My friend Ali works on a hospital ship docked at a port in Liberia. Recently, while visiting families out in the countryside, she joked to one woman that her baby was "so fine, I'm going to take him back to America." The woman untied the little one from her hip, handed her to Ali and walked into the bush without saying a word. When it was time for them to leave and she went to hand back the baby, the woman was sobbing.
Think for a moment what it could possibly be like to live in a time and place so hard that you would hand over your child to a stranger, like tossing a letter in a bottle out on the open sea. Was she thinking, as she handed over the child, that America was the promised land she'd never get to, but that her baby might have a better life there? Was she thinking that there would be one less mouth to feed? I don't know, I hope I never know.
It has made me think, as we enter the consumer frenzy we call the holidays, even more about what my values are and what my husband and I want to teach our daughter. The first Christmas she was here, all 2 1/2 months old, my husband announced that we would not pretend Santa Claus was real. Right from the get, he said, she would know he was make believe. I was appalled. No Santa? But, he's magical! Like fairies! Although the point may be moot (kids seem to have no dilemma with the paradox of make-believe being more real than reality), I think I'm starting to agree with him. I think I'm tired of the fairy tale Christmas.
I've long felt this way about weddings. Why would anyone spend tens of thousands of dollars, borrow it even, to live for one day in a way that is far above their lifestyle? Because it's the happiest day of your life? Well, if that's true, you marriage is going to be one long downhill of disappointment. But I digress. I don't feel a need to emulate the weddings of the British Royal Family and less and less I'm feeling a need to have a Currier & Ives Christmas. Especially when I remember that the reasons those Victorian Christmases were so lovely is at least in part because they had a lot of servants. Who worked on Christmas and didn't get to see their own families 'til the next day.
Bah humbug. So now I try and figure out what this season of peace and joy is supposed to mean to me. I spoke with hubby and said maybe we could take all the money we were going to spend on presents and send a big donation to a charity we believe in, like Habitat for Humanity or Heifer International. Wouldn't that be better than buying Aunt Carol another pair of slippers? But he likes buying and giving gifts for people. He loves it, in fact. It makes him act like a little boy and he tends to start buying early, like around Labor Day. He, once again, has the right point-it's about giving, stupid. While I ponder the moral quagmire, he's trying to figure out what he can get that will make someone else happy. So I'm starting with a small change. When the Pooter asks what Christmas is all about, we tell her it's about GIVING presents.
So, this year I'm trying to focus on what I can give. Not iPods and digital cameras, but what I can give of my time, my effort, my love. And if you want to know what to get me, I'd like every able-bodied adult to send $25 to a worthwhile, African charity AND spend 10 hours writing to your congressmen and senators why we should help the beleaguered continent. So no mother will have to choose between a life of poverty and handing her infant over to strangers. That's what I want for Christmas.
I'll probably get another sweater.