Ghost of Christmas Presents

xmas turkeyIt’s now a week after Christmas. Ornaments have been put away and trees set out by the curb. The stockings, hung by the chimney with care, are back in the closet. Acres of wrapping paper and miles of ribbon are in the garbage (or in recycling containers). What’s left are the presents, the results of the biggest shopping binge of the year.

It’s easy to decry the commercialism of Christmas, unless you are a retailer who depends on Christmas shopping for survival. My family, like many well-off families, spends too much money and exchanges more gifts than necessary. With 16 people sitting around a circle, there were lots of presents. But rather than focus on quantity, it is worth thinking about quality — what did we give each other and what does that say about us?

Our family likes to eat, make and give good food. Homemade jams, granola and pickles were exchanged; during frequent breaks in present-opening, we ate freshly baked coffee cakes, thanks to my nieces. There is always a cookbook under the tree, mainly directed at the younger generation. A box of chocolates is a tradition, provided by Santa for the family to pass around the circle.

Electronics are a much more modern gift. Ear buds and external batteries for smart phones appeared this Christmas, keeping the younger generation charged and connected for 2013.

At our Christmases there are always books. Everyone in our family is a reader and book giver. Fiction off the best seller list was prominent, like Louise Erdrich’s latest novel. Some of the books came from common entertainment preferences, in particular, mysteries of murder in Russia, Iceland and the U.S. Others reflected shared political perspectives — rejection of efforts at voter suppression, sadness about the history of white America’s persecution of American Indians, wonder at the irresponsibility of bankers in our recent recession. Other books were silly, like “How to Tell if Your Cat is Trying to Kill You.” My oldest relative got 60 books at once, on a Kindle of course, transforming her into a thoroughly modern reader.

The new book that I have been reading since Christmas has been unexpectedly informative. My children got me “Jewish Jocks,” which recovers the surprising history of Jewish dominance in early 20th-century boxing.

A surprise to me this year were some records, called vinyl by today’s hipsters. Decades after turntables and records appeared to become extinct, they are experiencing a revival, because the sound quality still beats out digital music. Perhaps my collection of early Motown and Beatles will once again spin around, reminding me of those days when older people thought rock and roll was a sign of civilization’s impending end.

Clothing is a favorite gift from parents to children. Now that the children in our family are all out of college with responsible jobs, clothing gifts have shifted from sports wear to items suitable for the office: Dress shirts and nice sweaters, but no ties, as that formerly preferred gift has fallen into sartorial disfavor.

Arts and crafts are always well represented in our Christmases. Pottery old and new came out of well-padded boxes. Antiques from Roseville, Weller and Van Briggle competed for attention with pieces by modern potters. Metal flowers by Jeff Garland, a local artist who teaches at Illinois College, and a poster by a distant cousin from her graphic arts class reflect our common appreciation of the beauty of creation.

Christmas presents reflect the family which exchanges them. Much depends on financial circumstances — ours is comfortable enough that we can buy what we want to give, a circumstance for which we all are grateful. Three decades ago our Christmases were much simpler, although certainly not less joyous.

The quality of gifts is not inherent in the things themselves, which can be expensive but unwanted, finely made but unappreciated. Gifts at Christmas and other times reflect relationships; they tangibly connect givers and receivers. When the most successful gifts were opened, you could see smiles from both parties, whose emotional understanding of each other was momentarily embodied in a symbolic object. It might be consumed that day or treasured for years.

Steve HochstadtWhether frivolous or serious, practical or beautiful, the gifts which were opened at our Christmas gifts were thoughtful expressions of love and knowledge. The hose nozzle my sister- and brother-in-law gave me, the sponges from my other sister-in-law, the coffee grinder from my wife, son and daughter-in-law, and the heavy lined shirt from my daughter will remind me of our relationships with each future use. These prosaic objects have been infused with the spirit that brings us together each year to celebrate our family Christmas.

Happy new year.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on January 1, 2013
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."