Haunted by the gifts of Christmas past

December 22, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - We now arrive at that annual moment of holiday panic. The seconds are ticking on the last-minute catalogs. You are actually considering paying $15.48 to overnight an $11 paperback.

Well, usually when Christmas angst comes around, I say, "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts. Or at least Massachusetts Bay Colony."

The same commonwealth that may soon permit gay marriages once banned a Merry Christmas. In the 1640s, mince pies and plum puddings were forbidden. In 1659, the Puritans ruled that celebrating Christmas was a criminal offense. The big moment was in 1711, when our guy Cotton Mather gave his congregation a lecture against "mad mirth," "long-eating," hard-drinking and rude reveling "fit for not but a Saturn or Bacchus."

But in the spirit of postmodern historians, I now wonder whether Mather's Christmas dyspepsia was brought on by an electric shoe polisher that Ms. Mather gave him the previous Noel. Or perhaps a Chia Pet.

For much of American history, there's been a running debate over whether the X in Xmas was for "excess."

Long before the yogurt maker or the salad shooter was invented, Harriet Beecher Stowe began a short story by lamenting: "Oh dear, Xmas is coming in a fortnight and I've got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it's so tedious! Everybody has got everything that can be thought of."

In 1850, no one suspected that the person who had everything could be given a personalized action figure, talking toilet paper, or a Neiman Marcus $50,000 shadow garden.

Rural Americans of the 19th century gave each other homemade gifts. This didn't stop one wag from offering Christmas tips on how to tell a mitten from a sock. But things got harder. By the early 20th century, more people moved to the cities and began giving each other the sort of Christmas kitsch you can now find on Antiques Roadshow for $1,100 a gimcrack.

Soon, however, the Progressives, who wanted to reform everything in the early 20th century, decided to reform Christmas as well. When the actress Eleanor Belmont married into high and high-minded New York society she founded SPUG, the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.

In fairness, SPUG was aimed at conspicuous corruption more than conspicuous consumption. Back then, for example, Christmas temp workers were virtually required to give their managers a little something. But the SPUGists also wanted to reform the spirit of giving. They didn't want giving and giving back to be a rote exchange. And they were a touch snobbish about cheesy gifts.

But, after all, who cannot admire the foresight of the Progressives, who had never even been offered a piece of lunar real estate or a leg-massaging boot?

Every conversation about Christmas, virtual and virtuous, takes place against an image of the good old days when everyone was grateful for an orange. As historian Stephen Nissenbaum says, "There's a commonplace legend that Christmas used to be meaningful and authentic and is now meaningless and inauthentic. It's found in every generation. We keep feeling this way because we experienced Christmas as children."

So fast-forward to a very adult 2003. We have the recurrent refrains about commerce and Christmas. We have a designated Buy Nothing Day brought to you by Adbusters.

We've also made a final step from handmade to hands-off. We now have 81 million people buying presents untouched and online. Some of us are ruing the click-and-send Christmas while voting for it with our fingers.

But where is SPUG when you need it? Doesn't anyone want to revive a Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving? Or Useless Gifts? I can even suggest a mascot: the $99 "Bow-lingual" device being offered this season to help you translate a dog's barks into words and feelings.

Instead, the big gift debate is over the ethics of re-gifting. Re-gifting is either defended as a way of recycling or attacked as a cheap deception.

As for next year, there is software that will send the picture of a gift to someone who can decide whether to accept it or pass it on. And on. This presents the delicious image of the fruitcake passed through six degrees of separation back to the person who bought it.

Ah well, if we cannot revive SPUG, we can at least come up with a pair of Christmas mottoes that would please even our Reverend Mather: Give unto others what you'll probably get back. Sometimes it really is better to re-gift than to receive.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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