Christmas is a holy day corrupted by materialism. Or is it a holy day enhanced by materialism?
Perhaps that depends on what meaning you attach to material things.
When I was a child growing up in Mexico, my dad was often out of a job and money. But on the occasions when he had income, he didn’t hesitate to spend it all — on my sisters and me, on his friends and nights out on the town, on things that made him happy.
In a sense, after the famine came the feast, and we knew it wouldn’t last long.
When he had an unexpected windfall, the peak of luxury for us was to make the three-hour drive on a day trip to McAllen or Laredo, the border towns in Texas, to shop.
Going to the buffet at Luby’s or the mall on the other side of the border was mesmerizing for us, American abundance writ large before our eyes. We could buy American items at Walmart that were hard to get in Mexico, like Velveeta cheese, Pillsbury biscuit tubs, and — my favorite — Bop and Teen Beat magazines. My dad would give us each $100, a fortune for a kid’s shopping spree. I remember being obsessed with buying fancy notebooks for school. I would spend hours in the office supply aisle in Walmart carefully selecting the best colored pens. Over time I have realized that for my dad, it was the best he could do as compensation, an act of love to give us cash on those occasions precisely because normally money was so scarce.
The fascination with American shopping didn’t diminish after I moved to Boston 21 years ago. As soon as I came here, I remember immediately becoming obsessed — along with many other Mexican and Colombian immigrants I met back then — with CVS. We couldn’t believe one store could have 20 types of shampoos. Did I need three different deodorants to keep on rotation? Absolutely. You name it, I bought it. And the fascination has hardly diminished: The cornucopia of products in Target, T.J. Maxx, Home Goods, and places like them still gives me a buzz.
So as millions scramble and sweat for last-minute Christmas presents, some feeling hopelessly coerced and anxious, and the calls grow for rejecting the ritual of gift-giving during the holidays as an outdated practice, I’m at the top of my game, spirits high on the hunt. My husband calls me the gift ninja. I’m a devoted gift-giver. And maybe I’m part elf.
I see deep symbolism behind the shopping and the giving. And to me, those who denounce Christmas gift-giving are missing its whole point: Figuring out what a person would appreciate as a gift is a way of creating a unique connection with the recipient, making space for gratitude and joy. It’s why I consider gift-giving a love language. “Here, I bought this for you.” (I love you.)
It’s not that the Grinches don’t make some good points. There are strong economic and environmental arguments against Christmas consumerism and material goods. Maybe the giving has gotten out of hand. And there’s no question some of those resources could be better directed to those in need. I think I could go along with a Christmas present quota (along with a ban on fruit cake).
When I was 11, my mom gave me the greatest Christmas present ever: a pink bike with a white basket. It suddenly gave me wide mobility and standing with my neighborhood friends. I trekked all around the block and beyond, including to the tortillería to buy freshly made tortillas and to my grandmother’s some 20 blocks away, where I would visit every Saturday.
It was a bold gift for a little girl in a busy city. My mom showed she understood me. Trusted me. And she knew I wanted to go places.