The gifts we give: Reflections on presents and presence

December 11, 2013 in North America, Travelogue, United States

Once upon a time, we had a real house: This was my living room, Christmas 2007... our last holiday at home before we hit the road full time.

Once upon a time, we had a real house: This was my living room, Christmas 2007… our last holiday at home before we hit the road full time.

This time last year we were in Borneo.

Orangutans, jungle walks and old head-hunter skulls for Christmas. We rented this house on stilts in Miri, on the border with Brunei, and we bought a Chinese dragon head ornament (meant for Chinese New Year, of course) as our ornament to keep; a long standing annual tradition.

There were no stockings to hang, so I sewed up the ends of some red and white arm warmers I found. We baked cookies. We skyped home. We made our own fun, as we always do.

This year, in central Indiana for the lead up to the holidays, Christmas seems extra merry. Candy canes, pretty lights and lots of trees are everywhere. There’s nothing nicer than baking with Grandma, watching snow fall on holiday lights, and decorating a family tree.

And then… I go shopping.

It turns me into grumpy elf. There are a few things we want to purchase, and so I go, but it turns me into grumpy elf. Did I mention that?

At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I’m so thankful to be surrounded by people who “get it” and are of the “collect memories, not things” mindset.

Don’t get me wrong, I love giving (and getting) a well chosen gift. I really love making things, especially. If I have ever knit you socks, then you know that I love you. I have this weirdo habit of very intentionally winding my heart for you and all of the love and wishes I harbor for your peace, joy and well being into something I make for you. It’s what I sit and think about as the threads twist their way, magically, into something beautiful and useful.

I love getting a gift that I know contains a piece of the giver’s heart. My friend Lois once sent me a hand knit hat when we were wintering in Africa… it was perfect. I have a silver teardrop on a cord around my neck that was hand wrought, as a reminder, by one of the people who’s loved me best and longest. I carry a booklet of haikus in my bag that were all written by The Man just for me one Christmas. Last year he gave me poetry and art, handcrafted just for me.

Grandma has been keeping her surprise for weeks and she kept it up until the very end. We dressed up and made it all the way to the venue before we realized what the gift was: a dinner theater production of A Christmas Carol. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Tony reads it aloud every year, with voices, and to see a live play was fantastic! Scrooge was humbug-tastic, Tiny Tim was pathetically perfect. The ghost of Marly was terrifying. The children have been talking about it non-stop ever since. It was the best gift they could have given us, and heaps better than anything they could have tucked under the tree.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti presents. I’m just very pro-presence.

If there is one thing our travels have taught us about keeping Christmas it’s that the gifts don’t matter and the people always do. 

The winter we spent in Africa we gave camels for Christmas and it was special because Grammy and Gramps were there with us.

The winter we were in Guatemala we went all out giving half a dozen backpackers a home for the holidays… every single one is still a good friend. I sewed a ridiculous number of stockings out of an old huipile that winter. The cherry on top? Having Grandma and Grandpa’s Great there with us; their first international holiday!

We’ve done without trees, cookies, lights, stockings, big gifts, trees to trim, snow on the ground, or minty candy canes. We miss those things, but we’ve learned that they don’t really matter.

What matters are the people.

Our people. Other people. Strange people. Lonely people. Wandering people. Each other. The gifts, the trees, the food, the fun, all of the lovely trimmings: those are tools to bless the people, to deepen the relationships, to craft the memories, to deliver the thing that really matters: love.

So let me ask you: is the “stuff” supporting what really matters most: the relationships? Or is it taking over to the point where the people are getting lost in the shuffle?

As I sit to write this, Grandpa has two boys at his studio, painting. Grandma and Hannah are baking up a sweet storm. Gabe is turning himself blue trying to stretch his digiridoo breaths out to a full thirty seconds. Tony is squeezing in a few hours work. We’re looking forward to an evening with people we haven’t seen in almost two years and meeting some new friends who’ve come all the way from South Africa to Indiana to meet us. Now THAT is my kind of gift!

I don’t know what your holiday looks like. I hope with my whole heart that you’re enjoying it as much as we are. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder, and having spent so many Christmases away gives us a deep appreciation for the little things on the years we’re here to celebrate. I’m deeply grateful for the support of the older generations of our family in building a legacy of relationships and memories over stuff and things for our children. It’s the best Christmas gift they could ever give.