itself.
"Here's one for you," Emma said, handing me a box.
"Oh, you know I didn't really need anything…" I tapered off as Emma shot me a look.
I pursed my lips and swallowed my pride. Around the room, the parents, grandmother, and sister all watched me intently. "Go on, open it!" Grammy said. I read the tag, and saw that it was from her.
I smiled and began tearing the glittery wrapping paper, still thinking about how none of it was recyclable. Within was a decorated box. I slid the lid off, and inside was a lovely, but nondescript mustard yellow hoodie. A pleasant color, muted and unique, but nothing special.
"Aw, thanks!" I said, kindly, holding up the hoodie.
Emma returned to the pile to find another gift.
"Do you like it?" Grammy asked.
Propriety told me to show exuberance. "I love it! I think I'll wear it everyday!"
"Oh, I'm so glad!" Grammy smiled ear to ear. A genuine smile, evident in the arch of her eyebrows and twinkle in her eyes.
Emma returned from the tree with a spherical present, wrapped awkwardly, but carried with absolute care by Emma, her hands cupping it gently. She delivered the gift to Grammy.
"This one's from Luke and I," Emma added.
Grammy took it and smiled, admiring the odd shape before peeling away the paper. Gingerly, she pulled away the last layer, and held before her the plant from Home Goods.
Briefly, I was reminded of how tacky it was, but that feeling subsided quickly as I became nervous. I wanted Grammy to like it and to appreciate our gift to her. Even though I didn't pick it out, even though I thought it was tacky, and even though I had no respect for gifting, I wanted Grammy to be happy. I wanted to see her smile.
Grammy palmed the plant, her eyes studying the details in the festive stones and glass sphere. She held it close to her face, adjusting her glasses.
"Oh!" she said. "It's adorable!" She smiled. "I love it!"
And in one instance every critical thought, every critique of Christmas' impracticality vanished. I was overjoyed, and I was glad that Grammy was glad. I was glad we were all happy and safe and appreciated on this Christmas morning. I no longer noticed the trash bag of wrapping paper, and I forgot about our excessive trek through Home Goods. In one little moment I forgot all that and realized the "why" of Christmas: why people bother with festivities and gifts and the stress of it all. It brings everyone together for a shared moment.
We left Emma's home Christmas night. The gravel of the drive crunched heavily as we hauled bags upon bags of gifts to the car.
"Do you see why we give gifts?" Emma asked.
"Yes," I said. "I understand."
And I did, and I do. Now, as I write this, I am wearing that mustard yellow hoodie. I wear it seven days a week. And not only because it's cozy, but because every time I put it on I'm reminded of Grammy and her smile. And now I think of her looking at the little succulent, likely sitting inconspicuously on a windowsill, and I imagine her smiling again.
And so, in all these little gifts, there lives a story - something beyond the material. This is an idea the writer in me adores, and it's what attaches me to the idea of Christmas and gift-giving, and may have caused a stark change in my morals. Only time will tell on the latter, but for the moment, I'm looking forward to our next Christmas.