Quick Story: When I was just a wee little lad (4th grade), my teacher Mr. Heiser (I think that’s how he spelled his name) had the idea to have a gift exchange within our class the day before Christmas vacation began. It was a cool idea—teach the students that this season is about giving and not getting. That made a lot of sense—the Blackfeet Reservation is a pretty financially strapped place, especially in the midst of Reaganomics, and so we probably couldn’t expect to get that much anyway. A lesson in the “true” reason for the season. Temper our expectations.
Appropriately, he put a pretty low cap on the gift exchange. We couldn’t spend more than 5 bucks on the gift. Still, in the mid-80s, 5 bucks was a pretty good chunk of change (that was the time when there was TRUE penny candy, and heck, I could even drive around for 3 weeks on 5 bucks all the way until 1994!!); it wasn’t an insignificant amount of money. But it was reasonable.
I drew my buddy Dusty’s name. Dusty was always a nice kid and never picked on me and I never picked on him. He was into Star Wars and the Karate Kid. My kinda guy. I went home happy that I drew Dusty’s name and that was going be able to get him a cool gift. He deserved a cool toy. I planned to get him a “Man At Arms” from the “He-Man” line of toys.
That evening, I got my first lesson in single-mom economics. I told my mom the plan, how we could go into town to Ben Franklin’s and get it that very night:
Mom: “Baby, we can’t afford that!”
Me: “Mama, it’s ONLY 5 dollars!!”
Mom: “I know baby. But I don’t have 5 dollars. I have to use my little money for gas to get to work.”
Me: “But mom, everybody in the class is giving gifts—I’m gonna be the only one that can’t give one!”
Mom: “Baby, maybe we can talk to Mr. Heiser. I just can’t afford it baby. I really want to, but I can’t. Maybe we can give Dusty something on payday.”
Me: “School will be out by payday! It’s gonna be embarrassing not to have a gift! I can’t believe you can’t afford it—it’s ONLY 5 dollars! I can’t stand being poor!! I don’t want to live here! I wish I lived with my dad!!”
Mom: *Sad and Dejected and Crying* “I wish we weren’t poor too, baby. I wish I could get it for you. I’m sorry I disappointed you…”
Obviously, that was a long time ago. But I still think about that time, a long time ago, and get sad. I get sad about a lot of things—here’s a few lessons that I learned from that experience:
No. 1, In hindsight, I can’t believe that I didn’t know we were poor before that. It’s almost comical—it was pretty obvious. A bunch of us in a one-bedroom trailer with no running water—of course we were poor (financially)!! Our family was very close and loving, but it just strikes me how amazing my mom was at making us feel loved DESPITE having no money because it never occurred to me, before that moment, that we were poor.
No. 2, I’m ashamed that I would ever talk to my mom like that and that I made her feel bad for something beyond her control. I’m also ashamed that I thought that “ONLY 5 dollars” was an insignificant amount of money—I should have been slapped for the whole incident, but particularly for that arrogant assumption. “Only 5 dollars.” Struggles are relative, and what we might think of as “easy” or “silly,” is dire to some people. “ONLY 5 dollars” was the difference between mom getting to work or not and getting a paycheck. It was the difference between us eating or not. It was the difference between us getting the little luxuries that we did have or not.
There was absolutely nothing insignificant about that 5 dollars.
No. 3, I realize that I blamed my mom simply for always being there. My dad didn’t have to hear my tantrum—he got off scott-free because he was (oftentimes) an absentee parent. I think single-parenting is oftentimes like that—we hurt the ones we love because those are the only ones that love us enough to hear our tantrums and stay close by us.
No. 4, Finally, I think about Christmas’s ability to make parents feel like utter failures. EVERYBODY wants their children to have nice stuff—still, most people simply cannot (and probably should not) afford it. Christmas—with the constant blitz of advertising and ads and mailers and lights and sales—can really highlight EVERY thing that you cannot afford. Of course, we can talk all day about how parents should teach their kids that material things aren’t important and consumerism and yadda yadda yadda. I agree. But I also remember how important those material things were—even in a poor place—and how much pressure my mom felt to make me and my sisters feel like we weren’t being left behind socially. My mom is a great mom, but I made her feel bad because the she simply couldn’t afford the excess of the season. I hate when great, loving and devoted parents are made to feel inadequate because of artificial things that are beyond their control. I’m sure that’s part of the reason why this season is the peak season for suicides—there is a palpable pressure to come thru and deliver the goods, like Santa Claus.
There’s a lot of pressure. The pressure is real and unfortunately Santa Claus doesn’t help relieve that pressure.
I don’t have the answers. I try to teach my son that this time of the year is not about “getting,” just like my mom taught me that it’s not about “getting.” He understands pretty well, but he also sees TV and his friends. He’s not immune to mass marketing and the destructive power of western consumerism, just like I wasn’t immune. Acceptance is crucial, rightly or wrongly, for children.
Again, I don’t have the answers. But here’s a few thoughts though: I pray that you all resist the temptation to feel powerless during this time. You are not powerless and gifts do not make the season. I also hope that you fight the urge to try to give your loved ones all the material things that they want—that simply feeds the monster. A few presents should be plenty. This is a teaching opportunity: life is not about getting. Life is not about spending. IF there IS a purpose to the Christmas season, that purpose is to BE TOGETHER and to LOVE TOGETHER. That’s cool—there’s plenty of Native Christians, and God bless you, definitely celebrate the day of your Savior’s birth. Still, let’s not buy into (literally!) all the materialistic nonsense that is associated with Christmas; that materialism is 100% western-created and has NOTHING to do with the sacred part (if there is one) of the holiday.
Let’s not use religion as an excuse to be ugly and excessive like the rest of America. Indigenous people are different—excess hasn’t historically been a part of our makeup. Hunter/gatherers couldn’t be excessive—it was impractical.
The alternative? Celebrate important times the way Indigenous people have always celebrated; love each other unabashedly and actively. All the time, not just this time of the year—but DEFINITELY during this time of the year! Make your children sick of seeing you because you spend so much time with them. I try to make up for the gifts that my son does NOT get by spending time with him. Go to the movies. Go play basketball. Get in a snowball fight. Eat bad food together. Eat ice cream and watch wrestling late at night. Make memories. It’s about presence, not presents—Native love has never been about Hallmark cards or gift wrap. It’s about inclusion and security and protection and food (!!!).
Most of all, I simply wanted you parents to know that I’m thinking about you. Someone is praying for you and understands that you’re trying as hard as you can.