TWO YEARS AGO at Christmas, she tried last-minute shopping. She hated it.
Last year, she tried first-minute shopping. She had headaches for days. Whatever the year, she tramped through the stores in a forced march of joylessness, depressed by the thought everyone has in mid-December - that Christmas has been commercialized into a pagan feast - but also aching with the private pain that she is too cowardly to shout out No to all of the forced philanthropy.
This Christmas, this model Gift Giver would have gone through it again, whether shopping in spurts or shopping in sprees, except the other day a line from Socrates collided head-on with her soul: "I like to go into the marketplace to see all the things I can live without." Starkly and suddenly, she made an audit of her emotions and saw that nothing added up: fighting the mobs, the clerks and the traffic. Everything she bought for her family and friends were items they could well live without. She would have to give other presents, even if it meant no gloves, no LP records, no houseplants, no art books, no nothing.
I'm in revolt against Christmas commercialism, she tells herself and then thinks of Socrates, the Greek who never bore gifts and history's most resolute non-shopper. But because she cares deeply about a few people in her life, and thinks fondly of many more, she has announced that this will be the year of the alternative Christmas: She is giving the most precious gift of all, her time. With her calculator (a Christmas gift last year that she has used only twice), she figured there are 8,660 hours in a year. Why not wrap up a few of those hours, tie them with ribbons of affection and offer them as gifts?
To one friend - in the torture of writing a first novel, while her lawyer-husband seeks his first million - she has promised to take the kids for four Saturday afternoons in January. To another, her gift is to go for groceries five times; this is a neighborhood man recently divorced and still shell-shocked by the prospect of cooking for himself, much less trundling through the aisles his potatoes and cooking oil.
To her parents, she is giving six long-distance phone calls (20 minutes each) and a promise to answer all her mother's questions about her diet, complexion and churchgoing. For her godchild, age 4, she is setting aside 20 hours in April to plant a garden, with any seeds her young friend chooses. To one of her former teachers, who is now blind and living in a nursing home, she is giving another 20 hours: to visit him for talking, and reading his favorite books.
Many on the list won't be told they are receiving the gift of time. They'll just get it, unannounced. These are the open-ended gifts, for friends ranging from those who suffer loneliness and have no one to listen to them, to those who have made the rounds among the psychiatrists but whose mental health would be just fine if only a few more people would stop rejecting their behavior as crazy when really it is only different.
I DON'T KNOW how this generosity - 20 hours to this person, 15 hours to that one - will be received. Many of us aren't accustomed to having good will disbursed at any time except Christmas.
Another problem exists. In the etiquette of gift-giving among high-livers, it is considered rude to give a present that someone might actually need. That smacks of charity, and who wants to be a charity case? To satisfy this group, an entire industry has been created around the idea of useless gifts. Whole aisles of department stores, what Chesterton called "the kingdom of thingdom," are lined with mink-trimmed bottle openers, joke ash trays with recorded announcements against smoking, toothpicks shaped like golf clubs (for the 19th hole), bath towels with His and Hers crossed out and replaced by Ours, drinking glasses painted with the faces of famous boozers or business cards saying only "my card." The uselessness of these gifts is covered over with sprightliness because they are clever, cute or both: I'm clever and chic to be giving them, you're clever and chic to laugh when you get them. What is exchanged is less a gift than a mask: This is the real us, two elites ever nimble, hip and with it.
My friend will try to get through this Christmas maskless. May Socrates protect her, not to mention the Prince of peace whose birth is celebrated. In her current job, she earns $10 an hour. That means her 20-hour gifts come to $200, a sum higher than even the mink-trimmed bottle opener she might otherwise have unloaded on her friend the first novelist. This promises to be an expensive Christmas, if time is money, as the canons of the work ethic insist; and perhaps by next year, she will be glad to get back to the department stores.
For now, though, she sees herself much less the Christmas materialist than she ever imagined possible. That is a gift itself - a new self-image. By next year, this gift to herself may even have deepened. The image will be gone, and she will be a new self, period. Then she will have an even more precious gift to give.