As you begin to reflect on the passing of another Christmas, try to recall all the gifts you’ve received during your lifetime. Which ones do you still cherish? Is it the sentimental value or could it have been the element of surprise that makes them so memorable? In any case, I’ll bet it’s not the merchandise itself because the best gifts in life can’t be bought at a store.
That was the message about 140 people heard from seven personal stories told during December’s Mudrooms event. The theme was “Gifts”, obviously in relation to the holiday season, but not one of the storytellers reminisced about a present opened on Christmas day.
Mark Ridgway found the quintessential meaning of gift from an accident that happened more than twenty years ago. He was towing a small sailboat through Canada when the trailer suddenly broke off on a sweeping curve not far from Prince Rupert. The boat flew off the trailer and came to rest in a muskeg alongside the road. Before he ever made a call for help, a Royal Canadian police officer stopped, surveyed the scene and began directing people passing by to stop and help lift the undamaged boat back up to the highway.
Ridgway closed his story by saying it was his “favorite kind of gift … a stranger shows up and just helps you out and they don’t expect anything in return.” And he added that ever since he’s never passed a person stuck on the side of a road without stopping to offer help.
Now Mudrooms isn’t a scripted event. No one was directed to find a story about something besides store bought gifts. The theme was wide open to interpretation by each individual but none of them chose to share a memory about something they found under the tree on Christmas morning.
Sure, it’s not a scientific finding I’m presenting. I’m merely making a point that matches my own sentimental values. But it’s also true that the idea of gifts isn’t locked up by the material world. They come in many forms. They’re often most appreciated when they’re the least expected and are given without an imposing obligation to give in return. And if we dissect this meaning further we might even decide that we’re really not giving at all when the gift has expectations attached on either side.
Sometimes Christmas gifts are free of expectations. But far too often the season itself forces upon us the obligation to give. The list begins with loved ones and close friends and often extends into the work place. It sets us up for an exhausting month of shopping. That is, unless you’re a Grinch like me and make the choice not to participate in the commercialization of the holiday.
Dr. Seuss’s tale “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is supposed to be about the true spirit of Christmas. It tells the story of the Grinch’s transformation from a lonely, bitter creature who hated the holiday festivities. He thinks he can put an end to the Christmas cheer by stealing all the gifts from the people in Whoville. Afterwards, when he hears the celebration going on anyway, he realizes that Christmas is about much more than presents. So he returns them all and is invited to share the holiday with the entire community.
The classic take is that, because it’s a children’s book, it’s a lesson for them that the meaning of Christmas isn’t to be found in the gifts they receive. But in the story the children are singing on Christmas morning even though they woke up to find no presents under the tree. It seems they already understood. So maybe Seuss wrote the book for parents who feel that their children will be disappointed if they don’t buy them what they want for Christmas. Maybe it’s we adults who need to remember that the best we have to give can’t be found in a store.
For Christmas to be a celebration of the true meaning of giving it has to be practiced all year long. And if it’s gifts from strangers that are the most free of expectations, then like Mark Ridgway learned, we too must be able to give to strangers without expecting anything in return.
• Moniak is on the Story Board of Mudrooms, which is a live story telling event that occurs once a month in Juneau. All proceeds from Mudrooms go to charity.