Every Christmas, after the initial flurry of present-opening, we’d toss all the paper into the biggest box we could find. Sometimes the cat would make a bed of it, and she seemed pretty comfortable. So when I’d walk down my back lane to learn what toys other kids got, I’d imagine gathering every family’s paper in one giant pile and jumping into it like raked-up leaves.
If the homes on our little street would have made a pile the size of a minivan, then the entire city’s paper would surely make a pile the size of a small office building. You could jump from a plane into it and be fine. Each city in Canada would contribute another building-sized pile, every year, until you had an entire city of crumpled gift wrap. The paper from the US would make it ten or twelve times larger. A decade’s worth would be unimaginable.
It occurs to me only now that the gifts that came in that paper would make an astronomically larger heap — an entire Death Star of toys and kitch, having come at a cost of about 5 trillion dollars.
Gradually I began to realize that while having new toys is a wonderful feeling, nothing was quite as wonderful as unwrapping them. The high topped out in the morning hours and wore off faster each year. By January, our family’s joy level was always about back to normal, maybe a little lower, and the decorations and ads that were still around by that time only made me sad it was over. The new stuff was still around, but it was no longer so new, and Christmas didn’t leave me with the net gain it seemed to promise. What we were really buying was the swell of awesome feelings that crested at about 9am on the 25th and then gently drained back to sea level.
The items we end up giving or getting at Christmas are usually entirely ephemeral. A typical American or Canadian has received thousands of dollars in Christmas gifts throughout his or her lifetime, and would be hard pressed to remember getting the vast majority of them, let alone tell you what those gifts are doing for them now. Ultimately they’re bought to stir up the magic and promise of Christmas, and they do, but often that’s all they do.
The bulk of consumers’ Christmas trillions is spent trying to buy an intangible thing we can call The Magic of Christmas. Some of this Magic certainly comes from outside the shopping aspect — the closeness of family, the warmth of sweaters and boozy board game sessions — but that’s the free part. The vast majority of the spending arises from chasing the ecstatic feeling of Christmas morning one felt as a child, even if you’re grown up now and only want it for your children.
The rest of the year we would call this feeling abundance. It’s not a feeling particular to Christmas, but for a lot of kids Christmas morning represents the abundance feeling at its peak concentration. The first days of Summer break gives a similar high, but it’s spread over a much longer period and so it’s never quite as dazzling. There is also a minor spike in the fall, the evening of Halloween. In each case the abundance feeling is glorious, but fades quickly.
I don’t want to dismiss the lasting meaning of this Magic, or these gift-opening experiences. Some of my best memories are of those glowing days surrounding my childhood Christmases. But the gift-receiving part was absolutely central to making those days glow for me, and I think this is true for almost every child. Experiences of abundance are intoxicating and unforgettable, and we seek them everywhere in life, but for many of us we never find them so dependably as we do at Christmas.
There are ways to create abundance that are far less costly than through traditional Christmas shopping though, and which keep it going much better. Only later in life would I start learning to get that abundant feeling from simple luxuries like walls, socks, food and visits with loved ones, and would it appear more evenly throughout the year. Read More