I always get a little thoughtful at Christmas. Even as a child, I was the only one in the family to put some effort into marking this event celebrating the birth of Christ. ‘Why,’ for instance, ‘do we exchange presents at Christmas?’ I would ponder. ‘And, why,’ again I would muse, ‘do the adults put so much thought – and not always in a positive way – when it came to offering those gifts?’ I think I learnt the hard way, really, when it came to my child’s world view of Christmas.
This reading of the lesson began for me probably when I was around seven years of age. My parents always took me and my two siblings on holiday to Malaysia at the end of the year. It was generally a jolly time, but one of the things we always had to remember to do was to buy Christmas presents for relatives back in Singapore. Perhaps I should mention that it was only the cousins who exchanged presents; or rather, the parents of us cousins who paid for those presents so that we might exchange them. As the extended families on both sides were large, this presented a goodly number of objects to buy. So, the first thing I learnt about gifting was budgetary in nature.
Now, my parents were probably the poorest members of their extended families. With 21 cousins for whom to purchase gifts, a budget needed to be set. Malaysia was a cheaper place to shop than Singapore in those days, and thus we travelled with space in our luggage which would ultimately be filled with knick knacks and small gifts for Christmas. Being the eldest in our family, I was probably the only gung-ho one to enjoy this buying spree. My parents let me take control, providing me with a specific maximum budget for each item. Each cousin would receive one gift, and that gift would then be wrapped by me, because I was the only one who could be bothered to do so at all! At only seven years of age, I truly felt very important indeed to be entrusted with these jobs.
Christmas came. And then, the bubble burst! My first aunty and uncle, well to do and proud of it, gifted us with used, marked, and scribbled-upon secondhand storybooks their older children had discarded, wrapped in no more than brown paper bags – three books, one each for my two siblings and me. It was quite obvious that they really hadn’t entered into the spirit of things. At seven years of age, I was positively fuming: indignant; hurt; and nursing that feeling of being cheated. ‘And to think I had gone to all that trouble to look for something nice for each cousin, and had made the effort to wrap the presents up prettily too! Of all the cheapskate penny-pinching nastiness that could be meted out to small children!’ I remember telling Mum that it would have been better for Aunt and Uncle not to have given us anything at all. Now I was even angrier that they had considered us such dregs of society that they would send us their discards. It took me some years to forgive that particular aunt and uncle, but I have never forgotten the humiliation they meted out to us kids.
Now, of course, I am grown and much longer in the tooth. I think instead of the significance of gift-giving and what it represents instead. But more about this in another post.