To Have and Have Not

The last of the holiday trim went up at the malls this weekend. Hard as it is to believe, there were actually a couple of holdouts who waited to unleash the spirit of Santa until the turkey was carved and the kitchen was clean. "We feel it's very important that we take each holiday as it comes," a spokeswoman for Nordstrom explained last week with great virtue. Which was then. Now all bets are off, in the spirit of cha-ching.

So glad tidings, right? Shopping season is officially upon us. So why do those jingle bells seem to drain the very marrow from your limbs? The spirit is willing, and yet only yesterday, it seems, you were still quaking from last year's holiday blowout. The pushing and shoving. The zombie-like mobs, the desperate struggle to remember what that last-minute item was that you had come for. The line for the Santa, the hours and hours of ho-ho-ho-ing, the piteous cries of the toddlers who had to go potty, the hideous, leering mechanical elves. . . .

Sorry. Flashback. Anyway, just as you get over one holiday hangover, December arrives and a new bender begins. Time again for another haul of Big Birds and Beanie Babies, of turtleneck sweaters and compact discs. Time for you and your spouse to vow, yet again, that this year, you're only buying for the kids. Time again to mutter wearily that there must be some way to make the holidays more meaningful when--Hark! A voice murmurs with seductively: Attention holiday shoppers. It doesn't have to be this commercial. Come, simplify with me.

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"Our goal is to help give children and adults tools to enjoy freedom from our country's possession obsession," the woman's voice says. We are on the phone with Carol Holst, founder of Seeds for Simplicity, which is one of the Southern California outposts of the simplicity movement. Evidently it's epidemic, this obsession, because when Holst's group sponsored a conference this fall at USC, thousands showed up and hundreds more were turned away.

"For example," Holst is saying, "you can have a noncommercial Christmas. Focus on family, friends, nature, time with children, rather than material things. You can limit gift exchanges, or redefine gifts so that they're only homemade or second-hand, which makes it an adventure for children. Or you can help them find an old toy they don't need anymore, that's still in good condition, that they can give to someone else as a gift."

Hmm. Obviously this is a woman who never asked a second-grader whether she really needs all 35 of her Barbies. Obviously she's never heard what people say about you behind your back when your holiday gift for their child is a scuffed, yard-sale Tonka toy. Obviously she, like Martha Stewart, has the kind of time and woodcarving implements on her hands that losers like you can only dream of. So why do her words strike such a chord?

"People are sick of the treadmill of having their lives be more defined by what they own than by who they are," she continues, "and they're sick of what that message does to our children. It's very damaging in terms of their perception of the world." The delivery comes dangerously close to typical, upper-class, West Coast granola chic. And yet: She has a point.

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Actually, there is probably something in both perspectives, in both the siren song of the charge card and the deep cleansing detox of doing without. Easy for the richer to tell the less affluent not to want so much stuff for their children. Easy, too, for the working class to snicker at yuppies yearning to slow down the cycle of work and spend.

What's not easy--even for willing spirits--is the dilemma of feeling bullied by some merchandiser's idea of "tradition," or whipsawed by the compromises that always deck this least simple of seasons, or beholden to someone else's holiday rules.

Hard to remember that it's what's in your heart that your loved ones will remember, that the gift lies in giving with a spirit that is only and utterly yours.

Shawn Hubler's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com

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