Of all the rituals that mark this season, none is more misguided than the complaints about how crass and mercenary the holidays have become.
The laments begin early in November, when Santa starts showing up in TV commercials. They surge during the hyperactive shopping weekend that follows Thanksgiving. By the time Christmas (and Chanukah) are actually at hand, you'd have to be in a persistent vegetative state not to hear all the scolding about how the "reason for the season" has been lost amid the buy-one-get-one sales and the over-elaborate mall displays.
Even Pope Benedict joined the chorus this year. In the homily he delivered on Christmas Eve, he deplored "the superficial glitter" of the season, urging the faithful not to confuse the "commercial celebration" Christmas has become with its "true joy and true light."
I wouldn't presume to argue with the pope about the religious significance of Christmas, and I will readily acknowledge that the holiday shopping season can certainly be stressful, expensive, and more than a little materialistic. Nonetheless, as a measure of cultural and communal health, I can't help seeing this yearly impulse to shower friends and family with presents as one of our society's most endearing and heartening traits.
Ten days ago I took my 8-year-old son Micah to a local Dollar Tree Store, where he was eager to spend his savings -- 11 dollars and change, grubbily folded into a miniature wallet -- on Chanukah gifts for his family. We had done this together last year, and Micah had been besieging me to pick an evening when the two of us could make a return trip.
I found it a wonderful experience, no irony intended. Dollar Tree isn't exactly Tiffany & Co., and in any case Micah chooses gifts with all the sophistication and refinement you'd expect from a rambunctious third-grade boy who loves bugs and can never seem to keep his shirt tucked in. The presents he picked out for his mother included a desktop picture frame for her office, glow-in-the-dark necklaces ("Mama can wear them if she goes for a walk at night"), and two boxes of Milk Duds; for his teen-age brother he found an air horn, Lemonheads, and a container of "noise putty" that emits flatulent sounds when poked. A devotee of Martha Stewart Living the kid is not.