I am no Ebenezer Scrooge, but truth be told, I always feel pretty ambivalent about Christmas. Part of this ambivalence is from trying to negotiate time, space, and expectations as a teenager when my parents lived in different cities. Another part derives from my political values wherein I harness my disdain for the way Christian monotheism supplanted land-based rituals like Solstice and then capitalist consumerism supplanted family-based practices. But most of all, I feel that we all lose our ability to differentiate responsibility from desire during this time of year.
Last night as I came home from a weary Christmas road trip through southern Ontario I was talking to Virtute about these feelings as he played with his new one-and-a-half-inch mylar crinkle ball atop a big old gift box (that was doubling as a crypt). I recounted how in our contemporary times, despite our best intentions, many of us grow up learning that Christmas is about seeking easy gratification. We hear the word “next” spoken (as in “open the next gift”) more often than we do “care”.
Virtute, taking a pause from his new toy. Leaned over and whispered “gifts”. A little dismayed at this intransigence, I presumed Virtute had temporarily joined the “cult of the consumer,” I was ready to head up to bed in defeat. Just then Virtute stiffened up, stretched and then perched on my lap.
“Gifts,” he repeated, a little more thoughtfully this time. “The word comes from old germanic – it has roots in both that which is given – and that which is poisonous. Perhaps that explains our conundrum. As beings we survive because we aren’t afraid to give. But if one gives, one must also be able to receive. The poison, for most of us, is in our fear of what receiving gifts does to us. We can veer easily toward gluttony, we can succumb to addictions and obsessions, we can put desire above care. That is why many of us love to give, but struggle desperately to receive – while others love to receive, but don’t know how to give. The poison is when giving and receiving become unbalanced.”
Wise words – and I could definitely relate to what Virtute was saying. I’ve always had trouble asking for help or have felt anxious about receiving gifts or praise. Perhaps it is a fear of my inner megalomaniac – I am afraid that by accepting gifts or praise or kindness that I won’t be able to control my desire for more. Perhaps it is my fear of being lonely and I allow the practice of giving to stand-in for the practice of building meaningful relationships.
Virtute had disappeared. He likely noticed that I had zoned out. But as I was snapping out of my mental fog and started heading up to bed, I heard the pitter patter of his feet come down the stairs. Clasped between his teeth was a small partially chewed up bow. He sat it down on my lap. A gift. I clutched the bow between my fingers and told him, “I’ll keep this as a token of the long and loving relationship we’ve formed.” He smiled and he, Gumption, and I all snuggled up in the cold bed on Christmas night and fell asleep.