When Santa Claus parades down 34th Street it’s more than just an entertainment with giant balloons. It is the ritual signal or starting gun that launches us into a month-long frenzy of consumption. We must buy gifts, right now, and on all sides we hear the dreaded and unanswerable question: what do you want for Christmas?
Children have no problem with this question. They have lists of wants, readymade. These days the lists are probably downloaded straight from the internet and delivered to Santa Claus by e-mail. But the older we get the harder it is to know what we want. It’s easy enough to search through the closet and discover that we need some new socks, or to choose a book or a CD. But what we really want is a huge, terrifying, existential question, and most of us don’t like to think about it.
E.B. White, a fine writer, has a short story called “The Second Tree from the Corner,” in which he seems to answer the question like this: we do know what we want and it is so inexpressible, so unfathomable, that we can never quite see it clearly, let alone say it in words or get it gift-wrapped from Macy’s. This seems to me very perceptive, and explains why we have to invent things to want that then turn out to be unsatisfying.
What do I want? Well, I would like to be better at what I do. If I could write stories or essays like E.B. White, for example, that would be a gift indeed. I want to be smarter, younger, braver, and, not least, taller. These would all be great gifts, but still they are only shadows of something else that I don’t have a name for. Would all these gifts combined make me happy, or would I still want something else? Was E.B. White happy, as one of the most celebrated writers of his time? Would he have been made happier by a new tie, or a travel alarm clock?
It’s an insoluble problem. If we don’t know what we want ourselves, how can we possibly guess what other people want, even those nearest and dearest to us? Gift cards have become popular in the last few years, but this simply tosses the smoking bomb into the hands of the recipient, who then has to worry about what they want. Charitable gifts are another way out, although a bit of a cheat because no wrapping is required. One year my wife gave me a fine flock of ducklings destined for a village in Africa. I hope they’re having a good time there. I was tempted to respond the following year with a hippopotamus, but I fear that the supply of hippopotami in Africa, gift-wrapped or not, may exceed the demand.
Ebenezer Scrooge is the emblematic figure of Christmas, not because he was a miser but because he was scared straight just in time, before the shops closed, and began buying gifts like a madman. Then what happened? Suddenly he was happy. As any decent ghost will tell you, giving is its own reward, and it’s not what you get, it’s what you give that counts.
Copyright: David Bouchier