Christmas Reflections

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds “Yes, but I have something he will never have — enough.”

From Enough: The Measures of Money, Business, and Life, John C. Bogle

Thanksgiving weekend, I watched the news for signs of how retail sales would fare this holiday season, hoping for a healthy increase. My interest was largely because retail sales are a bellwether for the economy, and we all are anxious for it to recover. I must also add my personal stake: sales of cell phones and other wireless devices benefit the company I work for and, therefore, my own fortunes.

Nonetheless, while hoping for strong retail sales, this Christmas season troubled me just as so many past ones have: I feel that we’ve lost the meaning of Christmas by too much merchandising and materialism. How much is enough?

Working in the wireless industry, I see firsthand how easy it is to succumb to the desire to have the latest version. Each year brings a new model and, inherently, the obsolescence of the current version. Take the iPhone, arguably the most innovative and explosive of the so-called smartphones. Following the original iPhone came the iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, and the current iPhone 4 — each faster and with more features. Many consumers have rushed to trade their old iPhones for the latest version.

How many cell phones, TVs, computers and printers — functioning and not — do we have cluttering our homes?

How much is enough?

The meaning of Christmas — to me — is not the birth of the divine as a child, it’s the spiritual act of giving, giving simply and giving humbly.

My daughter sings with the choir at her high school. Every December they perform a holiday concert and spend a day singing at many of the town’s elementary and middle schools, usually with a luncheon performance at the Rotary or some other local organization.

This year, my daughter asked her fellow choir members if they would volunteer for an extra and unofficial performance, singing carols after school at an adult day-care center operated by a local hospital. The hospital offers a medically-supervised support program for adults, many elderly, many with dementia, who are cared for by their families when they are not at the center. My daughter volunteers there.

18 choir members sang, and you can imagine how their voices filled the small facility. My daughter recounted how wonderful and heartwarming it was to see tears in so many eyes, from a gift as simple as singing a few Christmas carols.

A simple gift, yet so deeply meaningful.

I’m not saying that we should forgo giving the new camera or the latest technology rage — like the iPad this year.  Let’s remember, though, that these purchases are not ends, they are means. They don’t make happiness, they don’t bring fulfillment, they don’t create meaning or memories.

Meaning and memories come from checking in, being present, listening, laughing, investing time for sharing and understanding.

The new camera may memorialize the special time or place. The new phone may make it more convenient to stay in touch and have those deep conversations. Yet they don’t do so by themselves.

A former colleague and dear friend is losing his wife to cancer. Through many seeming miracles of research and treatment, they’ve had more than six quality years together since the cancer metastasized. Despite the good battle waged, she is now under hospice care, and they face the nearing reality of her death.

Suprisingly, their Christmas letter was upbeat:

Our focus has shifted of late to cherishing each day and continuing to celebrate the gifts we have been given. This Christmas, more than ever, we realize how important it is to believe in the magic, to celebrate every day, and to remember the precious moments that make up a life.

That, for me, reflects the essence of Christmas.

First, the season reminds me to acknowledge and celebrate the gifts I receive each day — the sunrise, the snowfall, the kind deed, laughter — and then to pass these gifts along in my own unique ways, simply and humbly, to create those precious moments that make up a life.

I took our family dog for a walk this morning, as the snowflakes gently fell around us. When we arrive back at the house, she fetches the paper, picking it up in her mouth and bringing it into the house, in exchange for a treat. This morning, as I do every Sunday morning before asking her to fetch, I untied the plastic bag to pull out the paper, removed the large number of advertising supplements, and placed the news-paper back into the plastic bag, now light enough for her to carry in her mouth.

Christmas may be over, but the after-Christmas sales are just starting.

Thank you, but I have enough, more than enough to enjoy a fulfilling life.

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