This is the time of year when, traditionally, we think about giving. It is the season of gifts -- as every store has been doing its best to remind us since before Halloween. Every Christmas story, every Christmas movie ever made reminds us of the joy of giving (except, of course, for the classic "A Christmas Story," where we're all rooting for Ralphie to get his BB gun and not put his eye out). Christmas shopping is the true nightmare before Christmas -- the nightmare we endure for others, people we care about. And, quite often, for people we may not care about quite so much, but feel we must buy presents for anyway, for one reason or another.
If you're old enough to read this column, you've probably reached an age where you're doing a lot more "giving" than "getting" at this time of year. But you're probably not so old that you aren't thinking, at least a little bit, about what you might receive this holiday season. Unless you've reached a Scrooge-like level of curmudgeonhood, I'm betting there is at least a corner of your mind that's wondering whether there's something special under the tree, or in the stocking, or beneath all that shiny paper, just for you.
And then, quite likely, you slap down that thought as unworthy, selfish, and most inappropriate for this "season of giving." It's not about getting, we remind ourselves; it's about giving. And in reminding ourselves of this all-important fact, we are, I think, often in danger of forgetting another small, but equally important fact: Yes, it is the season for "receiving."
You can't have giving without receiving. Bob Cratchit, you'll recall, did not send the turkey back. He didn't say, "Thanks very much for the offer, Mr. Scrooge, but if we can't pay for a doctor for Tiny Tim on our own, well, he just won't have one." The entire concept of giving is predicated on the assumption that someone, somewhere out there has a need to receive.
The problem with Christmas stories, movies, sermons and all the rest is that they all seem to assume that someone is never you. And this, I believe, is one reason why so many of us end up dreading Christmas. It's not simply the bah-humbug reaction to the fact that Christmas has become over-commercialized. It's far more a reaction, I suspect, to the fact that the commercialization is aimed at accomplishing one thing and one thing only: To get us to dig ever deeper into our pockets, often more deeply than we can afford, to give stuff to other people.
But most of all, what we are called upon to give at this time of year is time. Right now, I have a to-do list sitting by my computer. I almost never write myself "to-do" lists, but this week, there are so many little things that I must accomplish, or think I must accomplish, that I don't want to risk anything dropping through the cracks. As I look at the list, what comes to mind, no pun intended, is "something has to give..."
All too often, that something is us. Writers are, I think, one of the most giving breeds of humanity I know. Just take a look at the amount of free information that has poured forth with the advent (again, no pun intended) of the Internet. Look at the thousands of websites and blogs that exist purely because a writer feels that he or she has useful information to share, and is willing to give it away absolutely free to anyone who needs it. People who have coped with an illness or injury want to share with others the best way to recover; people who have coped with tough situations want to reach out to others who may be facing similar troubles. We write about our towns or our countryside because we want to introduce others to a place we love. We write about our pets and how to care for them, so that pets everywhere will live a better life. Writing is a gift we have been given that drives us to give to others.
At this time of year, however, sometimes we can be driven too far. As we scramble to meet deadlines and turn in assignments, we're also scrambling to get the shopping done, and the baking, and the decorating, and the entertaining, and the cards, and... and... Well, you can fill in the blanks better than I! It's far too easy to keep pressing on with the notion that "giving" is not so much a gift as a requirement, whereupon it becomes a burden, and a short step to burnout.
So here's my bit of holiday advice, trite as it may seem: Take a moment, take a breath, and think about what you want to receive from the holiday season. If it's a sense of warmth and joy, whether you derive that joy from family or tradition or spirituality or all of the above, and you're not getting it, take another moment and figure out what is getting in the way. What are you "giving" that you don't need to give?
Put more concretely, take a look at your to-do list and pick one thing, just one, that you absolutely hate doing -- but think that you must, because it's part of the "giving" tradition. Maybe it's baking six dozen Christmas cookies, or spending an entire day cooking a turkey, or attending an office Christmas party that you loathe. Then... give yourself a gift, and simply don't do it. Let someone else bake, buy a ham, make your excuses. Receive.
For me, it's Christmas cards. Every year, I've spent at least two full days preparing and designing and printing a four-page newsletter, signing cards, addressing cards, stamping cards, and finally, mailing cards. Since my list holds about 100 names, I calculated that the total cost, with printing and cards and stamps, comes to over $200 -- which I wouldn't mind spending if I enjoyed it. But I don't. So last year I informed my list that in 2010, the newsletter (if any) would come by e-mail and the cards wouldn't come at all. It's a decision that saves trees, fees -- and me. And I seriously doubt that any true friends will be deeply grieved by the decision (which, quite probably, frees some of them from the burden of reciprocating).
This year, I'm going to return to a tradition long held by Writing-World of not publishing a second newsletter in December, and give everyone involved a nice holiday break. I'm sure that Dawn, who has a lively 8-year-old daughter, has better things to do two weeks before Christmas than crank out another newsletter -- and I'm sure all of you have better things to do than read one!
So I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, or joyous (insert holiday of your choice). And I wish, most sincerely, that you all receive whatever it is you need from this season of giving. See you next year!
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