Friday, November 28, 2008

Would you kill someone in order to buy a Christmas gift?

Everyone knows about this by now, yet here it is:

5 a.m. on Black Friday at Valley Streams, New York and the doors to Wal-Mart swing open. Within minutes, a 34 year old Wal-Mart employee is knocked down and trampled, and pronounced dead shortly after. Four more people, including a pregnant woman, are also injured. Shoppers had to grab the hands of their children (children? at 5 a.m.?) to keep them from being trampled.

So what do you say to your family when you get home? Don't blame me, I only gave him a little shove, not the big one that drove him to his knees?

I guess the PC thing here would be to blame Wal-Mart, and there's certainly plenty of blame to go around. But tonight I'm thinking about the people, poor and middling, who think they're going to Wal-Mart to buy some happiness for the ones they love, who've absolutely been sold on the definition of celebrating the Holidays being synonymous with spending every penny you can get your hands on.

Here's my reality: Like many other Americans, I've always spent too much around the holidays-- spent, sometimes, when I wasn't sure how I'd pay the rent in January. Spent because so much of the rest of the year was just the bare necessities for me and my family: cheap shoes, generic food, second-hand clothes. So I do understand the impulse.

Yet the monetary poverty of my holidays has made me plan more around giving than buying.

Thanksgiving was never a family-only affair, but included unattached friends and sometimes near-strangers who had nowhere else to go.

Then, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, I'd make regular trips to all the second-hand stores, looking for pretty scarves and blouses, special jewelry, cast iron pans, silver candlesticks, retro pyrex bowls, crystal platters, wicker shelves, classic books, throw pillows and art for the walls. I'd refurbish, paint, polish, embroider and decorate.

I'm creative but not really handy, yet I made picture books, birch bark frames and seashell mirrors, winter weeds spray-painted in silver and white, bookmarks, drawstring pouches and potpourri. With nothing magnificently expensive to compare them to, these presents became treasures to my family and friends!

Then, near the Solstice, we'd wash windows and curtains, dust all the books and polish the woodwork, and invite everyone we knew to our Solstice Open House. We'd encourage people to bring food to share if they could, and we always had bounty.

I live alone now, my children are grown, and I'd like to think I'm better off financially than when I was on public assistance, even though, working full-time, I find I am still right on the edge. My daughters have less job security than they did this time last year and other family members are working only part-time or are laid off and looking for work.

A few weeks ago my daughters proposed that we each voluntarily limit our spending this season to $25 a person. It took me a moment longer than I'd have thought it would to agree to their proposal. A couple of times since then I've practically found myself rubbing my hands with glee at a clever idea or Goodwill find. And I won't have to worry (as much) about January's bills.

So why am I writing this? Certainly not to make anybody else feel bad. I love celebrating the holidays and all my adult life and for a lot of different reasons I've preferred second-hand items to new ones; it's just the way I am. I prefer to celebrate, find, make, grow and gather than to spend and buy.

If there is ever a year in recent history for us to think a little deeper about what it is we really love about the holidays, what the holidays really mean to us, this is it.

This year for the first time in several, I and my sister, who lives downstairs, will have a Solstice Open House. If we know each other, you are invited. If we don't, there's still time to become friends.

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