How a jaded family got into the holiday spirit.

This originally appeared in the December 2003 edition of Supply House Times. I think it's worth rerunning.

The holiday season is a joyous time of year, or so we’re incessantly told. Yet, it’s well-documented that suicides reach a peak during the month of December, as do bouts of depression. Emotions get a vigorous workout amid so much contrived conviviality.

Wild things happen when scientists violently crash subatomic particles into one another. So it is when the elementary forces of God and commerce collide. December’s holiday season pivots around a celebration of Christianity and lately our society has come to recognize the concurrent Jewish Hanukkah tradition as well.

But religion long ago got hijacked by Santa Claus. A good part of our nation’s economic health now is determined by how well retailers do in what has become a festival of consumerism stretching from Halloween through New Year’s Day. The hectic pace of shopping, partying and holiday hullabaloo turns an enjoyable time of year into one that puts many folks on the verge of flipping out. This is a story of one such family.

Buying Binge

During the hardy economic times of the 1990s, this family - let’s call them the O’s - got sucked into the season’s commercialism like never before. It was no longer enough to buy “a” present for family members and close friends. Cherished ones started to get two, three, four presents. Meantime, the gift list had expanded beyond friends and relatives to include casual acquaintances. They in turn felt obligated to buy gifts for the O family.

It got to the point where the O family was devoting almost every free hour between Thanksgiving and Christmas to gift shopping, gift wrapping or giving themselves headaches trying to figure out what to buy for people who were on the gift list only because they were likely to buy stuff for the O’s. The holiday spirit of peace and goodwill had evolved into a canon of proportional reciprocity. How unfair it seemed that they had to buy gifts for six members of the fertile W clan when the O’s numbered only four.

On the other hand, the O’s gift list included some singles and twosomes who customarily bought gifts for all four O’s. So things seemed to even out in that regard. Nonetheless, the holiday season became increasingly less cheerful for the O family. It turned into a month-long ordeal culminating in the torment of January credit-card statements.

A few years ago, the O family patriarch took inventory of the dozens of Christmas gifts he had received. He found exactly two things worth keeping, both coming from his wife and daughters, who knew exactly what Papa O needed. The rest consisted of books he had already read or had not the slightest interest in reading; music CDs he already owned or whose content he regarded as noise; and items of clothing he didn’t like or which didn’t fit.

Of course, he could spend precious time returning these items for better things, but something Mr. O hates even worse than shopping is exchanging, which takes longer and is filled with paperwork. Mr. O also received lots of cute stuff that inspired a chuckle for a few seconds after opening, then disappeared into a junk pile. Mrs. O’s experience was similar. And if this was how they felt about the gifts of well-meaning friends and acquaintances, why would it be any different for the recipients of their largesse?

A Cure For Insanity

“This is insane!” declared Mr. O as he packed trash bag after trash bag with Christmas wrappings. Mrs. O agreed and took the lead investigating a course of treatment that might lead to sound mental health.

Which ended thusly: In subsequent years, the O family contacted everyone on its gift list and made a pact. Absolutely no presents exchanged among them. Instead, working through a church and social service agency, the O’s identified some have-not families that needed sponsoring. All seasonal gift shopping would go toward buying grocery baskets, clothing, children’s toys and other items sorely needed by the designated families, with the social service folks guiding the way.

Everyone in the gifting circle was thrilled to get out from under the self-imposed seasonal pressure to “perform” for one another with gifts that more often than not proved underwhelming. They spent about as much as before and therefore did not do much damage to our economy. It’s just that their gifts went to people who genuinely needed the stuff and what they received was immeasurably more valuable. They felt better about themselves and better about the world around them.

Programs like this exist in most communities. If you’re feeling the holiday blues, it’s time to start investigating them.