[Cross posted at Cranial Gunk]
I remember our first Christmas together. I had gotten her one of those hand-held electric back massagers (which she asked me to return). She had gotten me a DVD player (which we had to buy a new TV to accommodate).
And we had a live tree that we bought from a reformed drug addict who was selling them outside the Rite Aid on Grand Street. He brought it to our apartment in a shopping cart that rattled and jangled across the islands on Delancey. He had a little hatchet he used to trim off the lower branches so the tree would fit into the stand. We didn’t question it at the time but later that night we kicked ourselves for being so naive. We let a self-admitted drug addict into our home with an axe.
There is a picture of the four of us (our youngest just over a month old) with Santa at Macy’s. It was the last time Christmas didn’t feel like a hassle. By “hassle” I mean it was the last time Christmas didn’t feel rushed or contrived. And by “contrived” I mean it was the last time Christmas felt like a celebration rather than an obligation.
I’ve been telling the same joke lately. For many of my friends and acquaintances, it is their babies’ first Christmases (or Hanukkahs). I’ve been telling them (jokingly of course): Enjoy baby’s first Christmas (or Hanukkah) because pretty soon he’ll (or she’ll) be asking for stuff.
I don’t mean it in a mean way. It’s not a cynical statement on the commercialism of Christmas and human greed. It’s more an amusing “circle of life” observation on my part. It’s normal child development for my boys to want specific things. It is also normal for them to want what their friends have. It’s a sign they are becoming self aware and constructing a personal aesthetic. It’s also a sign they are becoming socially aware.
A train set is no longer a train set, it is the Thomas the Tank Engine train set like the one [Insert Child’s Peer’s Name Here] got. A video game is not a video game , it’s a DS like the ones [the ominous] they have at school.
My boys are maturing and asserting themselves. The catalysts determining their desires is inconsequential for now. We will eventually have the “talk” about not mindlessly following peer groups but for now it is enough they are becoming sensitive to the norms of their peer group.
That said. It doesn’t mean I don’t get a little bit sentimental about the days when it was enough that the present was from me. With their newfound desires comes new burdens not to disappoint.
Elizabeth Bernstein writes about disappointing holiday gifts from husbands/boyfriends to wives/girlfriends in her Wall Street Journal article, “The Gift that Needs Forgiving.” It seems the “thought” is not enough.
After recounting several tales of “inappropriate” gifts she has been told, she concludes:
You shouldn't need a gift consultant (or a marriage counselor) to tell you these presents are wrong. They're utilitarian. Unromantic. Ugly. And, in many cases, more suitable for a man, or a cleaning woman, than the love of your life.
I am reminded of Cordelia’s plight in King Lear. She ineffectively expresses her love for her father and is cast out. However, the moral Shakespeare posits is the polar opposite of Bernstein’s. He chooses to show superficial gestures of affection paling in the light of those that are more subtle and genuine.
As I read Bernstein’s article, I felt a swell rise from my gut. It wasn’t the holiday sweets charitably giving me a second taste. It was annoyance. As clever as she was in her article, she (perhaps inadvertently) portrayed women as shallow, demanding princesses whose emotional investments are in tokens of homage instead of more meaningful, potentially sincere gifts.
To illustrate my point, Bernstein includes Tom Valentino’s story among the tales of disappointed wives and girlfriends. He is meant represent the “men’s perspective.” He tells of his upbringing and its influence on his values.
In his parents' house, Christmas was all about religious values—and food. Gifts were an afterthought.
"I started to think, well, we have three kids already, so no need for anything from Victoria's Secret," he says. "And I bought her a fancy watch last year for her birthday. How many of those does she need?"
Then he remembered his wife had said she needed a vacuum and a bigger pasta pot. Off to Macy's he went. "I could almost smell the sauce cooking with meatballs, sausage and braciole," he says. "How could a woman not be happy with these?"
He found out, because the gifts made his wife cry.
What would have been an appropriate gift? For the most part, the true desires of the women included in the story are never revealed. Is it a matter of not knowing what you want but knowing enough that you don’t want what you were given?
I am reminded of “Rosebud” and a little snow globe given by a man to a woman. She rejects the gift and goes on to say he never gave her anything of value.
Sometimes men aren't listening to their wives. But just as often, women aren't clear about their desires. They want men to pick up on their subtle clues, rather than telling them outright what they'd like. As one woman I know explains, "It means we are special to them if they detect what we want without us telling them."
So what’s a Rice Daddy to do? The Asian side of me says: Gift Cards! The American side of me says: That’s so “utilitarian, unromantic,” and “ugly.”