from Fruit Garden and Home
The Christmas Complex
by Ellis Parker Butler
Because the passing of many Decembers has made me a tough old Christmasite, I feel entitled to say some of the things the young and tender dare not say about Christmas, and to dig into this Christmas complex and see what can be done about it. For about forty-six years I have been dividing my years into two portions: From January to July I worry over saving enough money to pay for last year's Christmas presents, and from July to December I worry about saving enough money to pay for this year's Christmas presents. December I set aside as a special month -- it is the month I worry because I know I am going to spend a lot of money on Christmas presents of the sort properly entitled things-folks-would-rather-have-had-something-else-than.
There can be no question that in America, with one hundred and ten million inhabitants, at least thirty-two million people begin to shudder over the imminence of Christmas on or about the first day of November. Last year's struggles and despair over the selection of twenty-three presents for twenty-three different men, women and children comes to mind, and we begin to feel cross and sick about having to go through it all again. Cold shivers run up and down our backs as we anticipate mock-enthusiastic thanks of someone for something we have given her that she don't want, would rather not have, and don't know what in the dickens to do with.
In the bulk -- and I hate to say it -- this Christmas giving is really getting to be a nuisance. Anything becomes a nuisance when it becomes a set and loveless condition. I'll bet that if I could get all the men in America to vote on it there would be a big majority agreeing that Christmas giving had now lined up with death and taxes -- and especially with taxes. The general feeling is that, like taxes, Christmas giving has to be, but with the few understood exceptions, we could get along without either of them very happily. The general state of mind of the average Christmas giver is nicely pictured by what a lady said to my wife. "What did you give Augustus for Christmas?" my wife asked. "Oh," said the dame, "it was so hard to think of anything; he has everything already; so I gave him a check for two hundred dollars." "Oh, lovely!" said my wife, "and what did Augustus give you?" "Well, I have everything already," said the lady, "and Augustus just couldn't think of anything I'd want, so he gave me a check for two hundred dollars." They might have exchanged five dollar bills, I suppose, but that would have been rather cheap.
The unpleasant side of the Christmas complex is the feeling that we must give to a lot of people we don't really care a hang about, and that we must give everyone more than we can afford to give. That is what is driving Christmas on the rocks. That is why quite a few of us -- if we had the bravery -- would urge congress to pass an amendment to the constitution abolishing Christmas giving. If we could get that done there would be some fun in it again; I'd love to bootleg a motion picture machine for my boy and it would be delightful to peer around the corner of the block for anti-gift officials and then dodge home with an illicit fur coat for my wife. It is being expected to give that takes the pleasure out of Christmas. It is the fear that the gift will not be what is expected that makes Christmas giving so sad.
I blame ourselves for that. We have all said a few times too often: "It is the spirit of the gift and not its intrinsic value that matters." The trouble is we have usually said it in the bosom of our family while doing up the three-cent Christmas card for Aunt Susan. Instead of saying: "Pooh for Aunt Susan! She's a cross-grained old cattawampus anyway and we won't waste even three cents on her -- five counting the postage," we say: "Oh! And we must send Aunt Susan something. Suppose we send her this three-cent Christmas card. After all, it is the spirit of the gift that counts, and not what it costs." After that everyone knows that if he receives a three-cent Christmas card it means: "Pooh for you!" We all get to feel that. So we all spend ridiculously big amounts of money for presents for those we do like; we're afraid not to; we're afraid the folks will think we don't like them if we blow in only eighteen dollars.
Well, I can swear I love everybody -- I'm always "busted" for five months following Christmas. Only, it does get, after awhile, that the "spirit of the gift" is about the same spirit as that in which I mail my check to the collector of internal revenue, Brooklyn, N. Y. And I can't say I have ever done that with a wildly joyous feeling.
The psychology of insanely extravagant Christmas giving is the same psychology that makes us all try to keep the gifts hidden until Christmas morning (or eve, if they are given then). Just as we feel that a joke is better if it has the element of surprise in it. And that is a fact, too. A surprise happiness is pleasanter than a happiness that comes on one gradually. If you like pie, then pie for dinner when you did not expect pie, is better than pie for dinner that you knew was coming. The unexpected gift is the happiest gift. So we who want to please have got into the habit of trying to give things that cost more than the receiver thought we would spend. We try to surprise our wives by giving them grand pianos when they thought we were going to give them pocket handkerchiefs. I don't say I have done exactly that, you understand. I am an author and I don't throw grand pianos around that way. But you see what I mean.
The trouble is that everyone has also got into the habit of expecting more than they expected. It is a good deal like the two old men. One said: "Well, Hennery, I don't think Silas is as strong as he used to be these days." "No," the other said dryly, "and I don't think he ever was." When that girl says: "Oh, I don't expect much this Christmas!" she means she does expect much. She means she is pretending she don't expect much so that when she does get much she will be surprised. And if she don't get much she's going to be a mightily surprised girl.
I do wish the nations could get together as they did in the disarmament congress, when they all scaled down their navies, and pass resolutions and scale down the present high level of Christmas presents. And I would not want them to be scaled down too much, either. I would not want the woman who has always expected an automobile or a pearl necklace to be satisfied with a ten-cent Christmas card of the sort we buy by reaching over the shoulders of eighteen other people and grabbing the first one on the top of the pile. I would like to have printed Christmas cards eliminated with the rest of the "no-love-in-it" stuff. Personally I receive a couple of hundred of those cards every Christmas; I'd give the whole bunch for a half sheet of cheap note paper with "Merry Christmas" written on it by a friend with a leaf of holly in the envelope.
The way to disarm Christmas is to give more things that we ourselves make or grow and less that we buy the way we buy feed for the cow. Looking back over many years I think the present my wife was most pleased with was an inexpensive brown wicker basket of homemade cookies a woman friend sent her. It was unexpected, it was self-made, it was prettily decorated. Personally I would rather have my folks get a five dollar bill from me, put it in an envelope and give it to me on Christmas, than be presented with six pairs of navy blue socks of the sort I invariably wear. I can buy my own socks. It is my money that is spent for the socks. That the socks are an excellent example of the Boojum Knitting Company's work does not make my heart swell and tears come to my eyes on Christmas morning.
One Christmas morning I found among my presents a parcel done up in that sort of cardboard that is used in shipping things, and I could not guess what it was. When I opened it I found it was five pounds of pecans -- the giant size -- from a grower in Texas. I'm exceedingly fond of pecans. Weeks before Christmas my wife had seen an advertisement of those mammoth pecans and she had sent for five pounds. That was some present! I was deeply touched and pleased. I think I kissed my wife. Without being asked, too. She hadn't been thinking of any other person when she ordered those pecans. It wasn't a case of buying pecans because they cost more than peanuts, or of buying ten bushels of pecans and dividing them among everyone she had to give presents to. I call that a proper sort of present. I liked it better than I would have liked three silk ties, twelve pair of socks, four pair of pajamas two sizes too small for me and a bottle of ink.
For a woman who likes flowers, or grows them, an inexpensive clear glass vase of satisfactory form makes just about the best present -- if you can send it with a spray of your own growing of flowers in it. To send me a box of fudge made by your own hand is a pretty thing to do, but to send me a box of cigars costing eight dollars only means you have felt you had to give me something. I can hear you saying: "Oh! I'll send him a box of cigars; all men smoke -- or if he don't he can give the cigars to someone else."
I have seen a small boy unwrap forty presents on Christmas morning and then sit down in the midst of a hundred dollars worth of them and play all day with a forty cent toy cart he had happened to mention he wanted. You have seen a woman return again and again to an embroidered doily a friend made and sent, and hardly glance a second time at the expensive purchased affair a wealthier friend sent.
There's nothing wrong with folks as receivers. Until the presents are opened they have that expectation urge that makes them expect costly gifts, but when the presents are opened those that have the odor of someone's personality are the presents best liked and longest treasured. Of course, if it happens to be chocolate fudge it is not treasured as long as if it were a dressing jacket. Fudge, of the kind that deserves to go gallivanting around on Christmas, is not built that way.
Christmas giving began in a sane way as a reminder to the children that Christmas was come. It probably began in Germany, with a "tree" that was only a foot or two high, and a bright red apple for each child. It was then a Christian festival and not the pagan orgy of buying and casting away that it is now. The red apple gift was meant to fix the Christmas idea in the child's mind -- what the day meant, what had happened on the day. It was meant to show that it was a good day, and that something good had happened on it, long ago.
Then, presently, gingerbread figures with white and pink icing, were added to the Christmas gifts, and then small toys -- oxen probably, and sheep and horses, such as were supposed to be in the stable where the manger was -- cheap little toys whittled out by old peasants and sold for a few pfennigs each. It all meant something. It was millions of idea-miles away from the woman who rushes breathlessly into a shop with a long list and paws over this counter and that counter, grabbing a thing here and a thing there, and checking names off her list, each with a sigh of thankfulness that that name is off the list, anyway! In many of the Old World countries Christmas is still as it was. In France the day, Noel, is like that; the gift giving is done on New Year's Day, and that is much better. It suggests that the fiscal year has ended, that the world has treated us well the past year; that the books are balanced and there is a surplus, and that we're giving some of it to those we love, in the form of gifts.
For all the sentiment most of today's Christmas giving has, and for its connection with the birth of the founder of any religion our Christmas giving might now take place on Mohammed's birthday or the birthday of Joe Smith the Mormon. It might as well take place on the Fourth of July, Columbus Day or the day Steve Brodie jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. It has degenerated into a mere orgy of reckless and thoughtless giving and -- with too many -- into a day when presents are expected.
I am an author, and I have written more than a score of books. Some were little books -- sold at fifty and seventy-five cents. In a proper land of Christmas giving no one, I'm sure, would rather have any other gift than a book written by the giver, with his name written in it. I can't imagine how a person can give anything more personal. Yet it is a fact that I dread to give anyone one of my little books at Christmas. It "isn't enough." They "expect more." It's "too cheap."
This is the Christmas complex I meant. It is the feeling that the cost of the gift matters. Nearly everyone has come to feel that, these days.
My cure is not to abolish Christmas. I don't believe I could do that even if I tried. My cure is for each giver to begin thinking of people about the first day of July, thinking who not to bother to give to first, and then thinking of gifts that will mean something more than a price tag and a retail value. The cure is to give more personal gifts, gifts we know will say: "I'm your Christmas present; I've come because somebody thought of you and knew you would like me."