The art of giving

After Thanksgiving dinner, it was a tradition in my family to draw names for our Christmas gift exchange. Each person bought a gift for one other person, and, in addition, the parents would buy a look-alike gift (a Bible perhaps, or an album for pictures) and a family present for all to share, usually a board game. I have vague memories of one Christmas where, in a rare splurge, my parents bought personalized individual gifts as well, but if (and I stress the if) that happened it was a unique occurrence. This relatively small number of gifts represented our Christmas.

I recall my mom pushing around a shopping cart at the old Wal-Mart, the one way out on east 16th street in Wellingon, KS, and I remember picking out a gift for my older sister, Cindy. It was a doll, brunette. I don't remember whether it was a doll meant to be played with and dressed and such or whether it was meant to be kept on a dresser simply to be saved and looked at. All I really know is that Cindy used it for the latter. Memory is strange like this: I often noticed that doll sitting on her dresser, and I believe that is why I remember picking it out. I knew that I had given it to her for Christmas; every time I saw it, I recalled the trip, causing me to form an actual memory around it.

How accurate the memory is, I cannot tell, but it sure beats the other memory I have of that Wal-Mart: one of my parents speaking with the manager (by the name of Vernon H.) a couple of days before he killed himself. It was a how-are-you-doing-fine conversation which Vernon tragically faked his way through. Why I remember that is obvious, but I don't know why I recall the row of tires that was behind him. He shot himself in his garage.

When I picked out that doll for my sister, I didn't pay for it. At that age the giving didn't entail buying, but simply choosing. At age six I started my first paper route, earning $1.10/house/month. I threw only 15-20 papers a day at first, just a small portion of my 8 or 9-year-old brother Ryan's route. My 7-year-old brother Royce threw another 15-20 paper portion of Ryan's route. Eventually, Ryan moved over to a larger route, Royce took over Ryan's portion (about 50 houses), and I took the entire 30-35 part that Royce and I had originally split. The point is that, while I did go for about a year without delivering papers at one point, my siblings and I began earning a small income at a young age, and at once we had our own income, we bought our Christmas presents (or we at least pitched in).

When I was six, my younger sister Caressa was born, and not quite two years later, Cerina came along. Their names were, of course, thrown into the Thanksgiving drawing, bringing the total participants to nine. When my sisters were very young, my parents would look at the names they drew and help them shop. As they got older, they would talk to one of the older siblings whose name they didn't have and get help with shopping. My parents would pitch in, or whoever was taking them would pay if we could. They didn't do the paper route thing that the rest of us did, and rather than simply picking something out that somebody else paid for, they would save up bits of money from here and there and buy something small or make a craft of some sort.

With the paper route, I got paid once a month, and I would generally spend most (if not all) of my hundred dollar (or so) December check on Christmas. I put a lot of thought into the gifts I bought, and, if I happened to be helping one of my little sisters shop, I didn't mind spending my money on a gift they picked out. My older brothers and sister made money in various ways, and they had the same sort of general attitude. It was, in fact, from them that I learned this behavior.

It was understood that the luck of the draw had a lot to do with the quality of present received. If a parent had your name, your gift would probably be okay, if not exactly what you wanted. If one of the older siblings had your name, you were lined up to get a good gift, and if one of the little sisters had your name, it was a toss-up, just as likely to be a hand-made basket of some sort as anything else, especially once they stopped just letting people buy the gifts they picked out. The value of the gift was really unimportant to us. It was a technical inequality that didn't bother any of us. We were a family of often mischievous children, but I think we had the Christmas spirit pretty well nailed down.

I was 14 or so the last time we traded names. Older children went off to college and my parents split up. After 8 years of having to come directly home after school (which, by the way, I totally cheated at), I was tired of delivering newspapers. Still too young to get a real job, I had no money for the next couple of Christmases anyway.

Lacking a structure for buying gifts, I've rarely celebrated Christmas since then. When pinned down to it, I'm adept at picking out worthy presents, but the task drains me. Rather than trying to buy gifts for everybody, I tend to buy for nobody and ask for the favor to be returned. I did return to Wellington for one christmas, and I bought a bunch of cheap crayon/candy type presents for the neices, nephews, and slew of first cousins once removed, but, with the exception of the odd girlfriend, I've spent Christmas on my own without the pressure of gift giving.

Still, the Christmas tradition I grew up with has affected the way I look at giving and receiving birthday gifts or Valentines or whatever. Gifts, for me, represent a large emotional investment, but I give them with low expectations. I receive, I'm afraid, with higher expectations. I don't look for something expensive, or crafty, or anything in particular, but I do look for something that says "hey, see how well I know you?" If I get that message from a gift, I'm satisfied. Lacking that, signs of an honest effort to choose a meaningful gift will also make me happy.

The memories surrounding what I've written about are both strong and good. I enjoyed picking out the perfect gift, full of thought and knowledge of character. I enjoyed receiving the gift, knowing how much thought had gone into it. I wasn't just a check mark on the list of people to buy for. Barring that opportunity, I've eschewed giving and receiving gifts altogether. I suppose this is some facet of a character weakness that I should work on, but it's not something I'll do today. Today I'll remember Christmas. I'll remember my home. I'll remember my family.