WHAT WE WANT IS FREE
Have you seen the Anna Fusco poster that begins with the phrase “I want…”? It made the rounds on Instagram earlier this year, cumulatively garnering close to 100,000 likes in the four times it was posted. “I want everybody to live very very close,” says Fusco. “I want to borrow. I want to bike over in house shoes for a game of cards on the porch with some tea or a digestif.” The artist goes on to describe a scene of community where there are shared oysters, records, dogs, midnight oil, and “little distinction between what’s mine and yours.” One hundred thousand others agree.
This time of year is laden with wants and wishes, but despite what our shipping lists say, a lot of us only want what Fusco describes: physical proximity and emotional closeness with those we love.
Bump into someone you know during the holiday season, and a list of stressors is sure to be aired in conversation. In each there is a want, and seldom is it for something from a store. Folks feel rushed, stressed, stretched too thin, maybe even just downright unhappy. In those is the want for slowness, rest, fulfillment. The months-long slog of procuring things to decorate, eat, wrap, give, and of course, celebrate, might even have us wanting only for it to be over, to be done.
We want to give and get, and in fact, need to do so in order to build social bonds of belonging with our people. It’s not really about stuff. A gift can show the receiver that they’re seen for who they are, that someone knows and understands them well enough to discern their likes, wants, or needs. Alternately, a gift can reveal something about the giver, revealing an aspect of their personality that they wish to share.
When done well, the act of exchange itself is the gift, benefitting both players. Science shows that the act of receiving spikes dopamine levels while the anticipation of giving activates the part of the brain that links altruism and happiness. In The Question of the Gift, Mark Osteen writes, “a gift is a story, because you’re telling a story about the person you give it to, and a story of how we know each other.”
HO HO WHOA
So why is it that our holiday exchanges have become fraught with unease?
Let’s look at the history. Abundant gift-giving wasn’t always a predominant part of an American Christmas. According to writer Paul Ringel for The Atlantic, materially-ridden holiday traditions rose to tradition in early- to mid-1800s New York. He explains that in the midst of rapid urbanization and population growth, the city’s elites “became increasingly frightened of traditional December rituals of ‘social inversion,’ in which poorer people could demand food and drink from the wealthy and celebrate in the streets.”
In seeking to keep their morally upright families at home and modestly entertained, a group of wealthy men who called themselves Knickerbockers (including Clement Clarke Moore, author of the infamous The Night Before Christmas) “invented a new series of traditions for this time of year that gradually moved Christmas celebrations out of the city’s streets and into its homes.”
Drawing on Dutch traditions, like a visit from St. Nicholas, the Knickerbockers established “a new type of midwinter celebration that integrated home, family, and shopping…and strengthened an emerging bond between Protestantism and consumer capitalism.” In step, the United States’ toy and children’s publishing industries began to soar by the 1820s, and haven’t ever truly slowed.
Class warfare has nary been seen on a holiday wishlist, yet there it is. Seen in that light, it’s no wonder the tradition can feel compulsory, transactional, and heavy with emotional, financial, environmental costs. Assuming that’s not our goal, how can we rewrap our gift-giving?
WHAT TO GIVE?
Give time. You can’t put a price tag on quality time. In the culture of hustle and grind, reserving time on your calendar to share with loved ones is kind of the ultimate gift. While we think the Knickerbocker’s motives were dubious, drawing the community into the home for the holidays is one of the best things about the season. Why not get creative with how that might look as a gift to be redeemed year-round?
Concert tickets, cooking classes for two, a weekend ski getaway—these kinds of gifts thrill in the moment but also offer something to look forward to after the holiday hubbub has dissipated. Shared experiences are the glue of our primary relationships (which is another reason the global pandemic put a strain on the social fabric). Book some tickets, make some plans!
If you are going to give gifts of a material nature—and most of us still will—consider shopping small and/or local. Small businesses provide an unquantifiable vitality to our neighborhoods and need our love this time of year (and always!). Though they might not be able to offer the same extreme price-busting deals that big box stores do, many do offer discounts or special offers on Small Business Saturday.
Few things have more presence than a piece of art, and what a lovely gift to give and get. If you’re unsure of the recipient’s taste in art, seek out something small in scale and low impact. Something created by an inspired mind almost always finds appreciation. If the cost of entry into the art world feels unapproachable, take a look at online venues—like Park Life, Uprise Art, or Tappan Collective—for purchasing fine art prints or originals by emerging artists.
With Black Friday and Cyber Monday on the horizon, and many sales already underway, we invite you to think about what you really want this holiday season. Do you want only to share oysters with friends on a porch with music twinkling on the breeze? Have that. Or better yet, give that. If the things we want most can’t be bought or sold, what do you genuinely want to give and hope to get?