Spoiler alert: I am going to briefly talk about character information from The Haunting of Hill House Netflix show and The Winter of the Witch, both of which are fantastic and highly recommended for viewing/reading. I’m not giving away endings, but if you don’t want to know some of the middle material, wait to read this.
I’m getting ready to write my annual letter to Santa, and in the process I’m thinking about what it means to want. I typically include several requests for the world and others who are on my mind as well as general requests for help with intangible goals.
I also generally include a smaller list of requests for material things, but in years past, I’ve felt strangely guilty for asking for material wants.
That guilt is one often reinforced in our culture in its strangely consumeristic yet anti-materialistic attitude toward Christmas. Few people abstain from actually giving gifts, especially to children. And the myth of Santa is built around this concept of a jolly old man who enjoys gift giving.
Yet when children behave like Nell in the Haunting of Hill House, writing to request gifts for other loved ones but not for themselves, they’re praised and held up as virtuous—LOOK HOW SELFLESS AND ALTRUISTIC!!!
I didn’t think to question that mindset until I was reading the advanced reader’s copy of The Winter of the Witch* by Katherine Arden. At one point in the book, Vasya is negotiating with some men about whether she will gather the chyerti (Russian folk creatures) to help them. In the process, Morozko (I can’t sufficiently explain who he is unless you’ve read the series, so read the series!) is expressing concern about whether her own desire for recognition, fame, power, and victory is clouding her, making her susceptible to being manipulated by a specific chyerti who enjoys twisting people to his nefarious ends.
She bares with Morozko’s questioning for a time, but finally snaps, “I’m allowed to want things.”
It wasn’t one of those passages that stood out right away, but it came back to my mind when I started to think about my letter to Santa. I suddenly realized that at some point I had adopted the subtle cultural message that wanting—asking—at Christmas was secretly a sign of deficient character. If I were genuinely a Good PersonTM, I would only want the types of things sung about in “My Grown Up Christmas List.”
It’s not that I don’t want to want those things. I do want them.
But at some point our culture made it seem like they were the only worthy things to want.
But the truth is, like Vasya, I’m allowed to want. Wanting is natural. Wanting something special for myself doesn’t decrease my ability to want good things for others.
I also learned from Vasya that wanting is most likely to cloud my judgment and unconsciously manipulate when I’m unaware of the presence and influence of my own desires. There is a point at which one can pursue one’s own desires to the detriment of others, but that isn’t at the point of simply wanting. Rather it’s when a want is so strong that we’re blinded or willing to hurt others to get it.
Being able to name wants, put them out there, recognize that they’re present—that actually increases the ability to see the role they play and pick the best approach to dealing with their influence and presence.
In The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer talks about the important difference between asking and demanding. For her, asking requires the ability to accept a “no.” When “no” isn’t an acceptable response, it’s a demand, no matter how it’s phrased.
I think that difference is key in being able to destigmatize the concept of requesting our desires, whether in a romantic relationship or in an interaction with a stranger. We’ve all experienced the discomfort of a request that is actually a demand (think Dudley on his birthday, pissed off because he only got 17 presents this year). Demands are distasteful when we’re on the receiving end of them because we feel them clawing at our autonomy.
But I also believe that the inability to accept disappointment is most often what drives someone to turn their requests into demands, whether at Christmas or not.
I know that many struggle with the feeling of obligation at Christmas—spending money, giving gifts because it’s expected–so it makes sense why utter selflessness would come to be viewed as a virtue. It’s almost like a permission to hate the obligation we’re feeling towards others. But I’m afraid that in the process it’s teaching people that to want is a sin. It’s not actually teaching people to handle their desires or disappointments better, just teaching them to be ashamed of having them.
How many of us have found ourselves saying, “Oh I don’t want anything” when asked what we want for Christmas…even though we don’t really mean that answer? How many of us have worked hard to stifle disappointment that someone didn’t pick up on the clues we were dropping because we were afraid of seeming too forward if we specifically said, “I would really like to get something like this as a gift.”?
And to what extent does doing that actually help free us from a burden of obligation around gift-giving?
This year, I really want to reframe my mindset. I want to feel in my bones that it’s okay to want. Not only that, it’s okay to ask for what I want, as long as I recognize that I might not get what I ask for. I can want at the same time as being grateful for what I have. I can think about others while also thinking about myself. I can enjoy giving something special to someone else while also enjoying receiving what others give to me. I can balance pursuing my own desires with trying to make the world a better place. I can balance expressing love through a gift without making my attachment completely about material things. None of these are mutually exclusive.
They’re the very heart of the Christmas spirit.
*Please note: The final book hasn’t been officially published yet, so I’m referencing the ARC version. Most ARCs include a note expressing that quoted or referenced material needs to be checked against the final product since editing can still happen before publication. So please read the published version when it comes out. I will be rereading it myself.