Dear Santa…Dismantling The Taboo of Desire

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. 

 

Navigating the Holidays without Commercialism

Thanksgiving is over, and the winter giving is in full swing. Everywhere you go you see lights and trees, mangers, Santa Clause, and of course, merchandise that stores are hoping you will buy as gifts for someone else.

Commercialism.

Do you feel like it’s ruining the Holidays?

Even with my adoration of Yule, I’m not blind. Commercialism is definitely there, attempting to drown the joy in ribbons and stocking stuffers.

However, it’s possible to give gifts without participating in commercialism. Below I list a handful of ways to “save Christmas” from the demonic Santa machine of Wall Street.

Robot Santa from Futurama! No thanks, I'll take the one from Miracle on 34th Street instead!

Robot Santa from Futurama! No thanks, I’ll take the one from Miracle on 34th Street instead!

Handmade Gifts:
There is very little that is more gratifying to give or more special to receive than handmade gifts. They take time and forethought, but they possess a special magic because you are putting a piece of yourself into the gift energetically.

You don’t have to be a master knitter or whittler in order to make gifts. If you have a hobby or craft that you enjoy, by all means put it to use; however, there are plenty of simple gifts to make that don’t require a ton experience beforehand.

Massage oil, bath salts, room spritzers, and dream pillows are all easy to make with some basic kitchen/household ingredients and a few drops of an essential oil. You’ve got an economical gift basket right there, and the quality of the items will blow that Wal-Mart gift pack out of the atmosphere.

From My Honeys Place. Doesn't this look so indulgent? Make sure to make enough for yourself because you won't want to give it all away.

From My Honeys Place. Doesn’t this look so indulgent? Make sure to make enough for yourself because you won’t want to give it all away.

Other handmade gift ideas include yummy edibles like truffles or cookies, potpourri or incense, candles, mosaic picture frames, fishing lures, calendars, ornaments, and . . . seriously anything that you can think to make yourself. Slap a ribbon on it, Merry Christmas!

Gifts based on need:
It’s kind of an old concept, but I think it’s a good one. Rather than packing the tree with shit that will be played with and appreciated for a month and then forgotten or given away, consider fulfilling someone’s needs. Groceries, gas, car bills, mortgage payments, student loan payments—who wouldn’t appreciate someone whipping out a credit card to take care of those for once?

Gifts based in need carry the special message that you think someone is worth investing in. When people are struggling, that act of faith and the financial boost can be far more meaningful than a bag full of clutter.

Of course, gifts based on need can also be expensive, but I never said a commercialism-free gift would be cheap. If you’ve got a nice cushion right now, splurge a little and make someone else who is struggling have a wonderful holiday by taking on one of their burdens for a while.

Regifting:
I’m not talking about giving away that grotesque figurine that you got at a work party last year . . . okay, I am. Go ahead and give that away at the next work party.

However, if you’re looking for a more meaningful version of regifting, consider passing on more than just junk.

We’ve gotten so used to cheap crap that needs to be replaced every few years that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to have something that can be passed down from person to person. Heirlooms, jewelry, furniture, and collectibles have been time-tested regifts through generations. It’s a great way to pass on memories as well as items!

One of my friends recently suggested having a clothing exchange party, and I actually think that would be an awesome Christmas activity for a group of people interested in keeping the holidays simpler. It provides the togetherness that really makes winter giving special and allows those involved to get “new” things without spending money.

Clean out your closet and make someone else happy at the same time.

Fair Trade, Artisan, and Local:
I saved the retail option for last, but that doesn’t make it unimportant. In fact, to some extent, I think it’s more important than all the others. How does this fit in as a suggestion of how to avoid capitalism? When you buy a gift through a fair trade, local, or artisan dealer, your money isn’t lining the pocket of a CEO who is making money off of underpaid workers halfway across the world and whose employees have to take up donations to eat Thanksgiving dinner. You’re putting money into the hands of people who actually rely on that money to live. It’s not about making huge profits. It’s about livelihood.

Very few people will say that they don’t care about child or slave labor, but if you don’t take the time to make sure that you know where your money goes, you may be participating in it anyway. Society has a kind of selective blindness to the repercussions of our spending habits, and it’s hurting both our own economy as well as those across the globe.

I try to do all my gift-buying at locally owned or fair trade stores—or through direct craftspeople and artists. I like knowing that my winter giving contributes to the welfare of those who crafted and sold me the items.

The Phoenix Goddess (from Carioca Witch) that Kristen gave me a few years ago is one of my all-time favorite gifts; although it's hard to pick my favorites because she's such a good giver.

The Phoenix Goddess (created by Carioca Witch) that Kristen gave me a few years ago is one of my all-time favorite gifts; although it’s hard to pick my favorites because she’s such a good giver.

My friend Kristen over at Vaguely Bohemian compiled a great list of artisans that do gorgeous, unique work (see picture above)–along with valuable tips on how to pick just the right gift. Some other retailers to keep an eye out for include Hope for Women and Ten Thousand Villages. And I encourage you to check out local craft fairs that tend to pop up this time of year. Treasures are waiting to be found!

It might be hard to avoid the commercialism of the season, but with a little effort and thought, you can turn this gift-giving season into something special, both for you and your loved ones. I hope these suggestions have given you some good ideas. Feel free to share any tips that you have found to avoid commercialism in the comments below.

Dear Santa: Finding Hope and Magic in the Impossible

I’m heartsick over the events of December 14. And I almost wanted to nix this post because it seemed entirely too . . . I don’t know. But I’m keeping it because I really need my own words right now. My heart goes out to all those who are grieving. May you find comfort where you can, and if you find it here, I’ll be honored. Outside of this introduction, I’ve chosen not to edit my post to try to make it fit with the tragic events that happened since I wrote it. This post isn’t about guns or death. I can’t talk about that right now. Instead, it’s about hope. Somehow, I feel it fits while not really fitting at all.

I believe in Santa Claus. I write him a letter every year and leave cookies and milk out for him on Christmas Eve.

old_fashioned_santa

People usually think I’m joking if I say that, but I’m totally serious. There’s always the simple, slightly snarky answer that I do so out of spite because of the way that fundamentalism demonized the poor guy. And while that does indeed play a part, that’s not the main reason. I didn’t start believing or force myself to believe because I was pissed off. I really feel like I’ve believed in Santa my entire life.

No, I don’t think that a jolly old fat man physically flies around the world and pops down chimneys to give people presents.

But there is so much more to the world than just what is physically there, after all.

You rarely find people who try to argue that there is no such thing as time or North or mammals. There are those (me among them) that argue that those concepts are human constructs and not inherent in the universe, but even as abstract human creations that provide a structure and lens through which to view life, they are granted a form of existence, if only in our minds.

The same goes for Santa Claus.

He is the construct through which I view Christmas. It’s so much more than just a holiday. Christmas and Santa Claus are the season and the symbol of hope.

outdoor-christmas-tree-lg

Christmas is a light holiday. We decorate our homes with twinkling candles and set our neighborhoods glowing during the darkest time of the year. There is so much freaking symbolism in that, it’s amazing that we forget it so easily! To take a season that could easily be the most desolate season of the year and turn it into one of the most joyful speaks of the inspiring resilience of humanity.

Terry Pratchet brilliantly draws out how the winter solstice was very often about the return of the sun. In The Hogfather, when an assassin attempts to kill Discworld’s version of Santa, the characters learn that his existence is necessary for the sun to rise. It’s not that there would be no light without the Hogfather, but the ability to believe in things that “don’t exist” (things like the Hogfather or, more importantly, mercy and justice) is what makes that flaming ball peaking above the horizon a “sunrise.”

In other words, our ability to hope and imagine is what makes life worthwhile.

In that manner Santa Claus is also a symbol of wonder. There’s one scene in the Polar Express that embodies this concept so well. The three children are staring out the train window at the shops going by. One sees only the presents. The other sees only the mechanics of the spinning pieces. But the little girl—she sees the magic.

So much of life is based on perspective that simply shifting your point of view can almost turn your world upside down. Santa Claus is a reminder to shift my perspective to that of a child every once in a while and see the magic that fills the world around me.

I’ve heard some Pagans try to differentiate between “magic” and “magick.” But to me, it’s all the same. There is no magick without magic, and where there is magic there’s also magick. I see magic in nearly every aspect of Christmas, to the point that I sometimes feel like a fool with the exuberance that I approach Christmas.

Even the presents hold hope for me. We live in a nation that is obsessed with getting stuff. Going to the mall, even during Christmas, is enough to make me sick. But the presents aren’t just a product of an overly materialistic society. They hold magic as well.

Yes, I love getting gifts. I won’t deny that. But really it’s not about the gifts—I swear it’s not!

It’s about the hope of good things to come. So often, that hope requires that we suspend our disbelief in the impossibility of something in order to allow ourselves to wish for it—and then the absolute joy that comes when, almost magically, that something comes true.

For children, perhaps that is toys because toys are the things out of reach for them. For me, I find it’s not objects for which I ask Santa but dreams and goals—the things that are still out of my reach. And I don’t wake up to discover my dreams wrapped up under the Christmas tree, but I do plant the seed in my soul that maybe, just maybe, that dream is something I can attain.

Perhaps I seem naïve for seeking out such innocent wonder, enduring hope, and impossible dreams. I’m not naïve though. I’ve experienced far too many horrors to be naïve. But in a world that is torn apart by violence and hatred, I kind of think we could all do with a little more of a belief in the impossible things.

I know that a world of abuse and sorrow exists, but I also know that a world of beauty, love, and hope exists. Christmas reminds me that world is still there, no matter what the year may have brought. Santa Claus shows me how to embody that world within myself.

A Retail Worker’s Thank You

This is the time of year when customers can be at their best and at their worst. As anyone who’s ever worked retail has quickly learned, there are times when retail is torture; there are also times when retail can be amazingly fulfilling. Today, I want to take some time to express some of the things that I appreciate in customers as a retail worker.

  • Thank you for coming prepared with shopping lists or ideas. I really appreciate the customers that understand that I am not an on-demand psychic. Finding a gift takes mutual effort. When a customer comes in knowing what they are looking for, or at least a good idea beyond “I heard about it on the radio but don’t remember what it was exactly,” it makes it so much easier for me to help them. And the customers that are willing to interact, give feedback, and put in their own efforts to finding something are such a pleasure to work with. I’m thrilled when we finally arrive at the perfect item for them.
  • Thank you for treating me like a human being. Simple things like saying ‘hi,’ responding to my greetings, and acknowledging my presence and efforts can really make my day easier. With the hi-tech culture we live in today, I am especially thankful for those customers who refuse to talk on their cell phones when checking out. It’s nice to know that they remember that I am not one of those self-checkout machines but a living, breathing human standing there ready to help them in any way I can.
  • Thank you for watching your children in the store. Sometimes I wish I could outright hug parents who actually keep an eye on their children while they shop. I can’t thank such customers enough for not expecting me to babysit and for not viewing the store as a play pen. Even if a store is for or contains a section for children, that doesn’t mean the store is safe to play in, and it definitely doesn’t mean that merchandise is available for play right that moment. Customers who keep their children away from danger and prevent them from damaging merchandise deserve some sort of super-customer award.
  • Thank you for respecting my time. While I love to spend a half hour or more with a single customer during the slower months, that’s not always possible during this time of year. I love it when a customer tells me, “thank you, that gets me started. You can go help someone else now.” That allows me to slip away while they’re still looking without feeling horribly rude that I left them hanging. It lets me know whether I’ve met their needs sufficiently instead of having to guess that I helped and apologetically take my leave. Perhaps that’s just a personal thing for me, but I really appreciate that tiny little cue that I am okay if I need to leave.
  • Thank you for recognizing the limits of my power. While at the place that I work, my co-workers, boss, and I willingly do whatever we can to make a customer happy, there are limits. I cannot magically conjure up items that I haven’t been given enough time to order. I don’t control the weather. I’m not consulted on the design or layout of books, cards, or toys. I’m not even in charge of price or whether there’s a sale. I do feel responsible if a customer is unhappy though . . . even if it’s not my fault. I want to help, but there are limits to what I can do. Sometimes the best I can do is offer empathy. And it’s easier to empathize when I myself am not being unfairly attacked. I’m so glad that there are customers out there that can see I’m not the one they are angry at (e.g. customers who don’t yell at me because of the design logo on the back of the card).
  • Thank you for respecting closing times. I love that Planet Fitness, before they were open 24/7, explained they closed because their employees had lives too. That’s a very fitting description. I have a life outside of my job. Sometimes I have really important obligations to get to; other times I just really need a night with friends. I’m not going to kick anyone out because they stayed one second beyond closing time, but when a customer shows a conscientiousness regarding the time and makes an effort to let me close when I am supposed to, it really makes me feel valued. Especially closer to the holidays . . . like on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve . . . I try to respect that some people are desperately finishing up last minute errands, and I love it when they respect that I have family celebrations later too.
  • Thank you for handing me your payment. I have to smile a little wider when someone actually puts their money into my hand rather than tossing it on the counter. It’s just a tiny little thing that goes a long way to letting me know that they see me.
  • Thank you for not waving your decision to come to a local store rather than go to Amazon in my face. I can’t even begin to express how much I loathe Amazon. I love people who make an effort to shop local and fair trade, but I don’t appreciate people who use that decision as a coercive tool to try to get something out of me. Telling me Amazon has it for cheaper doesn’t do anything other than remind me that Amazon is playing dirty. If a customer wants to come in and tell me they saw something on Amazon and are wondering if I have it or can get it, that’s great! I’ll do my best to find what they want. If they want to come in and bitch about Amazon, I like that too. But more than anything, I love a customer who understands that buying local isn’t like buying from Amazon—and that’s the point. They don’t mind paying the extra cost (which isn’t really “extra” when you take into account that Amazon often sells below cost value) because they know it goes to benefit their local economy, pay good wages to workers, and fight the monstrous corporations that are trying to systemically suck the life out of the entire world. And I feel passionately enough about this that it just might turn into a blog post of its own later, but for the time being, thank you for not going to Amazon, and thank you for not expecting me to be like Amazon.

If you’re a retail worker, what are some of the things that you appreciate from customers?

As a shopper (because we’re all shoppers at some point), what are some of the things that you do to try to make the exchange with a retailer rewarding for both of you?

Happy shopping! Happy working! Happy Holidays.