“I tell you, Meghan, I am so stressed this year.” It is a scant few days before Christmas, and my friend Sally is panicking on the phone. Her bosom heaves audibly. “I honestly cannot think of a thing to give my children–”
”Oh!” I interrupt. “Let me tell you….” I say, signaling in the way women have that I totally agree and I completely understand and please would she go on.
“I mean, I went into a toy store yesterday,” she continues, registering the signal and accelerating, “and I looked around and there was nothing they don’t already have. I stood there and I said to myself, “My kids already have all of this stuff.”
“What about ice skates?”
“Already have them. And bicycles, and roller blades, and scooters….” She sighs, and I jump in.
“Do they play–” But I am too late.
“–loads of video games and board games and neither of them plays with dolls anymore so that’s out. It is absolutely ridiculous.” Her voice is freighted with forlorn self-knowledge. “But I have to get them something.”
Before you snort with disgust at this tale of apparent excess, I should point out that Sally and her husband are not wealthy. Their children are conspicuously sweet and unspoiled. But like everyone else in the United States they’ve been flooded for years with cheap Chinese imports to the point that there is literally nothing they want for Christmas.
Oh, when pressed, any child can come up with a list. Three quarters of mine were able to do it nimbly enough when I asked them to write a note to Santa Claus. Almost-five Violet asked courteously for “a princess castle.” Three-year-old Phoebe immediately grabbed my sleeve and requested “a princess castle.” Paris, who is eight, carefully printed out: life size robot, surfboard, and gun.
By contrast, ten-year-old Molly bit her pencil eraser and looked vague. Eventually she scribbled a bit and looked up. “My New and Improved Christmas List, in Order of Desire,” she read. “Set of watercolor paints with art pad, money (up to you how much), wallet, clothes (always an option), candy.”
Her hesitation brought into bright bas relief a thought that had been forming over many months; namely: that while Christmas is about God becoming Man and divine love and all that, the “holiday season” has become almost solely about giving children stuff for the sake of giving them stuff.
Any middle-class mother will confirm this, but she will do it sotto voce, as if confessing halitosis. Mothers of middle-schoolers wrack their brains trying to think of some bauble their jaded children don’t already own, or won’t think shamefully babyish. “We already have everything,” is what these women eventually say hopelessly, while they stand at the cash register with an armload of future tag-sale items.
Except in the most blighted households, American children have all the food they need, all the clothes they need, all the pens, pencils, and drawing paper. Even in the most blighted households, American children have DVD players.
At our house, actually, there is no DVD player yet–we can scarcely manage electronics for ourselves, let alone the children, and not because of money but because I personally cannot bear to read instruction manuals–but our children do have Scrabble, Parcheesi, Monopoly, Battleship, and Diplomacy, plus two editions of Pretty Pretty Princess. We have innumerable picture books, novels, dolls, blocks, trains, princess and soldier figurines, dress-ups, pogo sticks, jump ropes, scooters, Legos, and pretty much everything an old-fashioned child could want, including shiny new bicycles that were supposed to be Molly and Paris’s Christmas presents, but which we gave them a month early because the weather was so beautifully warm. We could have deferred this particular gratification for the sake of suspense, I suppose, but then the children wouldn’t have been able to use the things until spring, and what’s the good of that?
In short, contemplating the empty acreage under the Christmas tree, I was struck this year by the awful fact that there isn’t anything we could give the two eldest that would yield more than marginal pleasure. The Littles are another story, and I do not think it will spoil it for them if I reveal that Santa has brought them a castellated wooden palace. I happen to know that everyone will get a bang out of this present, as it is exactly the scale of all the queens and unicorns and cavaliers that our children already own. The craft kits and kaleidoscopes that the older ones will receive from kind relatives will–well, they’ll get a polite hearing, and then they’ll go into a drawer.
It was this realization about the pointless primacy of stuff–particularly lightweight and handsome-yet-affordable stuff that we annually send at great expense to far-flung relatives overseas, and they to us–that inspired us this year to heed the nudge of NRO contributor Susan Konig and give the gift of bees–and ducks, chicks, and geese–through the comically named but deeply serious charity Heifer International.
“Of course!” I yelped, when I saw Susan’s entry in NRO’s November Gift-Giving Guide. “Rats! I was going to do that years ago!”
Twelve years ago, to be exact. I was then a foreign correspondent, and before Christmas I spent a desperate day trawling the airport in Nairobi trying to find someone who could fly me into Somalia, where the U.S. Marines had lately landed and into which no commercial flights dared venture. I began bearding every man in epaulets, then every white man in epaulets, and eventually every white man, looking for a pilot. In the course of this search, I came across two aged Irishmen wheezing in the heat.
“I came to visit my cows,” explained one. “The weather in Uganda is remarkably like that in Ireland, it is,” said the other. It turned out these fellows had donated some clapped-out dairy cows to…Heifer International! Which donated the aged quadrupeds to needy families outside Kampala, rendering these families instantly rich.
I am given to understand that Miss Manners disapproves of exercising one’s charitable impulses at the expense of people who might reasonably expect from one a nice bottle of cologne or a slubbed-silk-covered picture frame, instead of a letter informing them that “a gift has been made in your name” to people in a far-away country of whom they know nothing.
Perhaps she is correct. I fear she is correct. Yet it is also the case that no gift my husband and I have given in years, not even the princess castle, can possibly approach in wonderfulness the thought of an impoverished widow receiving a trio of rabbits or the gift of bees and being able consequently to amass a tiny bit of wealth for herself. After all, cheap Chinese imports will eventually flood sub-Saharan Africa. How nice it would be if someday these widows are able to phone each other and complain, as women in America do, “My kids already have all of this stuff.”
P.S: I never did meet a man in epaulets who could fly me into Mogadishu. But it was amazing, once I began handing out $20 bills, how quickly kindly Kenyan airport officials were able to find me a spot on a charter flight.
–Meghan Cox Gurdon, an NRO columnist, lives in Washington, D.C.