Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Gift of Something That Matters

A short while ago, as my seven-year-old son and I were talking in bed one weekday morning, I asked him what he was most looking forward to about Christmas. Without a moment of hesitation, he answered "grandma and grandpa." A few weeks earlier, he had added "good luck for my family" to the end of his wish list to send to Santa. In fact, his list of things that he wanted was so short, we had to encourage him to look through some toy catalogs to lengthen it some. He seemed entirely content with receiving a couple of toys, as long as he could spend the holiday time with family.

I have always adored the giving of gifts. The pleasure of finding a gift that the recipient will truly enjoy or find useful is eminently satisfying to me. For me, giving a gift is one of those opportunities where you can demonstrate that you truly have listened to and understood the needs and interests of the recipient. The old phrase -- "It's the thought that counts" -- only partially captures this sentiment. For me, it's never been enough to give a gift of something. I've always tried to give the gift of something that matters.

This year, I've been thinking a great deal about this concept of giving something that matters. And what I've realized is that, in my son's eyes, the greatest gift I can give him is my time and attention. To him, that is what matters. Surely, he will enjoy seeing a tree full of presents when he awakes tomorrow morning. But all those boxes mean nothing to him outside the context of the time shared with family, the foundation of this holiday.

For those who accept the biblical foundations of Christmas, this holiday celebrates the entry into humanity of a child who would someday teach the people around him to give of themselves to those who are least fortunate. In the more secular version, we are inspired by a story of giving where all children are visited by the spirit of the season, who leaves good tidings and gifts in his magical wake. Whichever allegory you choose, the message is not about receiving, but of giving of oneself.

We miss this message as we stand in long lines under the oppressive glow of commercial fluorescents, waking up at 4am to fight our fellow humans for a toy that will be forgotten soon after it is opened on Christmas morning. We miss this message when we stress our families by shuffling our families between five different destinations in a vain attempt to please everyone. We miss this message when we use this holiday as bribery for good behavior in our children.

Tomorrow, as I hear the handle turn on my son's bedroom door, and see his bright eyes peer around the corner into our room, my mind and heart will be completely focused on giving myself to him. Regardless of what waits for him under the tree, his greatest gift will not come from a store, or be wrapped in a box. It will be something that matters.

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