THE FINEST GIFT by Janice Van Cleve

December approaches once again like the thudding of T-Rex foot falls in Jurassic Park or the clip-clop of a Black Rider in the Shire.  It’s not the snow or the cold.  It’s not the completion of the Maya calendar or the ending of another year of our own calendar.  It’s the oppressive cultural expectation to buy presents for people!
It is embarrassing to care enough about someone to get them a present but not know them enough to get them what they really would like.  Some people are into certain collectibles like funny rubber ducks in various guises, or blue plates, or tigers, or some other category.  But how many rubber ducks can there be?  Besides, the chances of duplicating what they already have rises with every one they get and it feels a little lame to feed one stereotype when every person has a variety of interests.The same thing happens with books.  Books are an excellent present but they usually fall into one of three categories:  cute at the time, coffee table, or really informative.  The cute ones quickly become recycled, the coffee table ones pile up because most of us have only one coffee table, and the really informative ones in our field may be outdated by others we already have.  In my case, for example, I am really into Maya archaeology but it is doubtful that many libraries could complete with what is already on my home shelves.

Hobbits give mathoms for gifts.  A mathom is anything for which they have no use but are unwilling to throw away.  So their hobbit holes often become full of mathoms, which they traditionally give as gifts to anyone who comes to their birthday parties.  Thus mathoms often change hands around the whole Shire and sometimes even come back to the original owner.  I’m sure all of our big people houses are full of mathoms, too, but perhaps we have not been clever enough to covert them into gifts.

A gift basket with foods like cheese and crackers, wine, chocolate, etc. is often very affordable, colorful, easy to find, and very useful to the recipient.  Even if there are items to which they are allergic or just don’t like, they can always bring it to one of the many parties or potlucks of the season.  Also gift baskets can be ordered on line with shipping included so the buying, wrapping, and delivery is all done with the click of a mouse.  It may be a bit impersonal and generic but it does  work.

A more personal gift is to buy or make holiday foods yourself and give those.  A gift of wine or food is always welcome and because it is consumable, it doesn’t clutter up the closet later.  Consumables also have the advantage of providing instant gratification.  Furthermore, to make something for someone adds an element of personal creativity.  The jokes about holiday fruitcakes have been around for a long time, but I don’t know of anyplace that a plate of cookies is not welcome.

Merchants know the problem well and they have devised another answer: the gift card.  Gift cards are ingenious.  They are paid up credit cards locked in to a specific store.  The giver has the convenience of simply mailing the card with one postage stamp.  The merchant gets the money up front and the receiver can pick out whatever they want.  In fact, some stores even sell gift cards for other stores!  I saw a whole rack of gift cards for sale at a QFC and I have heard that Amazon cards can be bought in all kinds of businesses.

We all know that today this gift giving obsession in December is powered by retailers, economists, and our corporate masters, but where did it come from?  The symbol of December gifts in America is Santa Claus.  Santa Claus is our version of the Dutch Sinterklaase – minus the bishop’s trappings.  He first appeared in the American press in 1773 and he showed up in Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809).  Besides the Dutch, other roots for the jolly old man come from the British Father Christmas and the German Odin.  It is Odin’s eight legged horse, Sliepnir, whose flights through the sky gave rise to Rudolph and the reindeer.

Going back to the 4th century, a Greek bishop named Nicholas was known for his generous gifts to the poor (a far cry from Roman Catholic bishops today, but don’t get me started!).  Yet even then, gift giving was taken over by commercial interests.  In 1087, the Italian city of Bari sent an expedition to Turkey to loot the remains of St. Nicholas and bring them back to their own city where they are today.  The idea was to cash in on the pilgrimage trade and judging from the ornate
basilica in Bari, the raid appears to have been a financial success.

One of the other roots of gift giving in December is, of course, the myth that certain magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a baby in Bethlehem.  The writer who started this myth was Matthew; the other gospel writers never mentioned it.  The magi were a priestly caste of astronomers into which Zoroaster, a Persian messiah, was born.  There is no evidence that any of them ever traveled to Bethlehem, how many there were, where they came from, or what they brought.  That hasn’t stopped Christian storytellers from inventing all sorts of myths and songs about them and even assigning them names!

Yet neither magi, nor bishops, nor Norse gods are the real sources of the practice of giving gifts.  Much earlier civilizations offer their own clues of gift giving and even civilizations which had never heard of magi or Nicholas incorporated gift giving in their traditions.  Mochtezuma of the Aztecs offered gifts to Cortez the minute he landed on the shores of Mexico.  This was not out of homage or charity.  His message was to “take this and go away.”  Cortez apparently did not get the memo.

Instead of any single origin, gift giving seems to be woven into the very DNA of human beings.  Even primitive natives in the jungles of New Guinea give gifts.  The Christian/corporate complex saw this natural human act as a financial opportunity much like the city fathers of Bari saw the bones of Nicholas.  They seized upon the Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice and refashioned it into Christmas.  Then they attached to their new holiday the practice of gift giving.
Today we are saddened by stories of greedy shoppers bursting the doors of Walmarts at 3:00 am on Black Friday and even trampling to death the poor underpaid clerk who happened to be in their way.  This year retail giants even took workers away from their families on Thanksgiving Day to staff their cash registers.

Yet when we step back from Black Friday – and now ‘Gray’ Thursday – we see that gift giving is not the prerogative of one holiday.  Gift giving happens for many reasons all year long.  Ambassadors often give gifts when they present their credentials to their host country.  All of us give gifts at birthdays, weddings, housewarmings, and anniversaries.  Friends sometimes give gifts for no special occasion at all.  That’s because in reality gifts are only vehicles for intentions.  This is summed up in the familiar saying “It’s the thought that counts.”

And if that thought is of genuine love and friendship, it is the finest gift of all.

Janice Van Cleve stepped off the December Commercial Orgy train years ago.  She celebrates the season with friends and lovers and egg nog in her coffee.  Copyright 2012.


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