Finding joy in giving at Christmas
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer
When you head out to spend your $671.89 on Christmas presents (that's the U.S. average, according to the National Retail Federation), will you stop to think about where the gift-giving urge comes from?
Margaret Giles won't be worrying about it, because instead of exchanging presents, she and her family decided to share a nice dinner at a nice restaurant and ring up some quality time.
"Christmas is not about gift-giving, as far as I'm concerned," said the Waikiki woman, who is a Christian. "Being together is the main thing."
Perhaps taking a cue from the 12th-century abbot and poet Bernard of Clairvaux, who said: "Theirs is an endless road, a hopeless maze, who seek for goods before they seek for God," many people are frustrated by the takeover of the holidays as a commercial endeavor and opt to turn it into something different entirely.
There's the Take Back Your Time gang, a project of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy at Cornell University. They're urging people to say no to expensive shopping sprees and give gifts of time, instead.
"Massive spending during the holidays traps millions of Americans in a perpetual 'buy and work' cycle," says spokeswoman Gretchen Burger in a statement.
It's hard to say if the tide can be turned. As one national expert notes, although our ethnic mix grows increasingly diverse, other religions are not edging out Christmas commercialism so much as commercialism is taking over other faiths' holidays.
Robert Nehmad, a member of Temple Emanu-El's social action committee, remembers the Hanukkah of his childhood.
"I don't remember gifts," said the father of a 12-year-old. "We certainly didn't celebrate the way we do now. ... Yes, I may have gotten some coins or monetary gifts, but nothing like what kids get today."
Nehmad, who works in sales, sees the impact of marketing as an outcome of how society moves: "Marketing is not all bad, but it is when it's done to an extreme."
In response, Temple Emanu-El has designated the first night of Hanukkah, Dec. 19, as "Mitzvah Mall." Sure, they'll still light the menorah and eat latkes, but this year offers an alternative.
Instead of giving a gift that night, people will be able to do a mitzvah, or good deed, by donating the amount they'd normally put toward a gift to a charitable organization, such as the Hawai'i Foodbank, the Institute for Human Services or Aloha United Way.
Eid al-Fitr, the festival Muslims celebrate at the end of their one-month Ramadan fast, this year saw for the first time its own Hallmark card. But you couldn't find one in Honolulu the week before Eid al-Fitr, which was Nov. 25. It had sold out, according the folks at Amy's Hallmark in Ala Moana Center.
But Hakim Ouansafi remembers back when the highlight of Eid used to be seeing his uncles and family members and wearing his new clothes. Times have changed, and the commercialization these days has even sent its tendrils towards his faith.
"Gifts are encouraged, but some people take it to the extreme," said Ouansafi, president of the Muslim Association of Hawaii. "... Every year it gets worse and worse. Unfortunately, it divides people into two camps, those who can afford it and those who cannot. That goes against" Islamic beliefs.
Instead, he and his family focused on the holiness of the day, opting for a "balanced perspective."
In Hawai'i, the plantation era helped create the Islands' gift-giving culture, with Christmas as the time to say "thank you" as much as happy holidays, no matter what your religion. That's why Buddhists will put up a Christmas tree, even at their own temple.
Beer for the trash collectors, the homemade cookies for the postal carriers and the tips for the gardener are traditions that seem here to stay.
Leigh Eric Schmidt, professor of religion at Princeton University and author of "Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays," says the commercialization of religious holidays goes back to the 1800s, when American holiday bazaars combined the holy and the profane.
"There are ancient customs of gift-giving, but the more immediate American patterns of gift giving started in the 1830s-'50s," explained Schmidt. "Christmas, New Year's, Valentine's Day, then Easter comes along, later in the century. And weddings became a gift-giving event. It was a Victorian gift culture."
Various influences feed into it, Schmidt said.
"You have the rise of this consumer culture," he said, noting that department stores (or "palaces of consumption," as he calls them) ritualized consumption by timing it to holidays and events.
Add to that the gender and family influences back in the day, middle-class women ruled the roost, and holidays became big events in their calendar and the result is what he calls the "feminization of the holidays."
In his book, Schmidt tells the story of how holiday celebrations were nearly banished by Puritans and religious reformers in the colonies but went on to be romanticized and reinvented. Merchants and advertisers recast the holidays.
"There's the slow softening of Puritan traditions," Schmidt added, "the softening of Protestant resistance."
He wasn't surprised that commercialization is stretching to other holidays in America's diverse ethnic and religious culture.
"The market is something we all share," he said. "It take over these holidays. The market is our common denominator."
But not for Giles' family, who will come in for their visit from the Big Island. They're determined not to find old patterns of letting the market rule their holidays.
"It became a hassle. It wasn't fun, it was strain and stress," said matriarch Giles. "Now it's not."
Mary Kaye Ritz covers religion and ethics. Reach her at 525-8035 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Think navigating Ala Moana Center's parking lots is hard? Try navigating the treacherous waters of corporate gift-giving.
Some companies try to make it simple: When it comes to Christmas presents, just say no.
Hawaiian Electric Co.'s director of corporate communications Lynne Unemori said the utility recently sent out reminders that its workers don't accept gifts, "though we recognize giving gifts is part of Hawai'i's culture of aloha."
HECO's strict code of conduct "tries to avoid any potential conflicts of interests," Unemori said. "... We did provide a letter to employees who deal with vendors to gently remind them for the need to maintain those ethical standards, even during the holiday season."
If employees find themselves in the sticky situation of being given a gift that cannot be easily returned, they'll give it to charity, she said.
Definitely no cash, gift certificates, gift cards or discounts not available to the public, Unemori said, adding: "We do allow folks to receive food and promotional items of nominal value. The key is moderation."
At First Hawaiian Bank, the gift policy also requires that staffers refuse gifts and hospitality that "that create a strong feeling of influence or obligation between you and a customer, prospective customer or vendor"; gifts that are made "in return for confidential information or for any business or service of the company"; or gifts made "in connection with business ... either before or after a transaction is discussed or consummated."
So what's "reasonable"? Do you turn down the plate of cookies from the tutu who likes a particular service worker, risking hurt feelings?
First Hawaiian offers several examples of what is considered acceptable, including promotional material "of reasonable value such as pens, pencils, note pads, key chains, calendars and similar items." The cookies would, by this standard, be OK.