Balancing Materialism and Simplicity
My friend said last night that she hated the Christmas season because it is just TOO much. It is overwhelming to walk into a store where everything is promoted as the perfect gift. Where glitz and glitter rain from above and everyone is worried about pricing and spending and finding bargains.
I think she may be right.
Christmas carols chime in my head these days. I walk around humming tunes about bells, blizzards, and jolly old St. Nick. Some days, I even belt out familiar Christmas melodies as I run around, always harried and hurried, to finish the holiday tasks. But deep below those surface songs, a counter-melody is warring, fighting to be heard.
“Tis the gift to be simple;
’tis the gift to be free.
’Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when you find yourself in the place just right,
‘T’will be in the valley of love and delight.”
Materialism versus simplicity
Every year it’s the same old thought. “Why am I so consumed with material gifts? Why can’t I just embrace a simpler, saner approach?”
It’s hard to be sane when the society around you is going nuts, always focused on buying more, spending more, selling more. Faster delivery, longer hours, and MORE of everything.
It’s almost ridiculous. (Or maybe it’s not ridiculous for the wealthy of the world, but for middle-class folks on a budget, the push toward pricey, impractical gifts is ridiculous.) Take, for instance, some of the examples I’ve seen advertised in catalogs and t.v.
- A husband and wife secretly buy each other vehicles. Give me a break. How many couples do you know have the financing and finesse to go out and make major purchases like that without consulting each other?
- How about a wrought-iron tree to hang ornaments on? Advertised as an “immediate conversation piece,” it costs hundreds of dollars. (Ornaments not included, of course.) Nothing says welcome home for the holidays like hard, metal branches, you know.
- A cocktail table adapted from a New England work sled is “beautifully crafted and weds the skills of the blacksmith to those of the woodworker to create a piece of magic and charm.” Great copywriting, but a very hefty price — even though it would make “a beautiful focal point for my home or cabin.” (Maybe I should order several, one for my winter home, one for my beach house, one for my mountain cabin, and one for my lakeside cottage. Ha! Ha! Ha! instead of Ho! Ho! Ho!)
- The “perfect” gift is, of course, a leather safari chair with the eye-raising, oxymoronic phrase attached “for indoor use only” as if you’d put it in the middle of your cow pasture while you weather-watch. The price tag was hyperbolic.
- Or there’s a Human Touch chair with massage and heating options guaranteed to relieve stress and muscle pain. At a price tag of over $5000, it might be cheaper than a caring partner — but not by much.
Footstools shaped like buffalo, coordinated holiday ensembles for pets, terra-cotta pots that grow weeds for hair. Ant farms, electronic gadgets for your shower, (because who can go more than 3 minutes without devices?), talking piggy banks, and the “world’s best, automatic, self-cleaning litter box” for the family cat are your ideal gifting-opportunities. Santa-meme soap dispensers, holiday-decorated toilet paper, (because your butt cares,) a special cooler for the front seat of your car, a talking wrist-watch. The list goes on and on…
All this frippery sounds a lot like another one of those Christmas songs archived in my brain. Remember the Twelve Days of Christmas? What’s the difference between the items listed above and the story of a spoiled princess receiving showy gifts of milking maids, piping pipers, leaping lords, and a partridge in a pear tree?
Simple gifts are good
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I want to go back to a totally giftless Christmas. I do admit, though, that some days, I find myself thinking about the Christmases in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books where a pleasing gift was an orange dropped in a stocking with some hard candy and nuts.
For the most part, I love buying gifts for people I care about. I enjoying picking out just the right token of respect and affection and bustling around with the shopping crowd at least once during the holiday season.
But I’ve begun to value my Mother’s approach, which is to give to charities and to support worthy causes instead of spending so much on each other.
It’s not the Christmas carol line about the three kings “bearing gifts from afar” that gets my attention; it’s the counter-melody surging in my brain, singing about simplicity that slays me:
“When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
’Til by turning, turning, we come round right.”
It’s a matter of balance, the turning from materialism to simple abundance. It’s the contrast between the cacophony of carols and the single melody of an old Shaker song that I hope will turn me from too much emphasis on “things” and keep my spirit “right.”
Melissa Gouty is a practiced tightrope-walker, always struggling for balance between over-spending and under-delivering. She loves Christmas, just not the financial stress of the holidays. She finds the simple gifts of life in books, gardens, and conversations with friends and family over leisurely, home-cooked meals.