The rites that surround Christmas shopping in the USA are complex, as people benevolently lie, deceive, trick, and scheme against their loved ones so that they can surprise them with gifts on Christmas morning.
I went Christmas shopping with my family and Chaya last weekend. This was always an ordeal that I remember vividly from my childhood: 12 to 15 hour days rushing around from store to store, mall to mall ever trying to find the best prices, the best things, and the perfect gifts for everyone in my family. This was always an ordeal that wore out my little kid legs and I can remember the days ending with me cranky and my mother dishing out threats that “Santa Clause is Watching.”
Perhaps Christmas presents are a child’s reward for putting up with the arduous punishment of Christmas shopping.
So after riding out a seven hour bus ride from NYC to Rochester, NY the last thing I wanted to do was go Christmas shopping then next day. But I was stuck. I had to go. I had not been with my family for some months and did not want to just sit around the house by myself like some turd. “Come on, it will be fun,” Chaya said. But Chaya is a Jew and had no idea what she was in for. But, with Chaya’s resilience, I attempted to make a little fun out of the task ahead. Leaving my family’s home at 10 AM, I knew that I would not be walking back up the porch steps for at least 12 hours.
I also wanted to buy some Christmas presents. I do not usually enjoy spending money on anything, but I do like Christmas shopping. This is one exception to my ‘don’t buy unless you will croak without it policy’ for cheap travel. Being outside of my own country for so long has oddly given me a newfound appreciation for its cultural traditions. Christmas shopping gives me a funny feeling: you go out and plot and scheme, think of everything you know about a person, think of things they may have said that they wanted, and try to find gifts that they may like. Like a good detective, I always try to find the best Christmas presents. In an odd sort of way, Christmas shopping becomes a kind of clue and mystery game for grown-ups.
As nobody usually needs anything that you can buy for them, Christmas shopping becomes a venture that requires a rather high degree of cleverness – especially when you are shopping with the people that you intend to purchase gifts for.. So my family and Chaya walked through stores and malls, conspiring with each other on how to buy gifts for those who were standing right next to us without them knowing. A simple whisper from one ear to another means that you are are being schemed about, that you are getting a gift. You move in closer to listen, and the whispers back off and pretend they were talking about something else. Benevolent lies, conspiracies, and clever schemes make for surprises on Christmas morning. This is a funny holiday: ways of acting that are not acceptable at any other time of the year over flow at Christmas time, all in the name of gift giving.
Chatwin once observed that holidays in most cultures are either about extreme piety or extreme debauchery. Holidays are for acting as you normally do not, perhaps as a counter balance to recognize where you really stand. Contrasts often make for balance. It is OK to lie around Christmas time because this is the tradition. It is alright to be jolly and deceptive because you are, in the end, acting benevolently: the ends justifies the means.
“The mall is just a shrine to capitalism,” I can remember a friend’s mother saying. It is true: people in the USA spend an incredible amount of time working during the year so that they can spend lots of money during the weekends or holidays. Perhaps, in an odd sort of way, purchasing things actualizes our existence: to acquire physical objects that represent and manifest the time of our lives spent working.
A gift represents a time span of the giver’s life, it is a piece of the giver’s existence. This is a part of the beauty of the Christmas celebration in America. This is why a gift is something special. Perhaps a gift has far less to do with the physical object than the time and effort needed to acquire and give the object.
So I sneak around, plot, lie, and deceive so that I can surprise my family with presents on Christmas morning.
Comment on this travelogue entry
Links to previous travelogue entries:
Quick Travel to Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgari…
Song of the Open Road on Vagabond Journey
End of the Line in America
Christmas Shopping in the USA
Bob L, said . . .
What an interesting way to put it. Don’t forget about the lie “Oh, I love it, it is just what I wanted”…..
Years ago our family pretty much eliminated gift giving to anyone but the kids in the family (and your own spouse) Although us kids did chip in for something for my elderly father…. it was the only way he would let us get him things he really needed.
This took an incredible strain off of all of us. There are only a couple in the family that actually like shopping. They have large budgets and big tastes. That left the cash strapped in the family having to go WAY over budget to try to get them something they liked. And the cash strapped were the ones with the least amount of free time.
This lack of shopping has lowered the stress level so much that we all actually enjoy the holiday season. It also makes Christmas morning less stressful as we don’t have to worry as to whether we got the right things. There is a certain loss with the lack of presents to open, since most of the kids are now grown, but we get together either on Christmas day or a day that is more convenient/less stressful for everyone.
Would love to learn about other’s traditions that might be able to be adopted in our family to make the day even more special.
Wade Vagabond Journey.com, says . . .
Thanks for the comment, Bob! I will make another travelogue entry that explains my family’s rather intensive methods of Christmas shopping tomorrow. I agree that it is interesting to find out how other people celebrate holidays.