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Gifts of the Season: Make the holidays about people, not things

The holidays are in full swing. Snow blankets our yards, lights illuminate our streets and homes, and songs of the season fill the air. This is a glorious time of year … with one exception. We spend too much time thinking about and collecting things.

Every year around this time, I circle back to the same holiday wish. I want the holiday season to be about people, not things. I want to spend less time chasing material satisfaction and more time building lasting relationships.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Consider the last time you went to a big-box store during the holiday season. Think about the stress you felt in traffic, the tension you experienced finding a parking spot and the frustration you felt navigating the crowds in the checkout line. Then think about what your credit card bill looks like in January. Too often, we let holiday shopping turn into a volume sport of overindulgence.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Here today, gone tomorrow

I keep a little book of my favorite quotes. It’s filled with sentiments celebrating people over things.

One of my favorites is a quote from the cult film Harold and Maude. The movie is a dark comedy about a love affair between an 18-year-old boy named Harold and a 90-year-old woman named Maude. Maude loves life and people; she doesn’t care much for things. At one point she explains to Harold, “Here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things.”

Later, at a critical moment in the film, Harold proposes to Maude by placing a gorgeous and expensive diamond ring on her finger. Maude immediately smiles and then tosses the ring into a lake. She says, “That’s so I will always know where it is.”

There is a lesson in this exaggerated scene. We put too much stock in things, and not enough stock in people. Love is what matters, not the things we claim to represent love.

Another one of my favorite quotes about materialism comes from the American poet E.E. Cummings. He is known to have said, “More, more, more, more, my word, what are we all becoming, morticians?” It makes you wonder.

And then leave it to the master of the built environment, Frank Lloyd Wright, to have something important to say about the slavery of possessions. He said, “Many wealthy people are little more than the janitors of their own possessions.”

Show me a big house, a large yard or a second home and I will show you a lot of maintenance work.

And then there’s the transcendentalist master Ralph Waldo Emerson. He reminded us, “Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only true gift is a portion of thyself.”

Making memories

If you are like me, your favorite holiday memories consist of a simple setting with people you love. As a young girl I nested around a crackling fireplace at Christmas time with my brothers and sisters as my dad stoked the flames. I felt a certain peace.

As a young adult I found it satisfying to play in the snow with friends or look up into a winter sky with my brother and see the stars. There’s something so expansive about a winter sky shared with a loved one.

As a young married woman I treasured setting up the Christmas village with my children. We would labor over the order of the houses and how to best place the ice skater on the piece of foil that represented a winter ice skating scene.

Over the years, I’ve loved sitting in my in-laws front room for holiday music night. Each family rehearses and then performs a song of cheer. Afterwards we share a bowl of chili together. It’s pure love of the season as we share music and break bread together.

Bishop John C. Wester, the former Catholic Bishop of the Salt Lake City Diocese, once said, “When we give we enter into a relationship with someone.” I think this is a profound statement. Giving isn’t about gifts, it’s about relationships. And the holidays aren’t about gifts, they are about relationships.

I encourage you to follow this holiday wish: Simplify and personalize the season. Don’t search for more, search for less. Look for ways to spend more time with the people you love. Tell them exactly how you feel. Build up your emotional reserves by connecting with others. And, when you give a gift, enter into a relationship with the person.

It’s people, not things, that make the holiday season wonderful.

Natalie GochnourNatalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.