Having been raised in a rural Methodist church that for more than half a century wouldn't even splurge for a steeple, I'm well steeped in the Christian adage that says the reason for the season can't be wrapped in foil paper or the funny pages. And deep down, I believe in the altruistic principles I was taught. But in recent years, I've been caught on the losing end of a gift gap when I return home for Christmas, and I fear my materialistic yearnings have been exposed.
I realize the situation is largely my own fault. I was the one who upped the ante, who introduced a new and threatening element into our gift exchange. I abandoned that annual ritual of inquiry that has guided my family's responsible gift giving for generations, which is to ask: What do you want for Christmas? In rural Oklahoma, it's assumed that whatever a person hopes for is familiar—something scoped out and eyed covetously for weeks at the nearest Wal-Mart, Sears, Dillard's, or Alpine car-stereo dealer.
But as a city dweller, I became seduced by the surprise factor afforded by boutique shops, specialty hardware stores, and import retailers. I fell victim to an urge to buy gifts for my deprived family members that they never dreamed they wanted. Why should Grandma get the same old hinged picture frame of gold-burnished tin when she could have one that suspends her photos on brushed steel wire at offset angles? Wouldn't my brother and his wife love Christmas tree ornaments stamped from tin like back in the 1930s?
As I'm hitting every yuppified, artsified retail outlet in the metropolitan region, searching out those precious finds that will surely elicit cries of wonder—prints from local photographers, ceramic fruit from Mexico, bottles of raspberry chipotle marinade—I fancifully imagine that the rest of the family is merrily shopping to surprise me as well. Instead, the other members of my family have continued to put in the annual December call to my mother and dutifully inquire what it is I would like for Christmas. And every year, when Mom relays the question to me, I panic, unable to recall anything I've been doing without. Socks with the rubber grip soles? Life's Little Instruction Book? Dockers shirts?
My family is not chintzy about gift giving. Suggest to them a clearly definable object—say, a coffeemaker—and they'll buy the best one in the store. But they do not experience holiday shopping as a heady adventure through displays of sensual merchandise. Main Street stores and artisan shops have pretty much disappeared from rural life. Nowadays, about the only things signed or handmade are either found in antique stores, feature a barn as a central image, or are embossed with some arrangement of the words "love," "home," and "Oklahoma."
Last Christmas, I picked up mostly checks from my parents and grandparents, and that's probably the fairest resolution to an uneven gift exchange. Considering that many of the gifts I've brought home disappeared quickly into closets, perhaps I'm getting the best end of the deal. Still, I felt a little cry for help rising in my chest as I held that money. I knew I'd be tempted to use it to pay off my holiday shopping bills, having been raised a good Methodist and all. What do I want for Christmas? I honestly can't say. Peace on earth, good will to all, and . . . all that stuff I just wrapped and gave away.