My sister was talking with a Korean exchange student in her class last week about holiday plans and he noted, “Christmas here is very… how do you say it? … from a store.” Well, damn. Talk about the harsh glow of an outsider’s perspective interfering with our twinkling icicle lights. He went on to say that his Christmas tradition is to stay up all night on Christmas Eve and then climb a mountain to watch the Christmas sunrise (one-upper).
When she told me about this exchange, I first felt a panicked wave of cultural embarrassment and shame. He’s right! I thought, suddenly questioning my every Christmas tradition. What IS the reason for the season? Then I went on the defensive. Well, who’s this guy and what the hell does HE know about Christmas? I decided nothing. He knows nothing. But he celebrates Christmas on top of a mountain! Then I felt jealous, noted said jealousy, and then circled back to embarrassment. But none of this lasted very long because then we started hanging shiny orbs on an artificial fir tree and talking about presents!
That moment made me pause, though, and think about the culture of gift giving in America during the holidays and the places it holds, both good and bad. The National Retail Foundation estimates Americans’ holiday spending will hit $469.1 billion this year. I can’t even comprehend that much money. How many suitcases would it fill? How many elf workshops? Other than a nice boost in holiday jobs and some healthy cash flow in the economy, how can we possibly justify something so extravagant? But the lingering question was what prompts this madness -- what gift giving gives to us.
A lot of things, in my opinion. Things that aren’t from a store. And hilarious videos of kids opening presents is just one of them. With every neatly wrapped or unwrapped present you hand out, you’re also giving a palpable chunk of love or friendship. Hence, the fear of giving the “wrong” present, a fear that settles in around late November and casts cold flurries of doubt until the bows are pulled and the faces read. The unwanted gift is, at least to the giver, an act of holiday abhorrence falling just short of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” artificially flavored eggnog products, and original Lifetime holiday movies. No gift says, ‘Whoops, I forgot about you.’ The wrong gift says ‘I never even knew you.’
This exists in harsh comparison to what we imagine giving the perfect gift would mean, if we only knew what it was. Giving someone you love the perfect gift says ‘I know everything about you. That time you talked about drill bits and I wasn’t remotely interested? I listened.’ It says, when I saw this thing I thought of you first. Or even, getting this thing for you is worth it just to see you smile for a second and know I put it there.
Sometimes we just miss the mark. I remember all too saliently the year I got my Dad a DVD of Pink Floyd’s The Wall for Christmas. It seemed like a great idea for a classic rock fan! Nailed it! But somehow the immediate thoughts of children in meat-grinders and neo-Nazism just didn’t translate into holiday cheer.
But then there are moments when gift giving can very convincingly create magic, magic that exists even outside the realm of reindeer and elf lore. I’ll never forget the time when my sisters and I had opened up all our presents one Christmas morning when we noticed an unmarked package against the wall. It was thin and rectangular, austerely wrapped in plain brown paper. The presentation matched exactly what we knew it to be: Jumanji, the jungle in a board game, left just as Peter and Judy found it. Jumanji was our favorite book at the time, and for weeks I was convinced rhinos would come crashing through the cupboards, that I might wake up to a monsoon, or worse, a lion in my room!
This collection of Christmas home movies carries that same kind of magic. The moments are so ordinary. There’s no flashy Christmas lights or fancy camera work, just a lot of sleepy parents and hyped up kids. And yet, you can see behind the scenes, see the work families poured into each other, the reciprocal joy, and an excitement that is just as enchanting as and much more real than as any flying sleigh.
Watching the Christmas morning home videos makes it easy to see how we can carry ourselves away with gift giving during the holidays. People ask what a fat man in a red suit actually has to do with Christmas, but in our own super weird way, it’s a recreation of the story of the actual birthday boy. It’s the story of a man who works all year to shower us mere mortals with gifts. It assures us that someone in the world is keeping track of the good and the bad, and that there will be consequences for each. It’s a story of hope in ourselves, that we might deserve such gifts or at the very least, strive to.
Giving gifts is an expression of hope that we might lead less selfish lives. It’s a gesture toward creating new memories, an act of selflessness, and a reminder that we don’t always need fairytales to experience magic. Sometimes magic is a sleep-deprived parent curled up in old pajamas with a strong cup of coffee, watching a child who believes in another kind of magic run around screaming. They know that the child is smiling, that they made it so, even if just for a second.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.