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Empty Stockings


Despite some impending deadlines, I feel a little lighter than usual for this time of year. Why? Except for a couple small things for our daughter, my family opted out of the holiday gift exchange.

It sounds very radical and ascetic, but really it was neither. With a growing extended family and a tight budget, it would have been a serious financial strain for us this year, even at our most restrained. We didnít like the time that shopping (or frantically making things) took away from our other December pursuits, or the stress it added to them. We felt uncomfortable about the feelings of comparison that the process managed to generate in us despite our most rational analysis and promises not to worry too much about what was fair and what everyone else was expecting.

This choice has been, as I expected, a really good thing for all of our end-of-year states of mind. Our various December rituals and celebrations donít carry an overtone of impending undone tasks. We are looking forward to all the visiting and other traditions all the more because they have clearly taken center stage.

It has certainly not made me want to forever forgo purchasing things other than my basic wants. On some level I miss the excuse to go out and patronize my local stores that sell things I donít actually need. Iíve noticed good ideas for gifts going by and had small moments of sadness that I wasnít going to follow up on them. I like giving gifts, at least when Iíve had a good idea. I like showing that I was listening when someone said ďOh, you know what Iíd love . . .,Ē that I gave some thought to who they are and what they like.

The problem is, on a good year I feel like I manage this once or twice at best. Itís hard to do under pressure, itís hard to do in bulk. And yet despite having wonderful examples in my life of people who do it exactly as I would want to do itóthroughout the year, as so moved, just for the point of givingóI havenít been able to make that shift for myself. Iím wondering if freeing myself from the feeling that I need to horde my money and creativity and generosity for December might help.

On the flip side, after hearing that we had joined a long list of people she knows opting for gift-free holidays, my cousin gave a passionate defense of the role of gifts in the winter holidays that gave me pause. ďMidwinter is the season of scarcity,Ē she wrote on her blog. ďMy life is characterized by careful measuring of what my partner and I can afford to trade for what our children need. . . . We keep our fists clenched around those pennies all year long. Generally, I am happy with this. . . . But letting go of those clenched fists is a wonderful feeling. Surrounding that with ritual makes the spending deliberate, conscious, and lovely. Placing that ritual in the midst of the clenched up, careful season of barren winter brings to me a consciousness that all of lifeís troubles come in seasons.Ē

Remembering abundance in the face of the shrinking light. I know, of course, that this is at the root of all of the winter holidays I celebrate and most of the customs I use to celebrate them: from strings of colored lights to candles to bonfires. Electric lights be damned, we do all feel the changes in the light, the loss of walks, the chilly drafty floors. But somehow Iíd gotten away from thinking of all the hoo-ha as serving a real need. Even as I cherished them, Iíd fallen into thinking of it all as a bunch of traditions I enjoy and do in December because thatís when they are, even if itís a bit excessive and crowded together.

For my cousins, who are making do on significantly less than my family is, gifts are a perfect way to remember abundance during the short days. But for now, at least, I feel shorter on time than stuff, and so bunches of vacation days, multiple social gatherings per week, daily rituals like the advent calendar and the menorah, time-consuming baking projects and egg nog from scratch, visiting lots of family, relaxing on the couch, watching my daughter flop on her belly to stare at the Christmas treeóall feel to me like my cousinís description of letting go of clenched fists. It is luxuriant, decadent even. Gifts of time and cheer and attention.

I imagine that, in the long run, traditional presents will also play some role in our winter holidays. But we had to step back this far to see why. Hereís to little gifts of light.

óMiriam Axel-Lute

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