Too much giving?
It takes my family almost the entire day to unwrap Christmas presents.
We do stockings before breakfast and tackle the gifts under the tree after we eat. And in recent years, the number of presents has grown. There are gifts under the tree for my brother-in-law, and my sisters and I give more than we used to, having become grown-ups with jobs.
But neither the existence of my brother-in-law nor adulthood can fully explain the surge in presents. Much of the blame lies with my parents, specifically my mother. Whereas most parents begin cutting back on gifts for their adult children at some point, my parents have taken the opposite tack.
My father has recently shown some signs of wanting to restore some sanity to Christmas morning, and last year, as our gift-giving stretched into the afternoon, he turned to my mother and said, “You got too much stuff.”
At Thanksgiving, my father made an announcement.
“Christmas is going to go much faster this year,” he said. “Your mother and I are only giving each other one present.”
The new rule apparently has an exception: stocking presents. That makes me wonder how many gifts my mother will attempt to cram into my father’s stocking.
I don’t like buying gifts, and giving them makes me anxious, but I do enjoy getting them.
However, I can acknowledge that perhaps there is such a thing as “too much.”
In adulthood, I’ve been having a more difficult time coming up with items for the Christmas list I dutifully compile for my parents, trying to balance things I could use, such as a new shirt or cast iron skillet, with things I might enjoy, such as a Dr. John CD or the new book by Katherine Boo. If anything, my Christmas list reveals just how little I actually need in terms of material goods.
So I’m not bothered by my father’s attempt to rein in our Christmas giving.
In fact, I’m in favor of limits on all kinds of giving.
Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s actually possible to give too much — of your time, or your energy, or your money. Some people take advantage of generosity and devotion. Sometimes people ask you to do things that aren’t worth doing. While some people regard the classic children’s book “The Giving Tree” as a heartwarming story about friendship and love, I view it as a cautionary tale.
The book, by Shel Silverstein, tells the story about the relationship between a young boy and a tree. When the boy is young, the tree gives him what he needs and wants — an apple to eat, a branch to swing on. But when the boy gets older and becomes an adult, he isn’t quite as happy, and fulfilling his wants and needs requires greater sacrifice from the tree: Eventually the boy cuts down the tree and uses the wood to build a boat and sail away. When he returns, the tree explains that she has nothing left to give except a stump to sit on, and the boy, now a sad old man, sits down and rests. The end.
Anyway, I used to read this book to kids at camp, and the more I read it, the harder it got to defend either the boy or the tree.
“This boy is a bit of a jerk,” I explained. “Perhaps the tree should have stood up for herself and told him to take a hike.” By the end of the summer, I wanted to throw “The Giving Tree” into the campfire. “You shouldn’t be this giving,” I told the kids. “If you are, it probably means you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship.”
I was trying to tell these kids that giving is great, but that it isn’t always good, or healthy, and that other things, like self-respect, matter, too.
I recently read the memoir “Elsewhere,” by Gloversville native Richard Russo. The book focuses on the author’s relationship with his mother, a difficult woman who suffered from untreated mental health issues. Near the end of the book, Russo learns that his mother likely had obsessive compulsive disorder and comes to realize that although he often tried to give her what she wanted, he never quite gave her what she needed.
Of course, it can be tough to give people what they need, especially if they do not want it.
A few years ago, a friend of mine asked whether I could lend him $1,000 so that he could pay his rent; the request came via an email so completely unhinged that I wondered whether a Nigerian scammer was behind it. My friend Heather assured me that this was not the case and that our friend was behind on his rent because he had stopped working and was compulsively writing some sort of manifesto.
If I were more like the giving tree, I would have offered to pay his rent for the next six months.
But I didn’t. Instead, I offered to help him seek counseling and mental health treatment. Which wasn’t what our friend wanted, and he declined the offer.
Christmas is a time of giving, but the busyness of the season can make it difficult to give and receive in the ways we’d like and need. Shopping can take precedence over socializing, listening and relaxing. We can burden ourselves with so many obligations that it can be difficult to enjoy and appreciate the month of December.
I predict that my family’s Christmas morning gift opening will be just as slow as it always is. My niece Kenzie will be experiencing her first Christmas, and she is going to get plenty of presents.
Someday, perhaps, she will think, “I have too much stuff.” But not yet.
Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.