The day after Thanksgiving, crowds of deal seekers camped out for the busiest shopping day of the year. The name “Black Friday” refers to retailers turning a profit, from “in the red” to “in the black.” Since 1997, that day is also celebrated as “Buy Nothing Day,” a 24-hour opt out of consuming, followed by “Small Business Saturday” (today!) which encourages buying from non-big-box local stores.
I’m not a shopper, no matter the season. As a kid I pored over the Sears catalog from Halloween to late-Advent, dog-earring pages of toys. At Mom’s urging, I narrowed those 10 pages to 5 then, finally, to one toy. There were eight of us children, so we often unwrapped a cheaper, knock-off version of Etch A Sketch or Creepy Crawlers. I didn’t mind. Dad sat underneath the tree and threw packages toward us, often while the gift giver screamed “fragile” in his direction. I remember what we did on those Christmas Eves, not what anyone got. Still, I can easily recall the best gift in my 51 years: a Big Wheel from my oldest sister when I was four. Big Wheel was more trike than bike: sleek blue seatback and pedals, bright orange body, tassel-tricked out handlebars. I immediately pedaled from living room to kitchen to entryway and back again, perhaps the only time a See kid got to ride in the house.
Back then, every present mattered. Now I have a closet filled with gifts I plan to someday re-gift. That insulated crockpot carrier? Some friend may love it. Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography? Saved for some Doogie Howser lover in my life. Once I meet one.
So much stuff.
The most memorable present I ever gave was over two decades ago: a “Yes Day” certificate for my young son, designed and printed at home then rolled up like an ancient scroll. In 1998 I was looking for a way to gift more than toys when I read about “Yes Day” in a simplify-your-life-magazine. Ten years later this became the basis for a children’s book. Parents recently glommed onto the idea when actress Jennifer Garner instagrammed about her family’s Yes Day tradition.
All these years later I recall how my son saved that certificate like a golden ticket. Was he a world-weary 7-year-old who’d heard “no” too many times? More likely, he loved the novelty of both parents screaming “yes!” to whatever he asked for one entire day (small print: “This is about doing, NOT buying”). I wanted to give a feeling, though I realize not every gift can recreate your first ride on a Big Wheel. I don’t remember much of our only Yes Day besides sledding longer than my freezing toes would have liked and staying up late to re-watch the direct-to-video gem “Tremors 2: Aftershocks.”
At the time a friend told me, “All of us should get a Yes Day, not more junk we won’t use.” Many share that sentiment.
Anna White launched a simplify-the-holidays campaign to spread the message of giving the gift of time to family and friends instead of more things. She and her sister hung out at a Delaware mall wearing Santa hats and white T-shirts they’d silk screened with “Nothing — What You’ve Been Looking For.” The two “poured” free samples of nothing into shoppers’ hands. They were arrested for refusing to leave and, after a jury trial, both were fined $75 and banned from the mall for one year. Their lawyer pointed out the sisters were “engaged in a lighthearted attempt to get people to think about consumerism.”
Only folks like me, who have more than we need, would write about over consumption: buying gifts just to give anything for Christmas. Many members of our community DO need something. Pope Francis recently lamented about the global paradox of obesity and malnutrition, a disparity between the haves (or the “have-way-too-much”) and the have-nots that is especially prevalent in the Chippewa Valley during the holidays.
There are plenty of local places to help by buying gifts or writing a check. Even better, make a donation in loved ones’ names and forgo the hot gift of the season no one will remember by May. The Spirit of Christmas of Chippewa County, a non-profit formed in 1988 by area clergy, provides presents for over 500 families who live in Cadott, Chippewa Falls, Cornell, Stanley, and the north side of Eau Claire (which is in Chippewa county). “Giving trees” are decorated at area businesses and medical facilities with tags listing gift requests. Employees and customers choose a tag for a child, purchase items for up to $25, then drop them under the tree unwrapped. Their Sponsored Families Program anonymously matches families with buyers who fulfill the gift wishes of every family member. Each year, 90 to 100 families sign up for that portion of Spirit of Christmas. In all, about 1,400 Chippewa County children receive gifts.
Glen Zwiefelhofer has been active in Spirit of Christmas since he retired from the Chippewa Falls street department in 2010. He took over as president three years ago. He loves this season. He worked on the Christmas Village in Irvine Park for 25 years and helped build many of the displays. His own good fortune means he’s in a position to give back to his community. He also knows what it’s like to struggle. He says his single mom “worked her tail off and made Christmases very merry” for him and his siblings.
A team of about 60 Spirit of Christmas volunteers collects gifts then hauls, sorts and distributes them to parents at four sites in Chippewa County. Each child receives toys or electronics along with essentials like socks, underwear, hats and mittens. Glen and his board members shop for items all year round.
He loves the look on parents’ faces when they pick up a huge bag of gifts for their children. Glen once carried a toboggan to a woman’s car, and she cried as she told him her 5-year-old had been talking about a sled since last Christmas. “All worth it,” Glen tells me, when a hunk of plastic can bring a mother to tears.
Next Saturday: Nickolas Butler witnesses how to swim against yourself.