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The gift you don't get might be the best

December 22, 2008

At the church Christmas banquet last week, Pastor Helen asked the kids to recall their favorite Christmas gift.

For me this was easy; I remember it clear as day, even though I was but 12. My well-off relatives had motored down from New York state for Thanksgiving, and to save shipping charges, they brought the Christmas presents with them. My cousin Steve opened the trunk and showed me an amazingly large gift, a 2-by-4-foot rectangle covered in about three acres of colorful paper. When he flipped up the tag to reveal "To Tim" I about passed out. I was not used to such massive gifts.

I have since learned otherwise, but at that young age I equated big gift with good gift. The worth of a present was in direct proportion to its size. (There is no use trying to impress the good things/small packages paradigm on a child.) So, sight unseen, this had to be the best gift ever.

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The agony was that it sat in the house for nearly a full month as the days from Thanksgiving dragged by with the speed of chilled molasses. No lie, I would sit up with this present, resting my arm on it as if it were a sick puppy.

On Christmas morning, I tore into the package to find -- a volleyball set.

I was cautiously thrilled. I loved volleyball, or assumed that I did, yet there was some nagging doubt. Looking back, I now realize that this doubt was created by the fact that I was the only child in my home and the nearest neighbor child was probably five miles away. You get the photo.

I tried to make a go of it. I put up the net, hit the ball over, then, when it rolled to a stop on the other side, retrieved it and hit it back. That was fun for about three seconds. It was also a bit pathetic.

So the math worked out like this: I had logged 30 glorious days of anticipatory theory, and one day of disheartening reality. Yet that gift remains my favorite, not because of supplied hours of fun, but because it supplied years of lessons.

Forevermore, I was suspicious of large packages. I tabled the expensive new volleyball set, and went back to playing badminton with my mom, racking up days and days of fun using a ragged net, ancient rackets and a beaten-up shuttlecock that together wouldn't have fetched a buck at a yard sale. Lesson: It's the person you are with, not the value of the product that generates the laughs and good times.

Much hand-wringing is occurring this holiday season over the "plight of the consumer" and the fact that many people are going to have to cut back on the gift giving courtesy of the financial unpleasantness.

Psychiatrists, among others, are reporting a strong uptick in "rash behaviors exhibited by more Americans as a recession undermines a lifestyle built on spending." These behaviors include theft, depression, drug use and anxiety.

That's pretty scary if we define ourselves by the type of cell phone we use, or by a two-inch label on the interior of our clothing. (I am being somewhat self-serving here; this is the holier-than-thou rationale I use for showing up at the grocery store in sweat pants.)

And indeed, our products are fine to the point that they are sources of long-lasting or long-remembered pleasure, be it a fine-handling automobile or an excellent glass of wine. But if the thrill goes out of the purchase shortly after it is made and leads only to the longing for another purchase, something is amiss.

The Pope has picked up on this, pointing out the paradox that this can be the best Christmas ever, simply because we have less to give. If we rely less on consumer goods and more on spirit, I dare say we will remember this holiday long after we have forgotten other, more lucrative ones.

As we listen to all the financial doom and gloom on the nightly news, it might be of small comfort to realize that what is good for the economy is not necessarily good for our souls.

At another Christmas at a tender age, and fueled by nonstop advertisements, I longed for a Big Wheel by Marx. Prudently noting that the trike was designed for smooth pavement and that we didn't have any, my parents did not get me one.

I had ached for a Big Wheel for weeks. When I didn't get it, a funny thing happened. The ache and misery and longing immediately went away. I moved on, happy as ever. That was a good lesson too.

The best present I never received made me far happier and wiser than the best present that I did receive. So may your Christmas be joyful -- and may you not feel the need for anything more.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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