The Wise Man Speaks

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)
By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, December 18, 2005

Every year I begin the holiday season with a speech about What Really Matters. The children listen patiently. This year, I tell them, there won't be many presents. Each child should expect just one gift, something humble and practical, like a claw hammer or a sturdy wire brush for cleaning rust from metal.

Rather than shopping, and focusing on what we want for Christmas, we will spend the season doing good deeds for friends, the homeless, the infirm, the downtrodden and the wrongfully incarcerated on death row. Because what really matters in life is not possessions, but love and charity and extreme inner goodness. We must strive to be selfless, I say, or at least to be selfless-ish.

At this point in the speech I'll walk dramatically to the thermostat and turn it down to 53. Let us conserve energy, so that it can better be used by the poor, I'll say. We can wear coats around the house or simply huddle together. Shivering is the body's natural mechanism for generating warmth.

I tell the story of the baby born some 2,000 years ago in a manger. He had no advantages in life, nothing going for him at all, other than being divine. He didn't get many presents for Christmas, except weird stuff like frankincense and myrrh. His family had all these strangers dropping in, with the most bizarre gifts! His parents were thinking: Myrrh? What in tarnation is myrrh? Whatever it was, they suspected it had been purchased in bulk at a discount.

When I was a child, I tell my offspring, my brother and I often would receive just one present at Christmastime, typically an individual crayon. It wouldn't even be a full crayon, but merely a stub. Still, we'd be grateful and would pretend that "brown" was our favorite of the 64 Crayola colors. We would talk about how great this crayon would be if only we could afford paper.

We'd always venture into the woods in search of a Christmas tree. Mind you, the woods of north Florida were not filled with spruce and Douglas fir. The dominant tree species were scrub oak and slash pine. If we were lucky we'd find a sapling with just three or four feeble branches, which was ideal, because we didn't own any ornaments. If we couldn't find a pine or oak, we'd settle for a large weed. We'd decorate the Christmas weed with strands of popcorn, painted pine cones and various scraps of food from the dinner table. Visitors to the house would compliment us on our ingenious use of leftovers.

I tell the kids that, even in a childhood marked by despair and deprivation, I knew that no matter what happened, I still had my family, or at least the remnants of a family ripped apart by divorce and then glued back together in various odd arrangements through a series of ill-advised remarriages. It was good to know I had that solid foundation.

Do I lay it on a bit thick? Maybe. But the kids tend to nod off if I don't ratchet up the pathos to horrific levels. Sometimes I have to poke them and say, Wake up, I'm just now getting to the good part about eating dirt.

Which brings up the general concept of gluttony. Most Americans have become so soft, they don't even remember what it feels like to be disabled by hunger and thirst. We Americans are thoroughly manipulated by the forces of corporate consumerism. When do we finally take a stand and say, Enough is enough? Well, in January, is the obvious answer. When the credit card bill shows up.

Eventually I'll wrap up the speech with a final promise that this holiday season will be the most virtuous yet, however harsh and depressing.

This year I thought the speech really sledgehammered home my message. Then one of my daughters made an announcement.

"We want iPods."

The girls handed over their carefully drawn lists of all the gifts they expect to receive, along with the preferred brand names. This is also a family ritual during the holiday season. First, the speech. Next, the trip to the mall.

Observing the confident way they enter a store and take its measure, their remarkable consumer savvy and keen aesthetic vision, it occurs to me that shopping may be something for which my progeny have an actual knack. Indeed they may be prodigies. This could be a career path: professional shoppers, taste-makers, fashion scouts. They can become shopping mall athletes!

I am developing a new annual speech, along the lines of: Kids, the holiday season is your Super Bowl. Get ready to rumble!

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