Friday, December 29, 2006

Christmas and Birthdays: Welfare for the Rest of Us

I remember it very well. On Christmas morning when I was about 11, I opened the front door to my mother's house, looked at the assembled gifts underneath a modest tree, and asked, "That's all?" Little did I know that an abundance of toys had been replaced with a refinement of them. My older brothers made it clear that wasn't the right response, and I look back on it now with embarrassment. With that statement came the realization in hindsight that the dependent culture is no longer relegated to professional moochers. With every Christmas, birthday, anniversary, Valentine's Day, etc., it seems the impetus to be charitable has gone from being a "nice thought" to being a mandate. Is there any one of us who does not expect gifts to mark these occasions? Or more to the point, do not all of us feel compelled to buy more elaborate gifts every year? How have occasions for celebrations turned into such times of material expectation, and is there any way to curtail such expectation?

The real problem with expecting a bounty at every Christmas or birthday is that the joy of receiving such gifts inevitably dulls with time. I especially notice it in children who grow tired of new toys within a span of days, as their appetites for consumption grow more and more insatiable. The build-up for the next round of gifts decreases, as the getting of gifts is assumed. There isn't much wonder in what gifts will be given. With gift cards, there is even less creativity required of the giver. So holidays and birthdays become more and more akin to waiting in the welfare line: even though we haven't done much to earn these gifts, we expect them with all the self-righteous vigilance of a hard laborer awaiting his day's pay.

Memories of my early childhood (before I had become so spoiled) certainly include toys. But with mismatched G.I. Joe's, Transformers, and even homemade Dukes of Hazard cars, I could create situations and entire war zones that would entertain me for hours. I was still bored at times, so playing a sport outside would be another good alternative. Boredom, as it turns out, is a crucial impetus for creation. We never had cable or a gaming system (I had to wait until my twenties for a gaming system, and I still don't have cable), so I was forced to use my imagination. Like most boys, I appreciated war scenes the most. And when I was bored with that, I learned an instrument, went to a friend's house, or read.

Creators and inventors are people who are too bored with the way things are, and I would guess that they were compelled early on not to ice their creative spirit. With a delusion of material possessions, however, it has been relatively easy to create a generation of distracted children who require more and more distraction. It is true that a delusion of toys can still encourage creativity; for example, new Lego robots require builders to amass specialized parts and write code to operate them. But to really make something from scratch, or to really imagine something beyond what is in front of you requires patience and probably boredom. On the plus side, perhaps it will make the next generation of inventors that much more clever and ahead of the curve.

But isn't losing the need to create is the great tragedy of the welfare mentality? It discourages innovation and creativity because it simply doesn't require it. Why bother creating when you're paid to do nothing? I wish conservative politicians would keep speaking of the "soft bigotry of low expectations", because it very accurately describes the welfare state. But the same is true in the family. If children are constantly expected to create no real entertainment for themselves, that's another way of saying you don't believe they can. Worse, though, is the establishment of an attitude geared toward expectation, rather than appreciation. While many Christians complain that Christmas has become too secular, they are often equally guilty of basting their children in toys of distraction. With the marginalization of Christmas, I hope Christians will take the time to explain why we give gifts to begin with, as a response to the gift which was first given us.

Children aren't the only ones with this attitude of expectation; it's often no better with us as adults, unless we consciously train ourselves to resist such temptations. And our toys aren't cheap. A natural maturation will hopefully teach us to eschew material gain, as our concerns grow more selfless. But that spoiled child within us never leaves, and it is harder to quench an appetite than to never develop one. So why do we so restlessly convince our children that every minor celebration, or even major one requires gifts? From a theological point of view, gifts should be Gospel, not Law. They are something unearned, and hopefully appreciated. With every holiday season, though, I feel more and more as though they're law, a requirement devoid of much joy.

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