Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Importance of Giving Presents

A few weeks ago, at the end of my post Christmas Shopping…Already, I said that I’d be back at some point to talk about why I think that kids need to give “real” presents to people, and not “just” something like a flock of ducks in their name from The Heifer Project.

This is that point.

First of all, let me say that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with donating money to organizations like The Heifer Project, The Salvation Army, ELCA Good Gifts, or a number of other non-profit organizations that either strive to make life better for those who are less fortunate than us or help the planet. And there’s definitely nothing wrong with donating money to an organization that you know your friend or family member is an ardent supporter of.

And you can’t beat the fact that you get a nice tax deduction for buying someone a Christmas present.

I’ll also say that as a former teacher who got way too many “Best Teacher” mugs and ornaments, and all manner of other tchotchkes that very quickly got underfoot, I was thrilled beyond belief when one of my students made a donation to a charitable organization in my name instead (although the iTunes and Amazon gift cards I got from some other kids were good too). But people like teachers, who aren’t a part of your circle of close friends and family members, are a different story.

In an age when many people are starting to push back against the commercialism of the Christmas season that’s been going on for at least 100 years by suggesting giving to a charitable organization in the name of a friend or family member, I want to suggest that while this may be a wonderful idea for adults to do, it’s not such a great idea for kids.

Why not? Because it allows them to be lazy, and not take the time to actually think about the other people in their lives. Really…why take the time to actually think about what Grandma Thompson likes when you can just donate another flock of ducks, or mosquito netting for an African village, in her name? Giving an actual tangible present isn’t necessarily about feeding into the consumerist frenzy that happens at this time of year…it’s also about showing that you’re taking the time to think about the people in your life, what they like, what they enjoy doing, and what they might enjoy having.

This doesn’t even have to require any great feats of mind-reading (which almost always turn out disastrous). It does, however, involve paying attention throughout the course of the year, and noticing what other people like…or asking around to find out and get some ideas. It also doesn’t have to involve spending great sums of money and feeding “the Christmas Machine”; there are many inexpensive homemade gifts that can be given. The trick here is to make sure that it doesn’t become just another tchotchke that gets underfoot, and can’t ever be thrown away for sentimental reasons.

And while it may seem lazy, a specialized gift card…like to a favorite store, online vendor, or restaurant does show that someone did their research. So that Barnes & Noble card for the avid reader is actually a wonderful idea.

Now having said all this, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving to the cause for its own sake…as a present to the cause. In fact, in our family, donating to a cause is on everyone’s Christmas list…along with the presents to everyone else. But unless a particular family member or friend has specifically said that they don’t need or want anything, and would prefer that you make a donation to a specific charitable organization, I still think that children need to learn how to give actual gifts…

As an exercise in learning to think outside of themselves.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cups...or Just Shut Up Already and Stop Embarrassing the Rest of Us

’Tis the season, and today I want to talk about cups…

I bought my ticket for the long way round
Two bottles of whiskey for the way
And I sure would like some sweet company
And I’m leaving tomorrow, what d'you say

Well, actually, no…not that Cups, not the song. I’m talking about coffee cups…like the ones at Starbucks. Apparently some Christians, and the key word here is some, are upset about this year’s holiday season cups from Starbucks. Why?

Because they’re red.

Just red.

Not even any snowflakes or anything else wintry on them. Just plain red.

And some Christians are seeing red over these cups.

And…this is where my rant begins…or perhaps continues. I began talking about the hijacking of the term “Christian” by certain types of Christians in last year’s post How to be a Christian, and it looks like I’m gonna have to come back to it with two main things to say.

First, to those whiny Christians who complain about a “war against Christmas” or a “war on Christianity” every 30 seconds…


Really. I’m tired of it, and the majority of us Christians who have a clue or two are tired of it too. We’re tired of you trivializing the idea of persecution just because you’re not top dog anymore and don’t get to call the shots for everyone else. We’re tired of you confusing nostalgia with persecution. Because that’s what it is. It’s not about the religious aspects of Christmas at all, it’s about nostalgia for the Christmases of your childhood, and your resentment of the fact that things have changed. But truth be told, the Christmases of your childhood were different from those of your grandparents’ childhoods. To find out more, check out The War on Christmas: Did Lincoln Start It?.

And I want you to shut up because you’re embarrassing the rest of us, and making it hard to admit to being a Christian. On the one hand, because you’ve co-opted the general name that’s supposed to apply to all of us in all of our denominations, I worry that telling someone that I’m a Christian will having them automatically associating me with the Westboro “Baptist” Church instead of the many Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Methodists I’ve known over the years. People who quietly go about trying to make life better for others without drawing attention to themselves. On the other hand, it’s really funny when someone finds out that I am a Christian (although I tend to prefer describing myself as a Lutheran, in order to distinguish myself from all the nutballs), because their reaction is generally one of shock: “What! You’re a Christian? But you can’t be…you’re not a small-minded, judgmental, jerk!”

Second, to the media…


Really. I understand that every group has its share of loudmouthed wing nuts, and they are amusing from time to time; but it seems to me that you’re giving too much attention to ours. It seems that you’re paying more attention to the stupid things they say and do, and not paying attention at all to any of the good things the rest of us are doing. Rather than talk about what Lutherans are doing to help eradicate malaria in Africa, you give publicity to an obscure county clerk in an obscure county in an obscure state. That girl got publicity that money couldn’t buy.

Which of course, was also great for Starbucks. How much free publicity did they get out of some misguided Christians getting all in a snit about their new cups? Don’t these people ever learn that when they go off like this, they’re actually helping the organization that they’re angry at.

Finally, to my fellow Christians, who aren’t dipsticks, I think that we really need to get together to do something about how our “brand” is perceived by the general public so that we can take it back from those who’ve hijacked it from us. We need to be louder, and yet gentler, voices that say that “those people” don’t speak for the majority of us.

Let’s get together and talk about this.

Meet you at Starbucks!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Christmas Shopping...Already

Well, I was gonna wait on this. There were really other things I need to write about after an absence of a few weeks while life caught up with me. But November is here, and I’ve already seen a flurry of Facebook posts about Christmas shopping, so why not just do it now.

And don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against starting to think about Christmas shopping right after Halloween. November 1st is when the credit union moves the money from my Holiday Club account over to my Spending Money account, so it’s sort of like they’re saying “Gentlemen, start your engines!” Forget Black Friday, November 1st is the beginning of the season for me.

So let’s start with thinking about Black Friday…before it gets here. I really have no memories of shopping on Black Friday when I was a kid…or even when I was in college. Black Friday shopping was something I embraced after I got married. I mean, first of all, I had the day off, so why not do it. Second of all, for me, Black Friday in Syracuse was like a regular Wednesday back in Jersey, where I come from. So I was like “Crowds? What crowds?” I liked the idea of getting most of my shopping done in one day and then having the rest of the next four weeks to just pick up a little thing here or there.

But in the last few years, we seem to have gone overboard with it. I thought that queuing up with the people waiting in line at Target at 4am was fun…I had my iPod with me, so I could listen to an audiobook while I waited in my soccer chair, wrapped up in a thermal sleeping bag. But now…pushing it back to midnight, or even Thanksgiving evening just seems ridiculous. Can we give the people who work retail a little time to spend with their own families?

So when I heard that Costco and Nordstrom, two stores at opposite ends of the spectrum, were going to be closed on Thanksgiving, I applauded.

And then outdoor apparel and sporting goods retailer REI upped the ante by saying that they’d be closed on Black Friday…under the hashtag #OptOutside…so that people could actually use the equipment they sell.

Well heck! I had specifically taken off Black Friday this year so I could do my shopping. But based on REI’s decision, I decided to take one for the team, and stay home. I’m not so sure about going outside though…it’ll likely be a little cold for that. On the other hand, the nice climate-controlled mall is an excellent place to take a nice long walk…if you can get a parking space.

Then there were the Facebook posts about the Advent Conspiracy, the 4 Gift Christmas Challenge, and IKEA’s The Other Letter, which were supposed to make you rethink your gift-giving habits (by the way...the IKEA ad didn't mention their products even once). I sort of liked The 4 Gift Christmas Challenge, but I thought that we already had a simpler and more flexible system in place in our family, which I’d like to share with you.

I’ve already mentioned the movement of money from the Holiday Club account into Spending Money. We have a certain amount of money from each paycheck automatically go there, and that’s the amount of money we’ll spend on everything Christmas-related…except for travel. We put that money onto a bunch of Visa or Amex Gift Cards, and use those for shopping. That way we never accidentally dip into regular money, and stick to the Christmas budget (except for food gifts, which sneak in under the radar when we go grocery shopping).

Then, when we shop, there’s a limit of how much money we’ll spend on each person. Currently that limit is $150 for immediate family members, $75 for each of our parents, about $30 for certain friends, and $100 for the Salvation Army tree. We negotiated cutting out our siblings and their kids a while back. Obviously, this means that no one’s getting a laptop for Christmas; and if you want an iPad, we’ll give you a $100 Apple Store gift card toward it, and put $50 of tangible stuff under the tree.

So while it may seem a little early in the season to be thinking about Christmas shopping, it’s not to early to be thinking about thinking about it. Black Friday is not the day to start thinking about change if change is what you want to do…now is the acceptable time.

So check out some of the links here, consider the system we use; and I’ll be back in a few weeks to explain why I think that children need to buy actual presents for people, and not just buy a flock of ducks in their name from The Heifer Project.