The giving spirit

As every parent knows, children have a way of making you see the world through their eyes. They bring together for a brief moment in your mind two different universes: one of lost innocence and the other of hard-won experience. By reliving childhood through your child you have the chance of finally figuring out what you did with your life and evaluating what you are about to do to your child's. In short, raising a child forces upon any responsible parent a radical reexamination of values.

This was to my son's first Christmas.I started fretting about the holidays as early as Halloween. It began while I was stockpiling candy at the supermarket. As I tossed chocolate bars into the basket I found myself muttering, Would I really want my son to eat this?m To salve my concience I added some boxes of raisins.

On Halloween I doled out the "treats" with an unprecedented benevolence. (A mother of one child feels, on a elemental level, a mother to all.) I imagined my son dressing up for Halloween and toddling from door to door, open-bagged and open-mouthed. The vision charmed me but also made me vaguely uneasy. Finally I realized that my disapproval extended beyond the candy and "junk" food to the sheer avarice of it all. Somewhere along the line the costume had become less important than the collection, the pay-off more important than the play.

Then Thanksgiving rolled around and I dourly reflected as we stuffed ourselves with turkey at the peak of the Cambodian famine that here was yet another holiday predicated on conspicuous consumption. We had progressed from how much candy at Halloween to how much turkey at Thanksgiving, and from there it is but a short step to how many presents at Christmas. Underlying the image of holidays that we present to our children is an implicit connection between celebration and acquisition, which is a fundamental perversion of their original spirit. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, at least, the joy that once derived from gratitude now derives from greed.

In most American families top billing is given at Christmas to Santa Claus. Children make lists of "things" they want Santa to bring them. They worry about being good so that Santa will reward them. Christmas Eve focuses on the high drama of Waiting For Santa. Fathers dress up in red suits and white beards or sneak outside and ring bells. Mothers get up in the middle of the night and eat cookies they have placed on the mantel. Parents spend more money than they can afford to make sure their children will not feel slighted by Santa.

Unwittingly we teach our children that the point of Christmas is to get gifts from a wholly mythical creature. Doesn't this imply that it's more important to receive than to give? Doesn't this imply that the more presents children receive the more they are loved? Doesn't this imply that if children are good they will be rewarded with material possessions?

Anyone who has watched privileged children ripping open present after present knows that beyond a certain point, as with overeating or any indulgence, the eyes glaze over and pleasure ceases. In some families only the competition really seems to matter: Did I get more or less than my brothers and sisters? But do they ever think of comparing themselves to the children who receive very few Christmas presents or none at all?

My husband and I have decided: we would like to teach our son that the holidays mean more than the "getting and spending" that Wordsworth described, that as one child said, "it's the good spirit in people's hearts that makes them give presents," and that's a lovely conviction with which a child can grow.

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