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Let the spending begin

Let’s all go out and spend our hard-earned money on stuff. Let’s go mad and buy up every high-tech gadget we can find. Let’s buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes that we won’t be able to fit into once we’ve pigged out for the next month on turkey and ham and goose and cold Brussels’ sprouts. Let’s go absolutely stark, raving mad and unleash the spendthrift inside us, that same wastrel who has been battling with our inner scrooge all year. Let’s throw fiscal responsibility to the wind and do what we despise our governments for…let’s waste our money. Why not? It’s tradition.

Knowing the cost of everything…

Caught up in the holiday frenzy, we spend millions of euro, pounds, and dollars (and billions of forints) on unwanted gifts. We go mad buying for people whose middle names we don’t even know. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, postmen, binmen, milkmen, all come in for something… just because… it’s Christmas. Family, relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues, classmates, the list is endless. And now we even have variations on the theme… no, no, it’s not a Christmas present, it’s just a little ‘thank you’ for all your help during the year, for watering my plants while I was away, for feeding the cat, for picking me up from the airport, for listening to me go on and on and on about whatever, for being there for me. What is it about Christmas that brings out this latent generosity in us all? Do we really save up all our gratitude for December? Are we overcompensating for being mean and miserly all year? Are we simply balancing the books? Perhaps if the three wise men had left the gold, frankincense and myrrh at home, we mightn’t be in this mess.

Christmas has been hijacked by retailers. Discounts, special offers, and bargain deals abound. Untold pressure is put on people to buy the best of everything, the latest this, the most expensive that. Kids, passive victims of advertising campaigns want everything they see. Christmas letters to Santa Claus have evolved into lists, complete with make, model, and serial number. They cover all the bases, ending usually with the ubiquitous ‘and a surprise’.

…and the value of nothing

Me? I copped on a long time ago. I was seven. I asked Santa for a cradle for my doll, Lucy. Instead, I got a plastic knitting machine. I learned a valuable lesson: blessed is she who never expects anything for she shall never be disappointed. Now, if you ask me what I want for Christmas, I’ll tell you. And I’ll be specific. None of this… ‘Oh, something for the flat would be nice’. I want a tall, wrought iron book case, with five shelves, narrow enough to fit at the end my kitchen presses and shallow enough not to stick out past the wall (it doesn’t exist). Forget the timid…  ‘Maybe some perfume?’ Nope – I want some Dior Hypnotic Poison 100 ml shower gel and 100 ml body lotion (impossible to find!).  As for jewellery, can you be more specific than a 5-cm diameter circle of Kudu bone set in a raised silver ring? I don’t think so. I’ve learned my lesson: I ask for the impossible and when it can’t be delivered I offer up Option B: mmmm, I know you’d your heart set on buying me something but you could always give me cold, hard cash instead. Cash that I can send to friends who are working, doing good somewhere in the world with people less fortunate than myself. Cold, hard cash: that perfect gift that keeps on giving – one size fits all and the colour goes with everything! But that’s if you’re buying. If you’re making me something by hand, that’s a different matter entirely. I’m one of those annoying people basking in smugness right now who Christmas shops all year round: hand-made jewellery from Lithuania; beaded placemats from South Africa; knitted scarves from Gozo; dío madár from Hungary.  Support local artisans and give something that hasn’t been mass produced and marketed to death. Or better still, do something for me. Cook for me, take me somewhere, wash my windows.

Let’s face it, there’s a helluva difference between need and want. Fulfilling a need is rewarding; satisfying a want is indulgent. And don’t forget the ‘r’ word – we’re in recession, remember! So, if you’re racking your brains about what to give this Christmas, perhaps a suggestion from novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) might help: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.

Boldog Karácsonyi Ünnepeket. Nollaig shona dhaoibh. Merry Christmas.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 December 2010

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