Sometimes when I think I want to quit Twitter, I remember I met Esther Emery there. I don’t know quite how to say that I have never actually met in person someone who has laughed and cried and spoken deeply into my life. So, when she offered to write for me about Christmas and money I was thrilled. Then, I read it. Listen up y’all. Esther is about to PREACH.
It was the year I was five years old that I got a doll for Christmas. It came in a shiny, domed plastic package. It had styled hair, and a poofy dress. It had real shoes that you could take off and put back on again. I looked at it in absolute wonder.
It was simply inexplicable to me, how that strange thing got underneath my tree.
You see, I was never a child who liked dolls. I didn’t dream of dolls of any kind, but much less the plastic ones with fancy dresses. Surely Santa would know that my radical environmentalist mother didn’t buy things like that, and in the case of the doll I had never begged her to. I wanted toys with wheels, or animals. In my wildest dreams, maybe a microscope.
I don’t know what happened to that doll. I might have cut it up. I have done experiments with it. Most likely I just forgot about it.
It was through a mistake – an adult slip of the tongue, as these things always are – that I discovered we had received the doll along with other gifts under the tree that year – labeled from “Santa” – as charity from the church.
We had been designated a “needy” family. And for that I got a doll.
The year was 1984. My parents were divorcing. There were medical bills, a bankruptcy claim, feelings of failure, loss, regret. For all this I got sweet, sad eyes from grown ups and a gift I never asked for. For all this, I got to feel like one of the ones who need.
Oh, lucky me.
December comes around every year, like clockwork. ‘Tis the season, of giving to the poor. Jingle jingle. Merry Christmas!
Don’t be selfish, y’all, be generous! Give! ‘Tis the season of giving! And Christmas belongs to the poor. This is the real meaning of Christmas.
But I want to tell you that I’ve been the poor. I’ve had other people’s gifts for Christmas, and it tasted like someone else’s party. It tasted like it probably made someone else feel awesome. I’ve gone to a lot of work to reclaim my heart from that bitter taste.
You might be calling this ingratitude. I would be accustomed to that. I have often been warned (as the poor usually are) about the dangers of my own bad attitude. I still hear the voice from my childhood that says, “WHERE ARE YOUR MANNERS COME ON AND SHOW A LITTLE GRATITUDE.”
But I am no longer a child. And I have lived a searching, thoughtful path into adulthood. I have drawn the line back and back from personal feelings of scarcity and desperation to our collective compulsion to justify excess…by passing it on to others who “really need” it.
It is easier to spread the disease of too much than to try to recover from it.
‘Tis the season, of compassion. This we translate into: it is the season of buying things, some for ourselves, and some for those less fortunate.
We need so desperately, to give. We need to give, and yet we dare not have less. We will find or manufacture a need that fits the narrow range, that allows us to keep our wealth intact and skim a little off the top to meet our soul’s deep hunger for generosity.
But if Christmas is about being able to give things to the poor, then Christmas is still, really, about being rich.
And I don’t think that’s what Christmas is about.
I don’t buy Christmas gifts for anyone anymore. Used things, sometimes. Homemade things. Cans of jam and applesauce. The time and effort to fill a stocking full of candy, frost a cookie, tell a story beside the tree. There is this one story we tell about a child king who had no roof, no toys, no rattle…
How much would it cost, to buy back an hour of sacred poverty? How much would it cost, to become again the child who can receive?
I know there is resistance. Brave resistance, often. But every act of resistance is assimilated. Tut-tutting over our overconsumption at the winter holidays is now almost as popular as the shopping itself. We switch back and forth like channels.
I’m just done.
My holiday high wire act falls apart at the foot of the manger. My guilt-and-giving dance is ferociously exploded by the upside down miracle of incarnation, in which the empty becomes full, and the profane becomes sacred.
This is what happens to the rich, when we become the poor. And this is what happens to the poor, when we become the rich, not by toys or packaging, but by the pure miracle of starlight.
This is Christmas.
Bio: Esther Emery used to be a freelance theatre director and playwright in Southern California. These days she is pretty much a runaway, living off grid in a yurt and tending to three acres of near wilderness in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She writes about faith and rebellion and trying to live a totally free life at www.estheremery.com. Connect on Twitter @EstherEmery